It’s a scene from her past that Antonia (Nia) Bonds often revisits to put her present life into perspective. Once an all-girls private school student, she’s on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile years later. Outside a Bloomingdale’s storefront window, she remembers herself wishing she’d be privileged enough to one day wear “Bloomies,” the upper-crust department store’s signature children’s underwear.
“Even as an African-American scholarship kid, I was completely on the outside of my peers’ experiences,” she says. “Still, that school experience opened up my world—for good and bad. It taught me that everyone didn’t have the same experiences I had.”
Life is often about perspective, and what lot we draw. In Bonds’ pioneering role as the first director of the Urban Mourning Project (UMP), it’s all about what we draw when we lose loved ones.
With the rampant increase in gun violence and murder in Philadelphia, there’s been a corresponding spike in roadside memorials, spray-painted R.I.P. murals, commemorative T-shirts and tattoos. All expressions of grief, they indicate that mourners inherently turn to ritual and art to cope. In response, Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery (FLHC) is addressing the violence head-on, particularly the fallout among the city’s youth who’ve experienced or witnessed an untimely death.
UMP aims to combine art, education and psychological support to channel grief away from its often destructive consequences and into more productive, creative and healing outlets that increase respect for life. The program was initially supported by a $97,900 grant from the Heritage Philadelphia Program (an arm of the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage that’s funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the University of the Arts), along with $2,500 from the Dolfinger-McMahon foundation. More recently, the initiative was granted an additional $200,000 from the Heritage Philadelphia Program, $25,000 from the Helen D. Groom Beatty Foundation and $5,000 from state Rep. Thomas Blackwell (in the form of Department of Community and Economic Development funding).
The 41-year-old Bonds may be UMP’s director, but she defers to the ingenuity of Ross L. Mitchell, FLHC’s executive director, in linking the grief inherent at the 170-year-old Laurel Hill Cemetery—a National Historic Landmark above the Schuylkill River—with parallel expression on the streets.
“This is Ross’ baby,” says Bonds, who lives in Wynnewood. “It’s his vision. If he was so wrapped up in his self-view, he wouldn’t have seen the bigger picture. We all have great ideas, but his idea is now actually a program.”
Beginning this fall, and following the School District of Philadelphia’s calendar year, the UMP plans for daily after-school instruction from rotating teaching artists to help creatively connect 10-12 participants with the mourning process. Children are self-selected from the community or referred by school counselors or church groups. Participation is free. On-site grief counselors also work to address students’ emotional needs. Plans include field trips to Laurel Hill Cemetery to explore the meaning and necessity of healthy mourning rituals from a historical and cultural perspective.
“Ultimately, this has the potential to be transformative,” says Mitchell, who is also executive director of the cemetery. “Not only will it provide solutions to violent crime, but also open up honest, constructive and long-overdue discussions about the real causes of, and meanings behind, such violence.”
Art has long been connected to grief. It’s not uncommon or new. Nor is such expression spontaneous, as originally thought. “It’s been happening forever,” says Bonds.
As conceived, UMP would’ve been a summer program. Then Bonds convinced Mitchell that there’s too much competition and a lack of structure for kids in the summer. Initially, no one took UMP’s target audience into consideration.
“We stopped and did that,” she says. “We couldn’t go in as some kind of colonizing company and say, ‘We have something good for you.’ We had to start asking what we could do for them. Suddenly, the program became something different.”
This fall’s two pilot neighborhoods are in Strawberry Mansion (where Laurel Hill is located) and Cobbs Creek. Using a grassroots approach to attract participants, UMP is partnering with Strawberry Mansion’s Church of the Advocate. In Cobbs Creek, the project is tied into former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode’s First Baptist Church of Paschall. Next up is the Manchua section of the city.
“Gosh,” Bonds admits. “Doesn’t every community in Philadelphia need it? It won’t be until people feel big issues like gun violence affect everyone that they’ll do something about it. People here on the Main Line don’t think Philly gun violence affects them.”
