KENNETT SQUARE—For the first time in 10 years, the National Night Out event wasn’t able to take place on East Linden Street on the first Tuesday of August this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's a situation that has played out in every Chester County community that has hosted National Night Out in August.
Families, officers, and organizers alike are missing the event that’s been reimagined and revitalized in Kennett Square over the past decade as a “Community Policing Celebration”—think officers and kids laughing together, food and games, and wide-eyed little ones exploring fire trucks.
For Councilwoman LaToya Myers and her mother, Theresa Bass, living in the light of Kennett Square’s history means daily vigilance and a continual commitment to the high calling of living in community with the goal of building a stronger, more just future where everyone has the opportunity to flourish.
But the spirit behind NNO is stronger than ever. In honor of the event, LaToya and Theresa share the inspiring story of a neighborhood, and a town, transformed.
When LaToya was a child, she waited for the bus in front of Sam’s Sub Shop. But she wasn’t allowed to walk the short block to or from her home on East Linden Street on her own because it was too dangerous. After graduate school LaToya moved back to her childhood home, and today her thirteen-year-old daughter and her friends can walk to Sam’s, La Michoacana, and other places without fear. The transformation began with LaToya’s grandmother, Ophelia Bass.
“My grandmother had seven children and raised them with an iron will at a time when being Black meant you were a second-class citizen,” LaToya says. Her grandmother’s concern for kids extended throughout the neighborhood, and she was determined to find a way to feed hungry kids. Through a connection with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Ophelia spearheaded efforts to pass out meals to kids in the summer. As often happens, meeting this basic need led to opportunities to meet other needs.
When Ophelia learned the meal program could only continue through the school year in the context of an educational program, she extended Study Buddies, an after-school program that her daughter, Theresa, still runs at the Bethel AME Church on East Linden Street.
“Education is so important,” Theresa says. Her passion for the work her mother began in their neighborhood brought her into contact over the years with many people across Pennsylvania who were engaged in similar work rebuilding neighborhoods, including Governor Ed Rendell.
In 2003, when Rendell signed a bill to fund the Elm Street Program, which provided grants to improve authentic residential neighborhoods near downtown business districts, what was initially called the “Historic East Linden Street Project” was born. Around the same time, Historic Kennett Square began as a Main Street Program. Rendell was a champion of the Elm Street program in particular because he knew that change needed to happen in residential areas before it could happen on Main Streets.
Kennett Square is a case in point. The work of Ophelia, Theresa, and others on and around East Linden Street has paved the way for State Street, and now other parts of town as well, to prosper. “We worked to dislodge street dealing, and that’s a big part of State Street being a vibrant destination,” says LaToya. “The open-air drug market that once flourished in our neighborhood has closed, and we turn back every effort to start it up again.”
A focus on the kids and a strong but nonjudgmental stance have been key to this success, she says. “We don’t know the traumas someone else has been through. We don’t say, ‘You’re a terrible human being for doing this,’ but instead, ‘Hey, the kids are out—do you really want them to see this?’”
When things are going well people tend to forget what it was like before, she says, but keeping the neighborhood safe requires constant vigilance and ongoing communication and relationship-building between residents and police officers.
Not entirely comfortable with the implications of the word “project” in “Historic East Linden Street Project,” a group of residents formed the nonprofit Joseph and Sarah Carter Community Development Corporation (CDC)—named in honor of the first African American homeowners on East Linden Street—to continue the work of ensuring that their neighborhood is safe and offers support and opportunities for future generations.
Welcoming new immigrants and fostering good intercultural community relations are also part of the Carter CDC’s ongoing work. This welcoming stance is rooted in history, too, as the original Quaker residents of East Linden Street offered safe places for Underground Railroad passengers and also welcomed Black residents to the neighborhood. When Study Buddies was featured on an NPR program several years ago, LaToya says, one student, a native Spanish speaker, shared how the after-school program was the first place she felt comfortable speaking English.
