On Women’s Activism in Chester & Beyond
Born and raised in Chester, Cynthia Jetter has devoted years of time and energy to creating educational opportunities for her fellow residents, young and old. She was one of the first participants in Swarthmore College’s Upward Bound program, followed by a career with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and, later, as Director of Community Partnerships at Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. As noted in her story, Cynthia is the driving force behind the creation of the College Access Center (and, later, the Jetter Center) which provides free resources for students of all ages interested in pursuing their college education. One of her core achievements was the founding of the Chester Higher Education Council, a nonprofit organization formed by the presidents of Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, Delaware County Community College, Neumann College, Swarthmore College, Penn State Brandywine, and Widener University. Among other services, the Council tutors, mentors, and assists high school seniors with college preparation and financial aid.
Cynthia took a minute to briefly share her story as a change advocate and her commitment to equity in educational opportunities for young people at our March 2022 Celebration of Women Change Makers.
We asked Cynthia to address the question, “What motivates women to be active in their community?”
“There have been many things that have motivated me to be an advocate, to want to support my community. And to want to be just a better person. But most of my principles and motivations come from seeing that there is a need and that so many other people are out of the loop for accurate and timely information. My motivation also has been, above all else — I have always been a big person supporting civic responsibility, and I feel it is my civic responsibility to be the best citizen that I can, and to bring whatever skills and knowledge I can to the process. And also, having lived in very, very different communities and different parts of the country and in different parts of the world, the whole issue of equity rings very loud for me.
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.
Why? I think a lot of that is based in a historical context of just how our men were stripped of their leadership abilities to be the head of their family, their ability to develop the skills needed to maneuver with their families in this new country. So I think it just has been ongoing through the years of how our black men, particularly men of color, are stripped of that responsibility and out of an opportunity.
The whole negative stigma of Chester is by design and I don’t know how you overcome that when the powers to be are always intentionally failing and fueling that negativity.Cynthia Jetter
But I do think, for me, I had the opportunity to work with several women in the city of Chester during my employment with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), about 30 years ago, on supporting them as a result of what happened and occurred during the takeover and the lawsuit that was filed against HUD and the Chester Housing Authority. And these women — many of them friends that I grew up with — Barbara Muhammad and Ernestine Williams, Ella Thompson, Yvonne Carrington — decided enough was enough. And they actually brought that institution down to their knees and to watch them maneuver this and to watch their commitment, all the time still doing everything else they needed to do – family, community, church, whatever — they were calling upon all their resources. And I felt it a privilege from a HUD perspective to be engaged and involved with them and teaching them and providing them with some leadership skills and resources to make it through this process.
So it’s not, for me, that women have a unique perspective on how to confront the challenges. It’s just that they’re open and flexible to figure it out what to do, particularly in the city of Chester. Because when you think you’ve gotten one thing resolved, this something else pops up. So, I think that women have learned these skills and are not always seeking new ways of doing things. They know what works, they know what will get success and they depend on each other tremendously. So, having a different insight is very important, whether it’s past or present. From what I observed, most of the social service agencies in the city are run by women. And they get the training and they get the skills and they get the resources. I’m not saying they get what they need, but they do have a different insight just based on experience.
And the other part of it, is you think about the negative parts of how our black men are perceived. If you’re going to shoot a black man in the back who’s running away then you’re thinking of them as a threat, as an animal. And somehow the greater group of people who control, not just our Community, seem to think that women are softer, have a different approach, maybe they can walk over them or whatever, but they don’t give the men a chance.
"My work in Chester, particularly my last big project, having been the College Access Center of Delaware County, and now there is a Jetter Center"
My work in Chester, particularly my last big project, having been the College Access Center of Delaware County, and now there is the Jetter Center that has been established because of my late mother’s interest and my commitment to this. It was never about the negativity, it was understanding that through education is what was needed to move you forward, to improve your life, to improve the quality of life for yourself and your family and your neighborhood. And so in my working in establishing a College Access Center with six local colleges and universities, supported my dream of wanting to send young people to college. And over 10 year period, we did that with well over 350 students. My biggest regret with that is that I don’t know how many of them succeeded, or how many graduated, how many went on. I do know that numerous, many of them, received master’s degrees and even PhDs. Unfortunately, I don’t know how many came back to Chester to want to work, to want to improve. That has always been a heartbreak.
As someone who attended Swarthmore College locally, when I decided to go back to Swarthmore to work that was my priority, that was why I was brought back to the College: to work with the community, particularly in the city of Chester. And that gave me an opportunity to provide training, support, and resources.
The whole negative stigma of Chester is by design and I don’t know how you overcome that when the powers to be are always intentionally failing and fueling that negativity.
My hat goes off to the women in the community. My heart goes out to the men in the community who aren’t able to, for whatever reason, find that path back to being the leaders that they were meant to be.“