Then there was a mugging in her Wynnewood neighborhood—and it sparked a town meeting. “It was like, ‘Oh, my God! Black kids from the city are coming here,'” Bonds recalls of the overreaction. “We went [to the meeting] only so they didn’t think all blacks in Wynnewood were suspects. It wasn’t until the chief of police told them, ‘You live 20 yards from the city—and they’re in a war there.’ I mean, come on. Have some perspective.”
Though she no longer professes to have all the answers, Bonds’ time as a teacher in a diverse range of schools—from Princeton Friends School, where she taught the child of a Pulitzer Prize winner, to Cheyney University, where she often taught college-credit enrichment classes to the city’s public school students—has taught her that all kids are the same. And UMP fieldwork in Chicago and New York has shown her that “all communities are doing something right.”
UMP is about hope. It’s about potential—and more. “I don’t want a program where kids walk away with a collage,” Bonds says. “This is their city, their home. We need to find what each of our communities is doing right. Often what’s working is overlooked.”
It’s hard to like the current collage Philadelphia is painting for itself. But Bonds, who has lived in Wynnewood for four years, says she’s still on a honeymoon.
“I’m a visitor,” she says. “I’m biased; I’m not jaded. I love Philadelphia. I’ve already met so many great people, including some great kids. Maybe I’m naive, but I’m not on a crusade, either.”
Gun violence happens to people. “And what happens to you, you can stop,” says Bonds. “Right now, though, those who can make a difference are making sure the tourist areas [in Philadelphia] stay safe so they can make money. The ones who can—and have to—stop [violence] are those who’ve been victimized. [Solutions] have to come from those communities. We have to connect the kids to the world, but we need to connect them to their communities first.”
For Bonds, her initial community was Princeton, N.J. Her husband, Sam, who grew up in a rough part of Washington, D.C., says living in Princeton was like “living in a postcard.” Until she began working “at the cemetery,” Sam, an associate creative director at Tierney Communications, had the “cool job.”
The offspring of ’60s activist parents, Bonds was afforded privilege in Princeton, but also the freedom to determine her path. “I could choose to be an activist, too. But if I chose not to, that was OK,” she says.
Now she wants to provide those same choices to her own children, 10-year-old daughter Jendayi (meaning “give thanks” in Shona, which is spoken by the people of Zimbabwe) and 7-year-old son Gyasi (“wonderful child” in Akan, the language of Ghana). She doesn’t want them to grow up like she did, with any “exclusivity” or “elitism.”
When Bonds initiated contact with real estate agents, her only requirement was the Lower Merion School District. The children attend Penn Wynne Elementary. In their economically and racially diverse neighborhood, there are a half-dozen African-American couples, and maybe 22 young children. “We lucked out,” Bonds says. “We’re very happy.”
It was from this group of friends—all “overly educated” stay-at-home moms as committed to volunteerism as white Main Line women have always been—where the tip for the UMP position originated. At first, the job description didn’t seem to fit. Art was Sam’s field. As for grieving and mourning—”the cemetery angle”—she’s only experienced the loss of a paternal grandfather (though her other grandfather died before she was born). “Everyone else is living,” she says. “I was like, ‘Where do I fit in?'”
Bonds’ educational background was perfect. At Temple University, she majored in history and African-American studies. She earned a Master of Education at the University of Texas.
The week Bonds received the callback for a second interview was a busy one. She gave a scheduled exam at Cheyney. The next day, she delivered a highly polished, bound presentation portfolio, which included an adapted week-by-week breakdown of Mitchell’s vision for UMP. By the time she returned home, Mitchell had called and offered her the job.
“He had the vision, but he didn’t have the structure,” Bonds explains. “I can take a mush of information and make it into something. No one values that, but it’s multitasking. It’s what a mom does every day—and if I can do a mom’s job, I can do anything.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this story was written, Antonia Bonds has moved to Texas, where her husband has taken a new job. UMP’s new director is Philadelphia’s Ewuare Osayande, who has 10-plus years of experience with inner city youth and a lengthy resume in the cultural arts as an author, a poet and an educator. To learn more, visit urbanmourningproject.org.