No one wants to join “The Sisterhood.” It is a membership forced upon you.
A unique and tragic, Chicago-based online exhibit, “The Sisterhood,” is set to launch on Wednesday, offering through a curation of stories, photographs and testimonies, a glimpse into what it’s like to lose your child to gun violence.
The interactive exhibit, created by Unsilence, a national nonprofit whose mission is to “unsilence hidden histories, injustices and marginalized voices,” is based on the advocacy of a five-year-old Chicago nonprofit, The Sisterhood Action Support group.
All women of color, they are mothers whose children have been murdered in the nation’s third largest and among its most violent cities. The women banded together in 2015 to support each other in their grief that follows for years, and to advocate against gun violence.
Told solely in the women’s voices, the exhibit shares their sorrowful losses, through poignant memories of their children and photos in locations chosen by the women in their Chicago neighborhoods, taken by the eminent visual artist Cecil McDonald, Jr.
“A couple of years ago, Gwendolyn Baxter, founder of The Sisterhood, reached out to us and asked if Unsilence would help them tell the stories of these mothers,” said Danny M. Cohen, the Northwestern University professor who founded Unsilence in 2014.
“They wanted to share their stories of grief, of healing, of fighting for justice for their children. It was such a great fit. We specialize in bringing hidden stories to communities and to middle schools and high schools,” he said.
“So we created an exhibit accessible to anyone, where young people and adults, too, could engage and learn about the work of this group, of their pain and of their activism.”
Cohen is the Charles Deering McCormick Distinguished Professor at Northwestern’s School of Education & Social Policy, a learning scientist whose work focuses on how people learn about violence and suffering, prejudice and injustice, collective healing and memory.
He founded Unsilence in 2014, whose community and in-school programs have to date reached 14,000 people in 14 states.
“It all started when some mothers I knew who had lost their children reached out wanting help starting a support group,” said Gwendolyn Baxter, then a community activist running the Greater Roseland Community Committee Youth Voices Against Violence.
“The mothers main lament was that when their kids die, people are afraid to talk about them, even their families, for fear of rekindling the grief. But these mothers want to and need to talk about their children,” said Baxter, who pens the “Why Grieving Mothers Need To Share Their Stories” page on the exhibit.
“I told them I don’t do support groups, that I’m about action. So we formed a nonprofit that would allow us to do both. We do a lot of outreach through talking to kids in the community, because these guys out there don’t realize they’re not just killing one person. They’re killing a whole family, emotionally.”
The group now helps other women who find themselves part of their sisterhood nobody wants to belong to, with funeral help, counseling and other resources. Their ranks rise during every killing season in Chicago, summertime, which this year saw six children under age 10 killed by gun violence.
So far this year, some 3,041 people in Chicago have been wounded or killed in shootings.
Baxter’s own story is the entry point into the exhibit, where viewers are not just scrolling through but actively choosing pathways by clicking on compelling story titles. There are titles like “Birthday Candles,” “All Kinds of Dogs,” “Evidence,” “Sisters, Brothers, Cousins, Children.”
“When you choose any of the titles, you don’t know what you’ll find,” said Cohen, who is currently developing an educator guide to accompany the exhibit.
“‘Lost,’ for example, takes you to the story of Barbara J. Alfred-Richardson, who lost her son, Donovan Bernard Richardson. She reflects on the memory of taking him on a Disney cruise when he was 9 years old, and how he got lost on the ship and she thought they’d left him behind on one of the islands. ‘All Kinds of Dogs’ is the story of Toneya McIntosh, who lost her son, Tony Cortez McIntosh. She reflects on how much he loved animals,” Cohen said.
“Their stories remind us of their children’s humanity, and their personal accounts challenge the stereotype put forth by the media of young Black men who are killed by gun violence in Chicago and around the country.”