Former Disney animator Sue DiCicco started out with a big idea that only got bigger.
It was during the turbulent days after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut (December 2012) in which 20 children and six adults were fatally shot.
At the time, Ms. DiCicco, a children’s book illustrator, was writing her own book and working on one of dozens of sculpture commissions. She wondered what people could do to help. She decided to post a question on Facebook: What would happen if we armed our children with the arts?
“What if we instilled in them a lifelong passion, and a way to express themselves through the arts?” she wrote. “Can we turn the tide on our violent culture? I believe we each need to step up, to do what we are able to change the conversation and move our children towards a more peaceful world.”
Among the huge number of responses to her post was one from someone involved with the International Day of Peace, sponsored by the United Nations every Sept. 21.
The response suggested that because DiCicco is someone who has dedicated her life to engaging and entertaining children through art, she was in a unique position to launch a powerful initiative.
And so the Peace Crane Project was launched. Peace cranes have been used historically in Japan as a symbol of peace and goodwill. DiCicco thought they could also be used as a way to connect children around the world (she later found out that some groups were already folding cranes and sending them to the sites of disasters).
As conceived by DiCicco, the Peace Crane Project is an invitation to every child in the world to compose a poem, write a message, or draw or paint a picture of peace, and then fold it into an origami crane.
“How does one go about creating a project which is accessible to everyone in the world?” she asks. “Origami is close to perfect, requiring only a piece of paper and writing implement.”
The cranes are shared in the children’s own communities or traded with other children around the world using the project’s website. In its first year, children from 84 countries participated in the project.
“It’s a simple idea that can have a huge impact,” DiCicco says in an interview at her art-filled, Craftsman-style home just off the main street in Santa Barbara, Calif. “The more our children connect and learn about one another, the more they can see our similarities and respect our differences, the closer we will all be to living in harmony ... [in our own communities and] with our neighbors around the world.”
Individual children or groups, such as a classroom or Scout troop, sign up online, where video and written instructions explain how to fold the cranes. Participants then choose from a list of others with whom to exchange the cranes through the mail. Some schools set up Skype video calls so that the children can see and talk with one another.
This year the goal is to involve 1 million children by this fall. Online videos show kids from all over the world folding cranes, holding them up, and cheering en masse – or offering individual peace messages.
“No fighting any longer, and peace around the world,” says a boy with a crew cut sitting in a rocking chair in his library.
A recent post catches a dusty schoolyard of blue-uniformed children in India cheering and holding up a string of cranes. Some of them are dancing and yelling “Peace!” Others are simply squealing. Other videos show kids placing the cranes on windowsills, in telephone booths, and on buses and sidewalks.
“It can really be a learning experience for a group of kids in rural India to see a totally different group of their peers in a completely different setting,” DiCicco says.
Although no one doubts the project has good intentions, it has been questioned by some.
These kinds of programs can make grown-ups feel good about themselves, but it may be questionable how much children actually learn from them, says Tim Horner, assistant professor at the Center for Peace and Justice Education at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa. “If they are not able to start forming relationships, then this would be a useless exercise. I think sometimes we encourage our young people to be fascinated by different cultures without having them truly connect.”
DiCicco has heard such concerns before.
“What will grow from a simple exchange of cranes? Honestly, I wasn’t sure when I started this. I had no idea how many would join, and then how many would actually reach out and connect with one another,” she says. “But the exchanges have been plentiful and growing.” The project has recently been given the support of Skype, which provides it with the ability to connect as many as 20 classrooms simultaneously.
Others feel she should be focusing on art programs only for those with mental and emotional problems, recognizing the effect Sandy Hook may have had on children.
“I’m not an expert in mental illness, by any stretch,” DiCicco responds. “But if we expose children to the arts as a way of self-expression, and give them access to art supplies, or dance and music lessons, perhaps even those with mental or emotional problems will turn to those avenues for self-expression rather than resorting to violence.”
Others applaud her initiative.
“Social movements and the social changes that follow typically spring from a charismatic person who is able to attract followers,” says Charles Gallagher, chairman of the sociology and criminal justice department at La Salle University in Philadelphia, whose research touches on violence. Organizations opposing drunken driving or promoting civil liberties, for example, “were founded by charismatic leaders. These individuals made a difference; so might Sue DiCicco,” he says.
The project has already taken turns no one anticipated. Schoolchildren in Mexico folded cranes and, instead of sending them around the world, sold them in their community to raise funds to install plumbing at their school.
“They have a modern bathroom now for the first time,” DiCicco says.
The Peace Crane Project has struggled to pay for the postage to send cranes around the world – a simple letter-sized mailing from some parts of Africa equals an average month’s wage there.
But the Web has stepped in as a way to connect with each other. ““What if we harness this potential and use the Internet to expose our children to one another, all around the world?” she asks. “Art is the vehicle that gets us there, gives us a reason to connect them.”
Many people agree. “Sue DiCicco is making a difference!” says Deborah Moldow, representative to the UN from the World Peace Prayer Society. “She is inspiring young artists around the world to combine art, fun, and communication while making a stand for peace.”
• For more information, visit http://peacecraneproject.org. To see a video on how to fold a paper crane, go to http://bit.ly/PaperCrane.
How to take action
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Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help those in need worldwide:
• Corazon Roxas Foundation assists groups that provide education, housing, or care to children in developing countries. Take action: Give five bags of children’s books to children in remote villages.
• Volunteers For Peace organizes and supports volunteer opportunities in the US and abroad as a means of intercultural education, service learning, and community development. Volunteer worldwide with VFP.