In 1983, Carolyna Marks was a young widow, renting out rooms in her Edwardian on Milvia Street in Berkeley. While at Cal, she’d won an Eisner Award for her bronze sculpture. Now, she was doing ceramic sculpture while running a women’s construction company. On her way to a job site where she was reconstructing a crumbling wall, she drove by one of those neighborhood signs that eternally spring up in Berkeley. “Do something today for peace,” this one said. She liked the idea. But what could she do?
Her exact thought process is now lost in the mists of time, but the result, five years later, was the Berkeley Peace Wall, still standing in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley. You may have seen it, or one of the thousands of similar community-produced tiled walls, and thought, “Aww, cute.” But if the wall was a project of Marks’ World Wall for Peace, a Berkeley nonprofit, it’s more than mere decor.
When World Wall for Peace guides the creation, each glazed tile is the tangible result of a structured, ten-week therapeutic workshop designed to help children and teenagers learn to understand, express, and ultimately control their emotions. “People associate me with the walls, but I want them to understand that the walls are a process,” said Marks, now 66. “The children learn a lot in the process and then ‘cement’ the process onto the walls in their tiles.”
The Berkeley Peace Wall, constructed by a group of volunteers, was followed by others. In 1989, when Marks traveled to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the Center for Creative Initiatives, she realized that more was happening than just painting tiles and building walls. There were emotional transformation taking place as the groups she led worked together to design the wall, glaze the tiles, and then build the structure. As she held workshops in Oakland public schools, Marks refined her ideas into what she calls the Peace Empowerment Process, a ten-week program that organizes emotions into five zones: anger, fear, disappointment, guilt, and authentic self. Exercises help participants distinguish these emotional states and to move through them as they express them through writing and drawing. In one early exercise kids go around in a circle, saying their names and then adding adjectives (for example, “shining, smart, sharp Shawna”). “This is one of the key exercises that lets you know upfront it’s going to work,” said poet and community activist Fred Jackson, a World Wall for Peace board member and workshop facilitator. “You see kids who seem out of it. When they start adding these adjectives, then you see a sparkle in their eyes and the creativity, as they begin to look for adjectives to describe themselves.”
In another exercise, children work in pairs, telling each other their stories. Then, each tells the group the partner’s story in the first person. The exercise helps kids gain empathy by walking in the other’s shoes. The final workshop centers on helping each participant understand their true essence, the positive core of the self that lies underneath the anger, fear, and disappointment.
Marks and her crew believe that this brew of self-esteem, empathy, and creativity produces changes that continue over time. “It’s a slow internal process of how it changes me in my own life, in the decisions I make, and in the way I can handle my emotions,” said World Wall for Peace staffer Aditya Dhawan.
There are now fifteen Peace Walls in the East Bay, plus others in six states and five countries. Although the Berkeley Peace Wall grew from Marks’ desire to “do something for peace,” the Peace Empowerment Process has started to focus on helping kids at risk — or kids already in the juvenile justice system — to heal from trauma and express themselves. The goal is to present art as an option for expression of both positive and negative emotions. The most recent workshop was held at the Chris Adams Girls’ Center, a juvenile incarceration facility in Martinez.
“People of all racial groups fell in love with each other,” Jackson said. “We were family. It tears down the psychic walls. It’s a microcosm of what humanity can do to make a better world.”
And yet, for all of the 25 years that Marks and World Wall for Peace have been doing this, peace seems farther away than ever. Maybe so, Dhawan conceded. “There’s no way to gauge how much more violent it could have been.”
The organization has begun to make efforts to objectively evaluate results of the workshops, in the form of journal entries from staff and evaluations from participants. It’s hard to quantify the changes in a person’s heart, but the staff of the Chris Adams Girls’ Center was impressed enough with the results of the first project to invite Marks back.
Meanwhile, Marks is not discouraged. She doesn’t know where her persistence comes from, but said “Rise above it is my philosophy. Yeah, I’m sad about things in the world. But I rise above it.”