“My mother continues her mother’s work of building community, and it’s impossible not to be inspired by her example,” says LaToya.“Her new thinking, careful planning, and thousands and thousands of kind acts, along with those of the many people who have worked with her over the years, have paid off spectacularly.”
Ten years ago, Chief of Police Ed Zunino, knowing that Theresa was working to find positive solutions for the neighborhood, brought the National Night Out (NNO) program to her attention. “We might be the first one in Chester County,” he told Theresa.
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” she said, and she brought it to the Carter CDC Board. Her daughter wasn’t so easily convinced. LaToya had just moved back to Kennett Square, and as a mother with a young child and a full-time job who also worked with her mother on other Carter CDC initiatives, including Study Buddies, the last thing she wanted was another event. The family tradition of working together was so strong that she knew if her mother took it on, she’d be involved.Theresa prevailed, and LaToya is glad she did. “I was wrong,” LaToya says. Both women smile.
LaToya emphasizes that the Kennett Square NNO is not a typical “take-back-the-street” event. “We call it a Community Policing Celebration,” she says, “because it’s much more than a one-day thing. It’s about making connections, building relationships, and shaping a culture.All of that has a tremendous impact, but it takes years.”
Because the population that the Carter CDC serves is heavily policed, they want to be sure that children have early and positive interactions with police officers—and vice versa. Getting to know the kids benefits officers as well. “We need both parties to change their behaviors,” LaToya says. Officers on the Kennett Square force attend Study Buddies on a regular basis and engage in activities together with the kids like trading baseball cards and making zines.
Like countless others, Theresa and LaToya have experienced the grief and pain of police brutality first-hand. “My first cousin was a victim of police violence, shot in the back by police officers and killed in Chester,” LaToya says. But they’ve also witnessed the positive power of community policing.
“When my mom’s brother, Uncle Avery, was struggling with a substance use disorder, Ed Zunino was still a street cop. Ed showed him compassion, care, and support—tough love,” says LaToya. “After my uncle was clean and Ed’s son, Ed Jr., was battling a substance use disorder, Uncle Avery became his sponsor. My uncle was 27 years clean when he died from cancer in 2012 and was always a dedicated advocate for people.Even after Ed Sr.’s death, his widow Lois and Ed Jr. attend NNO each year. All of this attests to how together we’ve shaped the culture of policing in this town.”
LaToya brings all she’s learned from her strong family role models and her deep knowledge of this community and how it’s changed, as well as her education and experience as a public health professional, including a few years working with women in a correctional facility, to her role as Borough Councilmember. After Ed Zunino retired, LaToya was on Council and able to be part of the process of hiring his successor. She asked candidates nuanced questions about how both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter shaped the way they police. It’s important to remember, she says, that taking a stand against police brutality is very different from being “anti-police.”
The night before the protest in June, Chief Holdsworth and LaToya posted a video urging citizens to demonstrate peacefully. “I could only make that video with him because I know him,” LaToya says. “We work on it every single day. We acknowledge and combat the biases that sometimes surface unconsciously.”
To that end, even throughout quarantine, the community is working hard to stay very connected with the kids. “Volunteers have made masks, residents at Kendal-Crosslands made summer activity packs for the kids, and we’re constantly brainstorming innovative ideas to support the kids, including helping them with internet access and homework and technical assistance as the school year begins online,” LaToya says. “We’ve stayed in touch through Zoom calls, and we want to get officers into that space with kids, too. It’s a challenge to make sure that kids and volunteers stay safe in online meetings. You’re inviting someone into your home, which is a private, personal space. We always make sure that there are two adults with kids in a virtual space, just as we do in person.” They’re always looking for people to share in this work by lending their expertise, she says.
It’s a holistic approach, building an understanding of the different components and moving them forward incrementally—community policing, food insecurity, education, and acknowledging the often painful history. But that’s what comes of being invested and rooted in a community. LaToya learned from both her grandmother and her mother that volunteering is not a chore but a lifestyle. “When we stop providing charity and start living in community,” LaToya says, “we’ll increasingly be engaged with each other and recognize that when one person thrives, it benefits the whole community.”