The work of promoting peace and justice across communities is honored by PennLive

Bianca van Heydoorn on Tuesday reflected on her youth, growing up as a Black child in New York City in the 1980s.

“That was not an easy thing. I was not supposed to make it to college,” said van Heydoorn, now executive director of the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, which works to reform the juvenile criminal justice system in Pennsylvania.

“I was not supposed to make it out, whatever that means, alive. It’s a privilege to me to be able to lead an organization that is intentionally anti-racist. Intentionally multiracial. That intentionally cares and loves on young people in the city of Philadelphia like all our safety depends on it because it does.”

The Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project on Tuesday was one of three honorees recognized in the 2023 Peace & Justice in PA Awards, sponsored by The PA Media Group.

The third annual event also honored the work of Mission Central and Ann Van Dyke, who has worked for years to promote tolerance across the region and to the end of gun violence. Mission Central dedicates itself to working in disaster response, outreach to those in need, and community education.

In a forum held at Harrisburg University and moderated by Joyce M. Davis, PennLive’s Outreach & Opinion Editor, the PA Media Group honored all three honorees of this year’s awards.

The event was framed within a discussion of racial justice — past and present — delivered in a powerful presentation by author, photographer, and cultural documentarian, Candacy Taylor, whose work “Overground Railroad” is the basis of an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institute.

The keynote speaker, Taylor transfixed her audience with a scholarly powerpoint presentation on the history of racial mobility in this country against the backdrop of the Jim Crow era and beyond.

Taylor, whose work “Overground Railroad” uses the historic “Green Book” to explore how Black Americans lived and traveled throughout the country amid the constraints of racial segregation, offered a presentation on sundown towns – focusing on the 40 such towns across Pennsylvania at one time.

Taylor, who shared her personal experience of building her work around the lived experience of her stepfather — a Black man from the South who negotiated all the restrictions imposed on his race at one time in this country — noted the fluidity of racial justice.

“It swings both ways,” she said, noting that at one time, half of the counties along the famed Route 66 were so-called sundown towns — all-white towns and communities that practiced racial segregation by excluding non-whites via discriminatory local laws, intimidation or violence.

Taylor presented a digital map with the 42 Pennsylvania communities that, at one time, were designated sundown towns. They included Camp Hill, Hanover, Mechanicsburg, York County, Hershey and Elizabethtown.

Taylor said that in her research she came face to face with the unimaginable devastation that government and economic policies have had on some communities across the country – communities such as Detroit and Baltimore, which were at one time thriving communities.

“Once I got into the field research I realized I had to reframe this entire project,” Taylor said. “I could not talk about The Green Book as a historic time capsule. As something that happened in our past or some guide that we needed. The problems of race and social mobility exist today just as devastating and deadly as they were 80 years ago.”

Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, reflected on the “human brokenness” not only in the world but within the hearts of each of each participant and audience member. He asked all to rise for a moment of silence to recognize human brokeness..

Quoting the lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lassiter implored everyone to do something within their communities to promote peace and justice — noting that 1,200 hate groups and anti-government groups were active and on the rise in the U.S. in 2022.

“Where are the moms for justice?” he said. “Where are the dads for justice? Where are the people for justice? They are here in Pennsylvania. They are just not well financed.”

The third-annual Peace & Justice in PA Awards were presented by PA Media Group, parent company of PennLive and The Patriot-News, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The event was co-sponsored by Giant Food, the Hershey Company and The Foundation for Enhancing Communities.

Ann Van Dyke was honored for her community work to foster understanding and end gun violence. A former investigator and trainer with the PA Human Relations Commission for 33 years, Van Dyke was distinguished as being as instrumental in her community work in retirement as she was while actively employed, spearheading such groups as Heeding God’s Call to End Gun Violence, a faith-based and inter-faith based group.

“Though specific people and organizations have been thanked today, we all know that the most important thing is the work,” Van Dyke said. “It is the work of peace and justice that will sustain human kind.”

Van Dyke noted that since 2009 the Harrisburg region has lost 217 young lives — most of them brown, Black and male — to gun violence.

“And we keep on keeping on,” she said.

The Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project was honored for its dedicated work to change and transform the juvenile criminal system and the lives of young people in the system.

The organization works to ensure fair and thoughtful resentencing and reentry for youth considered juvenile lifers.

“I have the ability to lead an organization and model for the young people that our lives are not a forgone conclusion,” van Heydoorn said. “And that my ability and the way I lead and the way team leads the work is not not because we made it out, but because we gathered all of those experiences and were determined to live the life that we want to live and that we want to create spaces for the young people who get written off… who get called super predators, who get treated like less than a human being. That there are spaces where they can be human beings and they have the responsibility to do that for the next person.”

Mission Central was honored for its work in the community. In 2022, Mission Central served more than 6 million people, distributing an estimate $2.3 million in medical supplies and equipment, $700,000 in disaster relief and almost $790,000 in aid to families.

Joyce Davis closed out the event with a powerful message:

“I can’t emphasize to you the important role each one of us can play in defusing the tensions that are rolling around the world. They are also roiling here in central Pennsylvania. Each one us has the responsibility to speak softly, to turn away wrath, to lower the decibel, to be a peacemaker even as we don’t lose sight of justice. But there is a way to do everything. As we remember the words of Martin Luther King… they came after you. You return love. That’s hard to do, but that is what we are called to do as peacemakers. Now is the time. We need peacemakers.”


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