"We thought we were teaching them...we were wrong."
Zaid Gayle and Marni Otway founded Peace4Kids 19 years ago today in honor of the Season for Nonviolence, a nationwide campaign to promote peace.
Using the "seasons" 64-day timeline, commemorated by two of its most esteemed advocates, Mahatma K. Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr., Marni and Zaid’s 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 and 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 on how violence had a profound impact on their lives. Yet, there was still a sense of hope that was so apparent in their words. The greatest theme inherent in their letters was the desire for family, community and support because of the tremendous loss they had suffered. These shared traumas anchored the students in a collective desire to create a peaceful place for refuge. This would lay the fertile seeds of possibility of what became the Peace Garden. Teaching kids about the cycle of life through gardening could help them cope with loss and reconcile their hope to belong to a community of people who cared about their well-being.
Peaceful resistance was the centerpiece of the nonviolence movement. For youth in foster care these principles could be a great asset. Gandhi and King had shown that uniting people who had experienced violence, trauma and discrimination at the hands of others could help them create a more equitable life. Youth in foster care are constantly subjected to trauma, violence and discrimination which has proven to drastically impact their dreams and hopes for success.
In fact, as a subgroup in our society, statistically youth in foster care have some of the worst outcomes in education, criminal justice, homelessness, employment and health. This was an indicator that the teachings of Gandhi and King are still relevant today. If youth in foster care could learn to unite their voices, shine a light on their injustices and resist the violence they face then they could change the outcomes for future generations.
Through this lens, Marni and Zaid thought that the 99 letters they received were about the many ways in which the youth needed them. That the descriptions of suffering were invitations for them to get involved and advance the teachings of two great leaders whose legacy could live on through these children. However, the youth already possessed these learnings and had intuitively adapted them to survive the worlds they were thrust into. What started off as exercise to teach the principles of nonviolence became an opportunity to discover the strengths and gifts youth in foster care possess because of enduring these challenges. Marni and Zaid learned that youth in foster care have a language of survival that is unique to their journey.
Instead of preaching and teaching, Marni and Zaid had to learn to listen and discover. Today, Peace4Kids work is about breaking down the barriers that exist between youth in foster care and the world, thus providing a space for their discoveries to be shared for our collective healing.