On June 2, a 20-year-old girl and her family celebrates her birthday with her friends. Outgoing, selfless and gentle-hearted, she has so very many and they crowd into every corner of the family home. It's never been a quiet place but today especially the music and myriad of conversations seem to match each other in enthusiastic volume.
The kitchen is a blaze of activity. Mom has a few helping hands but they are all full trying to cater to what amounts to a combined neighborhood block party, high school reunion and college field trip.
Even so, she keeps one ear on her daughter. Despite mom's "I can handle it. Go be with your friends" objections, the girl insists on helping while, with her trademark smile, she talks triumphantly about her volleyball team, grumbles about that one Harvard professor whose lectures could put both of her adopted feral cats into a bored stupor and shrugs off questions about her plans after graduation. She instead grabs a Twizzler and chews on it; much more interested in its present joy and her friend's futures which she talks about with the pride of a parent.
The conversation and the party echo into silence.
That's all there is beyond the tormented dream of Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton whose daughter Hadiya and the better world she made for everyone who knew her was shattered after a gunman cut her down in a Chicago park when she was just 15.
There was no reason for it. She was just trying to stay out of the rain.
Cowley-Pendleton is a survivor. It's not a word she ever imagined she would have to apply to herself. Instead, Hadiya's 20th birthday was supposed to actually be happening. It's warm, blanketing dream and the cold reality of the hardened ground above Hadiya's grave will torture her mother and leave her in agony for the rest of her lifeas the memories of what should have been will for the families and friends of each of the 238 people murdered in Chicago so far this year.
Instead of planning Hadiya's birthday party, Cowley-Pendleton looks ahead to an event on June 3 at Harold Washington Park in the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park beginning at 12 p.m.
There, it is hoped a multitude will arrive each wearing bright orange. When you are in a forest infested with the guns of hunters, your best hope is to wear orange. It's color says "I'm not a target."
The idea was seeded by Hadiya's friends at King College Prep. They wanted to honor her life. Now it has become a national campaign which calls upon the country to not only do the same for Hadiya but every victim of America's unremitting gun violence.
More than 200 national monuments, from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge to New York's Empire State Building, will be lit in orange. It is hoped those who do not know why may ask. It is hoped the answer, even if it is just the name Hadiya and what happened to her, will inspire enough voices to drown out National Rifle Association ( NRA ) CEO Wayne La Pierre and his hordes who obediently defend a gun over a life as beautiful as Hadiya's with so much potential for the kind of goodness that enhances the entire world.
It is hoped that this year's event in Harold Washington Park may draw more people than ever before. It's not the 20th birthday party Cowley-Pendleton dreams of for her daughter but she believes Hadiya would revel in what may come of it.
In a telephone interview with Windy City Times, Cowley-Pendleton explained why.
Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton: This all started because Hadiya's friends were really devastated. They wanted to do something as young people and put a lot of thought behind the idea of wearing orange.; just that simple act to symbolize 'don't shoot me.' Our city can be divided even in death but just to know that there's a movement that allows everyone to come together to recognize their loved ones who were taken too soon, to celebrate their lives and really get information out there about the various [gun violence] organizations and what they're doing takes my breath away.
Windy City Times: What kind of message do you hope it sends nationwide?
CCP: That we're fed up with senseless acts of violence. That there is more that can be done and should be done. It raises the level of consciousness for this issue. It affects such a vast majority of people who survive it and changes everyone's lives; the way that we live. My son's dealing with something that I never conceived he would as a kid. Death was the last thing on my mind. As children, we're supposed to be able to go out and play but now we have a generation of kids who just want to stay home or find the safest way to do something instead of just living.
Orange symbolizes life and that we are sick of what's happened to our families. I hope that significant change, from a community to a larger legislative standpoint, comes about so that we can get back to family and what that is without thinking that death is around every corner.
WCT: There seems to be a culpability in the media in not getting the word out. We've made murder into an everyday occurrence that rarely warrants more than a few hundred words and then is forgotten. What should the media be doing that it isn't?
CCP: The media needs to cover what is happening in the communities themselves which is making them better. There seems to be a stipulation that's put on the South and West sides that's just negative when there is such a great community of people out here who want things to be better and want things to be safer. The media needs to do a better job of highlighting what is actually happening in these areas. There are some fantastic programs on the South and West sides to try and help and there are organizations that could use additional help from the North Side.
We need to take the gun violence and violence as a whole seriously and add the humanity into that because our communities are hurt and it's not color related. Once they're shot, bullets are going to hit whoever is in front of them and it doesn't matter if it's a little Black girl or boy, Hispanic or white. Families are torn apart trying to figure out what to do next.
The forever of death. How you wrap your mind around it, the going forward and being productive is difficult. Those of us who get out and go beyond ourselves to try and communicate it, draw pictures of it, encourage people not to become what we have become; it seemingly looks easy but it is incredibly hard, incredibly hard.
WCT: And the politicians?
