Germantown: Formerly Incarcerated Women Work Toward a More Peaceful City

Rev. Michelle Simmons (front right) stops the group at the corner of Chew Ave. and Chelten Ave. to close their Sept. 26 peace walk with a callout to motorists and passersby.

Text and images by Elizabeth DeOrnellas.

The women of Why Not Prosper paused for a prayer last fall at the corner of Chew and Chelten avenues in Germantown, their neon yellow vests shining in the afternoon sun. Then they raised their fists and began their chant anew.

“Peace on the street,” they cried. “If you see something, you say something. If you see something, you say something. Peace on the street.”

Half an hour earlier, the group of formerly incarcerated women had set out from their command center at 717 E. Chelten Avenue armed with Christian literature and care packages full of sanitation supplies. The peace walk featured nearly a dozen women, led by Why Not Prosper’s social justice arm, Sisters With A Goal, otherwise known as SWAG. 

“It shows that a woman like me, who was in the street with the drugs, with the guns, come out,” SWAG co-founder Faith Bartley said. “I want to make a difference.”

Sisters With A Goal Co-Founder Faith Bartley (front left) leads the chant as members of Why Not Prosper participate in their Sept. 26 peace walk through Germantown.

Bartley’s turning point came in October 2017. 

She said formerly incarcerated women know what it’s like to try and break the cycle of recidivism and rebuild a life with little support. 

“So all I’m doing is giving back love,” Bartley said. “What I needed to stay upright, I’m giving it back through these peace walks, letting them know we care. We hear y’all. We want the violence to stop just as well as you do, but it takes a village, right?”  

Rev. Michelle Simmons founded Why Not Prosper 21 years ago after returning home from prison. The group operates three residential facilities in Philadelphia. In the past year, they started holding peace walks every two weeks with the goal of drawing people into their Germantown command center. 

“When we walk, we’re letting our community know there’s a safe place they can come to,” Simmons said. 

Simmons explained that the group targets women, hoping to start conversations that will lead to conflict resolution. 

“The women know what their men are doing,” Simmons said. “The moms are scared, and the grandmoms are scared, and the teachers are scared.”

Simmons said having a police car sit on a corner from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. isn’t enough. 

“I think the car just being there deters the situation, and sometimes it just deters from one corner to the next,” she said. “The police can’t do it all by themselves; we got to come together as a community.”

Rev. Michelle Simmons, SWAG Outreach Coordinator Ivy Johnson and SWAG Co-Founder Starr Granger (left to right) converse with neighbors as their Sept. 26 peace walk reaches the corner of Chew Ave. and E. Locust Ave.

Simmons expects it will take three to four years to see a concrete impact on crime in the neighborhood. She said the first two years are all about getting out into the community and the next step will be to collaborate with other organizations to scale their work. 

“I feel like we have definitely hit the goal of year one of building the trust and getting them to talk to us,” Simmons said. 

Simmons credits those conversations with saving at least 10 lives. One young man reported he owed someone money and was scared that they would kill him. Why Not Prosper helped arrange mediation to pay the debt. 

Many community members have called for increased dialogue. 

“As it relates to the young kids,” Simmons said,”they’re reporting that they’re beefing between neighborhoods, that they don’t know how to deal with grudges.”

SWAG Outreach Coordinator Ivy Johnson aims to teach young people to better manage disputes. 

“Even if y’all want to have a fist fight that’s OK — have a fist fight, walk away and let it be it,” Johnson said. “Let’s not have your mother standing over a box. That’s what we’re working toward.”

Rev. Michelle Simmons (left) and SWAG Co-Founder Starr Granger (right) hand out literature as their Sept. 26 peace walk reaches the corner of Chew Ave. and E. Locust Ave. 

Johnson said the work of building rapport with the community is part of her own healing process. 

“The peace walk means a lot to me because I’m a former offender who’s been convicted of homicide,” Johnson said. “So in order to put back in my community what I took out, you know, I need to walk and get in-between these bullets and these babies. You understand? It’s personal for me.”

Please email any questions or concerns about this story to

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.