Peace Drums unite teens and elders

July 22, 2011
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By Rishi Sidhu, Special to the Gazette

The Peace Drum Project began in 2000 when Susan Porter’s 85-year-old mother-in-law commented on the baggy jeans and brazen attitudes of teenagers she observed on the bus.

Porter, a JP resident and senior program developer at JP-based Cooperative Artists Institute, says she realized that her mother-in-law wasn’t being judgmental. She just didn’t know much about the teenagers she encountered.

“Is there some way to get these two groups together—to help them understand each other?” Porter said she asked herself.

With that, the Peace Drum Project was born.  The after-school arts and leadership program brings 14 teenagers from the neighborhoods of Boston together with elders to conduct interviews, create scrapbooks and photographs, and finally make drums decorated to reflect the elders’ life stories. These activities help the teenagers learn the elder’s stories and share in their wisdom.

“It puts their very self-absorbed teenage life into a broader perspective. Not only do a lot of people come through difficult times and come out happy, they have endearing friendships and a sense of humor to beat,” explained Porter.

“It was fun, because it’s interesting to know about someone else’s life who is more experienced than you are, and to compare then and now,” said English High School student Janea Williams, a Peace Drum participant, in a Gazette interview.

“To me, it feels like [the elders] really care about you, to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong,” said another participant, Brighton High student Joel Perea. “The most important thing they taught us was to respect people, and to stay on track—not to follow other people, but to be yourself and never to do wrong things.”

The experience affects the elders, too.

“I don’t want people to think that I’m trying to change your life; I’m not doing that,” said elder participant Albert Eugene Carter in his written interview from the project. “I’m trying to help you be aware of what’s going on, so that you can have a different outlook.”

“So many kids don’t listen to what their parents are saying because they think they’re just being mean,” said elder Judith Olson in her interview. “I wish they would stop and listen, and I wish more kids would think about what their life is going to be later.”

Peace Drum is a 30-week program in three parts. The first 10 weeks focus on individual development, with the teens getting to know themselves through self-portraits, journals, and drama activities. The second 10 weeks focus on group development through team-building activities in a supportive and non-competitive environment. The last 10 weeks take place with the elders.

Peace Drum also allows for the teens to bond with each other. Steven Casiano, a West Roxbury High School student who is gay, said he has suffered insults for his sexual orientation, but not in Peace Drum.

“Basically, I could be whoever I was, and nobody would say anything like that,” he said. “They made me who I am today, and I love the Peace Drum. They are my second family.”

This year’s project wrapped up last month with the annual Awards Ceremony for the participants and an exhibit of the drums at the African American Artists in Residence Program in Egleston Square. For more information, see tribal-rhythms.org.