Using art to transform a community

Chester Made Artistic Director Devon Walls leads the crowd in a robust song as Chester Made workshop leader Sistah Mafalda accompanies with African drumming during the Chester Made and Mandela Washington Fellowship Exchange 2019. (Greg Irvin)

Chester Made Artistic Director Devon Walls leads the crowd in a robust song as Chester Made workshop leader Sistah Mafalda accompanies with African drumming during the Chester Made and Mandela Washington Fellowship Exchange 2019. (Greg Irvin)

A famous artist once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

While those words can apply to any artistic expression, this sentiment also pertains to how we – as a society —  judge what might or might not be worthy of our time, attention and resources. If something is not considered “of value,” then it doesn’t attract the investment necessary to increase its worth over time.

It’s true of artwork and it’s true of communities that have suffered from the kind of neglect that creates a spiral of decline from which few places can recover.

For many in our region, the City of Chester represents such a place. From high crime rates to crushing levels of poverty, Chester has been written off by people more times than anyone would care to count.

Except for the people who call Chester home. For us, we see promise where others see peril. We see success where others only see failure. We see a future where resiliency and resourcefulness will ultimately win the day.

That’s why nearly four years ago, we joined with the Pennsylvania Humanities Council (PHC) to launch an initiative called, “Chester Made” which seeks to use arts and culture as a way to revitalize our community.

Chester Made Artistic Director, Devon Walls, shares about his love, leadership and legacy in the Chester community during the panel discussion of the Chester Made and Mandela Washington Fellowship Exchange 2019.
(Greg Irvin)

It all started with a series of story gathering sessions in which folks, connected to Chester, came to tell their stories of what makes our city so special. More than 350 residents came out. They generated over 140 stories and 120 surveys enabling us to create a cultural asset map that has helped serve as a strategic planning tool in our work.

But sometimes, you don’t need a map to point you in the right direction.

For me, “Chester Made”  is an affirmation of what has been my lifelong dedication to the city that has formed who I am as an artist and entrepreneur.  For decades, despite its struggles, Chester has always been big enough to support a thriving arts community. Led by William Dandridge in the 1950’s, who was known as “the Father of Arts and Culture in the City of Chester,” art and culture helped to define the character of this city. While Dandridge was a giant in our cultural landscape, to me he was simply my “Uncle Bill.” He and others served as role models to me and countless others making their mark today including award-winning rapper/producer Jahlil Beats and graphic artist Kenny “Art Monster” Hunt. These and others to come will add to the cultural legacy of this troubled, but nurturing town.

A little more than five years ago, I became the first black person to own a building on Chester’s Avenue of the States, which is our city’s main business thoroughfare. While some (including me) say that breaking that barrier was long overdue, we are determined to make sure this historic first won’t be the last as we open opportunities for others to follow. We now own more than a dozen properties throughout the community and are proud that we’ve been able to jump start revitalization that is both home-grown and home-inspired.

Some of the other work that has emerged from “Chester Made”  includes a video film series called “Illuminate Chester”. It showcases different aspects of Chester’s storied past.  There’s the “Chester Made”  Exploration Zone which is a creative, cultural space that brings the community together to learn more about the city’s cultural assets and change perceptions about Chester. We have rebuilt an historic theater, created a makers-space for artists, expanded our restaurant community — all the while transforming the downtown and bringing business back to Chester.

Group photo from the Chester Made and Mandela Washington Fellowship Exchange 2019. (Greg Irvin)

The common thread here is that the people of Chester – whether they have achieved international fame or were only known as local legends – have a built-in determination that continues to be the bedrock of our success. With this, we’ve been able to share what we know with an ever expanding community that now reaches around the globe. Recently, we hosted 25 Mandela Fellows, young professionals from Sub-Saharan Africa, and sponsored by the Iacocca Institute which works with international professionals to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills. During their time with us, we were able to show them some of our successful “Chester Made”  projects and share dialogue around what is working in making Chester, Chester. After  spending a day together, the Fellows expressed that Chester felt like “home” to them. And what we all know is that there’s no place like home…when you make your home like no other place. And we’re proud to know that there’s no place like Chester.

Devon Walls is an artist, entrepreneur and proud native of the City of Chester.

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