For Marrea Walker-Smith, the words still sting.
“You aren’t going to be anything because you come from the housing project.”
Decades ago, a 10th grade history teacher at Chester High School said those words to her in conversation. As soon as Walker-Smith’s mother, Dolores Walker, found out, she headed to the school and told the teacher she thought his comment was inappropriate and flat-out untrue.
Her daughter was going to be somebody.
“My mom always told me: ‘Where you live doesn’t define who you’re going to become,’ ” Walker-Smith said.
Walker-Smith, now 46 and living near Downingtown, took her mother’s advice.
After growing up in the Chester Housing Authority, Walker-Smith earned a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. She served 17 years in Chester city government, led several youth leadership programs, and earlier this month started a new job training program for residents of the very development she called home for 18 years.
While Chester continues to struggle – in 2017, the city’s homicide rate per 100,000 was higher than that of any other U.S. city, according to an Inquirer and Daily News analysis; many murders go unsolved; and about 37 percent of its residents live below the poverty line – Walker-Smith is a success story. She wants others to follow.
“I always come back and invest in the community,” Walker-Smith said, “because they invested in me.”
Her most recent investment – her company CEO Academy’s Resident Training Academy- will consist of four months of job training and personal development for Chester Housing Authority residents. Some 2,500 residents can sign up for online and onsite job certification courses in healthcare and technology, listen to motivational speakers, and get one-one-one coaching.
Inside Chester’s Booker T. Washington Community Center, Walker-Smith recently stood in front of six residents, all middle-aged women. She told the women it was time to “be the best version of yourself,” to view themselves as “under construction.” She had each reach into a jar and grab slips of papers, on which were written affirmations.
The slips read:
“I know exactly what I need to do to achieve success.”
“Your situation is temporary.”
“I have survived all my difficult problems of the past.”
Walker-Smith asked: “Do you tell yourself that every day?”
For many, the answer was no. One woman said she didn’t focus on self-care, because “other people come on the agenda before me.” She had to fight for custody of her grandchildren and is now busy taking care of them, she said.
Walker-Smith advised the group to take the next 30 days to make themselves a priority – to make doctor appointments, cut out social media, avoid negative people, and establish short-term goals.
Chester Housing Authority has offered similar programs in the past – as have housing authorities across the country – but few in Chester have been met with such enthusiasm, said Steve Fischer, executive director of the Chester Housing Authority. Usually, it takes awhile for them to gain popularity. But in the first few weeks of Walker-Smith’s initiative, Fischer said many residents have come out – in part, he admits, because the agency told unemployed residents at least one session was “mandatory” (in reality, there were no repercussions for not attending).
One resident, Mylisa Harris, told Walker-Smith she found a job after earning two healthcare certificates through the program. Walker-Smith said Harris’ job prospect was the result of her hard work in a short amount of time.
Several others have earned certificates, and Fischer said he predicts they, too, will quickly find jobs.
Perhaps, it is Walker-Smith’s personal mission that has kept so many folks coming back, Fischer said.
“She’s a great example of why we do public housing,” he said. “Everyone deserves a shot, no matter what family you’re born into.”
“Growing up in public housing, I know firsthand the challenges that come along with that,” Walker-Smith said.
When she was young, the Chester Housing Authority looked much different than it does today. There was more crime, more drug-dealing, and fewer opportunities, she said.
Fischer said he was happy to hear Walker-Smith’s observation, noting the vast improvements the agency has made after operating under receivership for more than two decades. From 1994 to 2015, a federal judge oversaw the housing authority, which had fallen into such dismal condition that low-income families weren’t even applying to live there.
But then buildings were rebuilt. Sanitation and safety were prioritized. A separate police force was started to patrol the grounds.
It didn’t stop there.
“Along with redoing the brick and mortar, we’ve also tried to redo people’s outlook on life,” Fischer said.
That’s where Walker-Smith comes in.
“By leaving Chester, I get to show people that there are good people that come out of Chester, that come out of the projects,” Walker-Smith said. “There is a perception of people who grew up in public housing. You have to overcome it.”
In her initial sessions, she stressed this point to residents.
Walker-Smith’s goal is not just to get them jobs. It is also to get them to see themselves as worthy and deserving of opportunity, of love, of the same joys that their more affluent suburban neighbors may take for granted.
Near the end of Walker-Smith’s hour-and-a-half-long session, she laid magazines out in front of the women. Make a vision board, she told them, “What do you want life to look like in the next year?”
Flipping through the pages, the women cut out photographs – bathing suit models, sneakers, a vacation ad for Barbados. They glued the images to their white sheets of paper, filling them with color.
Helen Perez sighed, looking at her finished board. “It’s time for me to start taking care of me.”