Their simple dream was to create a peaceful, safe haven in Watts
In January 1998, Zaid Gayle & Marni Otway sat in a meeting with leaders of the Center for the Advancement of Nonviolence Organization. Watts was the site of the nationally recognized 1965 civil unrest known as the Watts Riots and one of the most violent urban environments in Los Angeles.
In honor of the Season for Non-Violence, a nationwide campaign to promote peace by commemorating two of its most esteemed advocates, Mahatma K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., Marni and Zaid created a plan. Using a 64-day timeline, their hope was to build a garden that would serve as a place of beauty and inspiration in an otherwise blighted area.
A small group of local school teachers heard about the idea and invited them to speak at 99th Street Elementary School. A week after the assembly Zaid & Marni received a package of letters from the students. The letters were called “99 Reasons Why We Need a Peace Garden". Each of those 99 reasons were testimonials from the students of how violence had a profound impact on their lives. The stories were tragic but at the same time uplifting, because there was a sense of hope that was so apparent in their words.
In March of 1998, the Peace Garden Project launched
Every Saturday for three months, ten elementary students and five volunteers met and faithfully picked overgrown weeds without complaint, simply to prepare the soil for the garden. After the initial three months the numbers of kids had tripled as well as the number of volunteers.
The program was also attracting a number of youth who were in foster care. Marni Otway, a social worker, realized the great sense of connection that the garden was providing the youth in foster care and invited more of them to come and participate in the program.
The Peace Garden became a safe haven
And a place where young people were taking ownership of their own lives and making a statement about what they believed was their birthright; peace, community, and family.