September 27, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 7
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Peace Institute a beacon of hope for the community

Talia Whyte

Tina Chéry is one of the leading forces in peace activism in Boston. A mother with a passion for the community, she is best known for her efforts in organizing the annual Mother’s Day Walk for Peace — an event that brings hundreds of activists together each year to stand up against violence in the city.

Chéry arranges the Walk through the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, the Dorchester-based anti-violence organization she co-founded in 1994. The institute is named after Chéry’s son, who in 1993 met a tragic death as a result of street violence.

But while many people are familiar with the yearly walk, relatively few know much about the other projects the Institute works on. Chéry wants to change that. “I want more people to see what kind of impact we are really having on this community,” she said.

Along the walls of the Institute’s Fields Corner offices are framed newspaper clippings, religious phrases, awards and a section dedicated to Louis’ memory, and the office itself is alive with activity. For an organization run by three staff members and a small army of volunteers and interns, the Institute is a prime example of what community activism is really all about.
“Jack of all trades and master of none,” cried Chéry as she sat down in her private office. She began to explain that all of the Institute’s programs are divided into serving three groups — youth, victims’ families and the community at large. While the Institute tries to give equal time to the three sectors, the staff spends a large part of its resources providing victims’ families with their own internal support network.

Through the Survivor Outreach Services program, staff members reach out to families within 24 to 48 hours after a murder. They come bearing a handbook, covering topics ranging from organizing the funeral to locating social services. Though the approach is simple, the goal — to help survivors regain their lives — is anything but.

“People don’t realize that in a homicide, when a victim is dead, it is the families that are left behind dealing with a life sentence,” Chéry said.

The work is so important because, as Chéry points out, there are currently no other coordinated efforts to help victims’ families. Dealing with the aftermath of a homicide takes an emotional toll that can affect other aspects of family members’ lives. Many survivors not only have a hard time maintaining housing or jobs due to the amount of time spent grieving a family member’s death, but they also often don’t know how to navigate the criminal justice system.

Chéry herself didn’t know what rights she had as a survivor when her son was murdered. The Institute is now working on a “post-convictions module,” which will help survivors understand what happens once a killer is sentenced. Few survivors know that they can register with the Commonwealth to get updates on when a prisoner is released, escapes or moves to a new facility.

The Institute is also trying to take survivors’ rights a step further by affecting public policy. Survivors now receive only $4,000 from the Commonwealth toward burial costs, and there is no designated survivors fund on the city level. The Institute is working to schedule a hearing with the Boston City Council on the establishment of a survivors assistance fund.

While working to influence the agenda of a politician is important, Chéry believes that changing the thought process of the child is just as crucial. Part of the Institute’s mission is to motivate youth to seek justice and peace from an early age. The Institute publishes a “Peace Curriculum,” now taught in the Samuel Adams Elementary School in East Boston, that teaches students the value of peace and community service. The curriculum is the first of its kind in the nation. It also hosts an annual Teacher’s Peace Conference to instruct educators on how to incorporate peace activism in their classrooms.

“We wait until children are too old to deal with these issues around violence,” Chéry said. “We wait until a child is in the system before we do anything. With this curriculum, we reach children when they are very young, and we give them choices on how to lead their lives.”

The Institute is also working on a flurry of upcoming events, including a forgiveness-training course for survivors and a partnership with the local nonprofit, the Justice Resource Institute. In addition, the Institute is also supporting two pending bills in the state Legislature on violence prevention and protection for victims and witnesses of crime.

To keep all these events in perspective, Chéry keeps the seven core principles of the Institute — love, unity, faith, hope, courage, justice and forgiveness — on her desk, housed in individual picture frames. Over the years, Chéry has come to feel that the Institute isn’t just about herself or even Louis anymore; rather, as she sees it, it has taken on a life of its own. She largely attributes the Institute’s success to the commitment of community members who want to change the violent tide in the city.

“We always want to blame everybody else for the violence,” Chéry said. “But this can happen to anyone, including myself. We want to show that, as an Institute, we are all affected.”

Tina Chéry works in the office of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute she co-founded in 1994. The Institute is a Dorchester-based anti-violence organization that works to stem violence in the city. The Institute’s programs, which include survivor outreach services, are divided into serving three groups — youth, victim’s families and the community at large. (Talia Whyte photo)

(top) Tina Chéry (right), President and CEO of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, James Mandell (middle), Boston Children’s Hospital President, and Jackie Jenkins-Scott (left), Wheelock College President, pose for a picture during the Institute’s annual Peacemakers’ Breakfast, this year, which raised $12,000. (File Photo)

Teen activists lead an anti-violence, anti-war march down Dudley Street en route to the State House in this March 2006 file photo. Chéry was a guest speaker at the rally that followed. Events like this, which bring young people together to express a desire for peace in a constructive manner, are critical to the teachings of the Peace Institute. (File photo)

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