Ruth Bennett’s contributions to the wellbeing of Chester’s Black community proved lasting. Many of today’s social services are rooted in the work she accomplished, including her programs that served homeless women, the unemployed and working mothers, after-school programs, kindergarten, and nursery care — all funded by donations and the ‘sweat equity’ of local Black women club members.
But Ruth Bennett’s legacy in Chester is far more robust than her founding of many social services we take for granted today. The practical work of employment skills training and improving educational outcomes brought tangible results to Chester and other cities. Of equal importance was a philosophy of advocacy and progress she put to action: that Black women work together, identify problems and develop practical solutions independently and often with their own resources. Along with fellow women activists in Pennsylvania (and across the US), Ruth Bennett developed the ideals of everyday activism in an era in which women in general and Black women in particular were rendered invisible and voiceless.
Women recognize that there were needs and to work to meet and address those needs. They organized and galvanized and I think that you would find that, generationally among Black women, that when there is a need, that they will quietly come together and address that need.Khadijah O. Miller
In the course of her years of work in Chester, Bennett stressed the importance of women developing and sustaining social networks to effectively combat issues such as poverty, racism, unemployment, family survival, and inequalities in housing and education. Because of the emphasis on social ties, this philosophy of Black women’s activism is less institutionalized and official than stealthy, adaptable and resilient. We asked Khadijah Miller about this style of activism and if it is mistakenly viewed as less powerful.
Ruth Bennett’s enduring legacy is the power of practical activism, that successful efforts to make progressive change are not necessarily formal and institutionalized, that activism takes place in the private social spaces of kitchens, playgrounds and sidewalks where people connect, create networks, formulate plans and execute decisions. Making positive change is not a ‘profession’ defined in distinction to family, economy, or culture but as connected and articulated through them.
This philosophy of activism and progress continues to resonate in the community work of Black women leaders and change makers today. As one of Chester’s key leaders told us, women remain on the forefront of making positive changes in Chester:
Do I think women have a special or unique perspective on community action and leadership and Chester? I wouldn’t say it was just Chester. I think women have a different perspective on survival: “what is needed for my family to survive?” And I see that in Chester all of the time. When you think about what’s needed in healthcare, what’s needed in education, what’s needed in employment — all of those things are what makes a good strong healthy family. And if they aren’t in place then 9 times out of 10 it falls upon the woman, the women, the females in the community to try to figure it out.Cynthia Jetter, Chester community leader
Listen here to Ms. Jetter’s perspective on the ongoing of importance of women to progressive change and why:
Ruth L. Bennett’s lasting legacy is a sustainable, everyday activism that elevates and transforms ordinary social networks into collective and resilient movements toward action to solve contemporary social and political problems in Chester city.