Jamaica Plain's Peace Drum Project Links Teens and Elders

Just west of Egleston Square, on a short street which runs all of four blocks and has fewer than fifty houses on it, a large unassuming building with few identifying signs dominates an entire block. The warehouse at 76 Atherton St. belongs to Northeastern University and is the home of the African American Master Artists in Residency Program, an adjunct of the Department of African American Studies.

All of that has a rather dry academic sound to it, but the reality is quite different. As well as its own lively studios, home to some of the area's most accomplished artists, AAMARP, thanks to its community roots, is also affiliated with the Cooperative Artists Institute, (CAI) a Jamaica Plain educational think tank and activist organization that specializes in art and positive change. The CAI runs The Peace Drum Project, which constitutes about a third of its effort.

Susan Porter, one of the pioneers of the Institute, developed the project in conjunction with her late husband, Charles Holley, eleven years ago when Holley's mother wondered aloud if she should fear the kids on the MBTA who wore dark hoods, covered their faces and didn't politely offer their seats to their elders. Porter remembers, "We started thinking. We work with kids. It's all just their aura, their defense, they're really great people. So we thought, wouldn't it be great if we could get the elders who we know and work with together with teenagers to help them get to know each other. It was really quite organic."

According to Porter, there are currently 16 teens in the project, 12 who attend regularly. Two have dropped out recently because of job commitments, but the group has included as many as 20 in years past. She said that about 80 percent of the teens in the project come from single parent households and that since the recession, the pressure for teens to contribute financially to their families has been increasing, this year being the most profoundly affected. She added that in addition to students' financial concerns, the project itself imposes an academic requirement that its members keep up their grades.

"Arts are an important part of our lives and how we grow as people...and it's always one of the first things to go when budgets get cut. So, it's kind of our mode of working with people...we introduce them to a whole lot of different art forms and let them explore and encourage them and see if they can find one or two that they feel represents their voice," she said.

Porter also said that violence is often a result of a person's inability to handle or express anger and frustration. Art is a healthy means to that expression as well as a way of discovering one's identity.

One might think that program could add to a teen's burden, but Livymer "Livy" Cáceres, a soon to be graduating student in the program, who has participated during all four years of high school, says that the program is an escape from the rest of life's pressures. It's a healthy way to get out of the house. Porter adds that the program expands its members' horizons and Livy affirms that, saying that she was very narrow minded when she began, but has since come to appreciate the differences in people as a direct result of the project.

Porter also highlighted the struggles of one member who had recently come out as a homosexual and was taking some grief at school. She said that the other Peace Drum Project members had become one of his primary sources of support and he never missed a class.

One of the main goals of the project is to bring its teens together with elders. Each year, a member teen makes two drums, one for him or herself and a second for an elder. The drum provides a vehicle for a relationship to develop between the teen and the elder. In addition, the elders tell their life stories to the teens, who record them for posterity. They are later transcribed and preserved.

Many of the teens, according to Porter, have no other relationships with elders. She asserts that the long perspective of an elder's life story can be a firsthand example of how a person can survive with spirit intact in spite of life's difficulties. During periods of crisis and amidst the violence that sometimes besets urban youth, she said that teens often lack perspective and their problems can seem insurmountable without the kind of long view that adults have.