Peace During War: Saving the Lives of Our Youth

Yafinceio Harris and Michael Wilder with Peace During War banner

Yafinceio Harris and Michael Wilder

You are special, talented and loved—believe that.   --Peace During War

This summer the city of Kalamazoo, where the Fetzer Institute is located, has seen its share of youth violence, much of it with guns and too much of it tragic and fatal. There is no comfort in knowing we’re not alone, that this falls into a broader statistic about our state and about our country. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “homicide remains a leading cause of death among youth aged 10–24 years in the United States” and “violence is also a major cause of nonfatal injuries among youth.”

What we do find comfort in is knowing that there are people like Yafinceio Harris and Michael Wilder who are willing to share their journey from enmity and violence to friendship and common purpose as they work to convince kids on the street, in alternative schools, and in juvenile detention that there is another way. Michael and Yafinceio created Peace During War after they were encouraged to share their unlikely story of reconciliation on a national radio program, The Story with Dick Gordon. The response from all corners of the country overwhelmed them and they soon realized they had a story that might make a difference. They began speaking with at-risk youth in Kalamazoo and discovered a passion and talent for public speaking and youth dialogue. Yafinceio reflects on these first encounters, “Seeing the looks on these kids face when they see that I can relate to where they were coming from ... it was like putting gas in a car. I was ready for more miles.” Michael shares the power in helping even one teen, “If one young man who is already committing crimes, already has crack at home, already has a gun, if we touch him while doing Peace During War so that he gets rid of his gun, gets rid of his crack, and changes his life, I think it’s worth it. That’s what drives me. I want to give back to communities that I helped destroy.”

Their experience gives them a special authority. They’ve overcome a near deadly rivalry that included dealing drugs and carrying guns, and gone from the prison cell to a college classroom. This year, they’ve continued their education at Kalamazoo Valley Community College and through a partnership with the Institute they’ve formed a foundation for their work together as Peace During War.

We are honored to have them here for a community dialogue this week, where they will share their insight with leaders in education, city government, the nonprofit sector, and law enforcement. As Peace During War, Yafinceio says “we are destined to save the lives of our youth.” To the youth they are meaning to reach, they say, “You are special, talented and loved—believe that.”