CCP: My first experience with the mayor was as a human, as a parent. I don't think we can lean on one individual to resolve all our issues but I do believe that there are actions that can be taken. I don't think they are in any one person's ability. I think that funding for communities would help if it's put towards something that makes sense.
We also have to own our roles. Beyond having meetings and saying 'this is what needs to happen or should happen', there needs to be an action behind it. We can talk to the police superintendent about the violence on the streets. He can agree with us and put a team together to address it but what happens next? Are we our own worst enemy? Are we blocking change ourselves because we make it difficult to implement things that are too harsh? Is it that we need to do something that may piss a few people off but will ultimately impact the greater good?
The question is 'after the meeting, then what?' The information is there but, when it's time to do the work, who's going to do it? Who's going to stand up and say 'this is what's best for our community. Let's move forward in this direction'? As long as we don't have that group of people or an organization, then we're going to stay in the circle of 'something needs to happen' and the execution never taking place.
WCT: Can more be done by the people to influence the passage of gun laws or to get more money to the South and West sides?
CCP: There's more that can be done but the issue has a lot to do with voting and understanding who we have representing us in Springfield and elsewhere. We have to start voting so that we have people in place who represent what the issues really are and who are not afraid to stand up. We've been battling with the NRA. I don't think the head of the NRA reflects the people who support that organization. Many of the people in the survivor community have guns. I'm not anti-gun. We just want people to be responsible with guns. We just want the people who purchase guns to be mentally able. It's really important that we stop making it easy to just go online and order a firearm. There should be greater consequences around the purchase of [illegal] firearms but there are some voices which are louder than others.
Unfortunately, we are a growing community of survivors because nothing is being done. As long as nothing is done, the bigger our community gets.
WCT: Yet your stories often get lost. Can you paint a picture of the life of a survivor?
CCP: It's difficult to fully express what life is like. Many of us respond differently. We don't know what someone's life was, what the relationship was, what they were planning to do. To have to go the rest of your life with the loss of memories … . I mean right now we're in a phase where my daughter's friends are about to graduate from college and build careers. They started driving, went to prom. They are leading the way for their younger siblings. My son [and Hadiya] were best friends and, now she's gone, my son stays away from crowds because he thinks about the possibility of there being an issue instead of it just being fun to go and hang out. He's been robbed of being carefree as a young person.
For me, my heart aches every day and I think it does for every mother who has to live a day without their child. We try to go forward with our lives. We try to bring good to others, try to protect them. We raise issues because we're angry. We look at commercials and cry. If I'm on the street and I see what I believe to be an older sister with a younger brother, I tear up because I think about my children. Every day we constantly think 'why us? Why did it happen?' It's so hard to draw a clear picture of what heart ache looks like but we live it every day and we live it under the umbrella of not being victims of what happened to us but surviving it. I am me. I am not what happened to me. Every day, you remember what happened. Every day, you look at how differently the picture of life is colored.
After Hadiya was gone, I went through guilt because I didn't know if it was OK to be happy. I don't have someone that I loved so dearly anymore; someone who helped define the 'who' that I am. One day I have to accept the fact that there are some things about me that I like and just build from there. That is part of how we cope. All of us have to find something about ourselves that keep us moving forward and it's a struggle every single day. We want to be conscious of it because it's never going away. There's a whole life that I brought into this world who I thought was going to bury me. I see myself burying her. It's unimaginable and it's devastating.
WCT: It seems like the Wear Orange Project is something Hadiya would have wanted to organize herself.
CCP: Absolutely. That's how she was. She always wanted to help people. She would try to find the good in everyone and push them forward to be the best them that they could be. June 3 is the coming together of many different people and that's how my daughter was. The fact that there is a movement that brings people together regardless of their background but who share a common goal to be a part of community would really warm her heart. Not everyone believes in therapy. They just want to be around people who understand. There's something so powerful in knowing that you're not alone.
WCT: The LGBTQ community, when motivated, can accomplish an awful lot. Our community came under attack on June 12 almost one year ago. How powerful a voice could we be if we unified with survivors?
CCP: I think together we would be extremely powerful. There's a lot of attention that survivors are bringing to the issue of gun violence. Now imagine the voice of the LGBT community alongside. It would speak volumes. Once we remove the lines of separation and come together that would be a powerful voice. It's difficult to get survivors to even come outside. But we need to define the space as a safe environment for all to come out and just be. There's no demand on anyone but to come out and be a part of that space. This year, at the Wear Orange event, we have table spaces for different organizations to talk about what they do. There are places for people to go and get information.
Right now, it's a city divided. If we have events in unity there is a possibility for a growth of interest and getting the word out.
There is a great deal of humanity out there who want to help. There are a great many people in the survivor community who are not victims of gun violence; they just care and they help lift-up the voices of the survivor community. There are people in the LGBT community who are friends and just want to help. If we really focused on helping each other instead of on our differences, we will get further.
For more information about Wear Orange nationwide, visit: wearorange.org .
For more information about the Chicago Wear Orange event, visit: risestronger.org/events/wear-orange-2017-party-for-peace .
For Hadiya's Foundation, visit: hadiyaspromise.org/home .