Chester’s Ruth L. Bennett evolved from a mix of dedication, experience, opportunity and a spirit of meaningful collaboration. In 2022, the YES Center founded the Chester Women Change Makers digital site to recognize and tell the stories of women currently leading various progressive grassroots efforts — in healthcare, the environment, education, housing, employment, community violence prevention, among others. As we collected their stories, we quickly saw a commitment to social action — “doing whatever needs to be done” — that our women change makers shared. But we saw a historical connection, too. Chester’s women leaders of today (and tomorrow) stand on the shoulders of the many women before them who took action and worked for social change.
This spirit of Chester women taking everyday actions to “do whatever needs to be done” threads across the city’s history. It appears in the many family stories passed down from generation to generation, shared among neighbors and former classmates at local shops and restaurants, and locally recognized in the occasional historic marker or plaque scattered about the city. But the stories of Chester’s women change makers past and present rarely appear in history books, news articles, or other ‘official’ sources. This project, as well as the YES Center’s Chester Women Change Makers initiative, is a first step to change that.
One thing we quickly learned is that women who are change makers do not necessarily see themselves as activists. Their motivation is rooted in immediacy and necessity as they take action to address issues posing a clear challenge to individuals, families, and communities. We see this everyday activism clearly espoused in the work of Ms. Ruth L. Bennett in the first half of the twentieth century. She took small steps with big outcomes for social justice during a time of overt discrimination based on race and gender. This project recognizes her work and her approach to activism as a matter of historical record. It also situates the current and ongoing work of women in Chester (and elsewhere) in an important historical context — that the change makers of today reproduce and embody the resilience, discipline, and commitment that Ms. Bennett demonstrated a century ago. They sustain her legacy.
Founder and Director of the Yes We Can Achievement & Cultural Center (formerly the YWCA Chester), Twyla Simpkins — Ms T — capitalizes on her varied life experiences and love of Chester, her birth city, to promote social justice and community knowledge through understanding history. Her roles as organizer, collaborator, researcher and educator span several local initiatives, including the restoration and preservation of Green Lawn Cemetery, the Chester Women Change Makers project, Chester Made, and the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. Twyla recounts her Chester journey from childhood, to her career as a teacher at Chester Upland, and her founding of the YES Center in a Chester Made Ms T.’s Corner.
Contact Twyla for further information at email@example.com
The recognition and appreciation of Ruth L. Bennett and her lasting legacy in Chester city are firmly rooted in Twyla ‘s commitment to sharing history as a means for enacting progressive social change. “Ms. Ruth” remains a profound influence and source of inspiration for all of Twyla’s many efforts in Chester.
As a community historian, Twyla has collected artifacts, recorded memories, commemorated events, and interviewed knowledgeable persons related to Ms. Bennett. Some of her collection may be seen in her 2018 short documentary Finding Home: The Ruth L. Bennett Story. with Scribe Video Center.
Chris is a Professor of Sociology at the University at Buffalo (SUNY), a 2022 NEH-Mellon Fellow for Digital Publication, and a 2022 Research Fellow at the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility. He is author of Race and the Politics of Deception: The Making of an American City (2017) about Chester.
Chris’s current project is a digital collection of stories and local knowledge about Chester by Chester residents. To learn more or ask questions, contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org