Danielle Gram : John Lennon Memorial Garden, Central Park : New York, USA
“A big part of it was trying to understand how people could fly a plane into a building not knowing a single person inside; not knowing a single face. And thinking, well if they’d actually had met some of those people…if they’d actually have seen their faces and known their family stories…it would have been so much harder to anonymise the process of doing a terrorist attack”
Danielle Gram belongs to Generation 9/11; one of the countless children whose childhood was shaped by the start of that devastating attack at 8:46 on September 11th, 2001. This unimaginable act of terror triggered something primal in her, that surfaced as a need for understanding and escalated into a life’s missions to promote peace and change in the US and the world at large. In short, we need more people like Danielle among us.
Born in San Diego, her parents moved Danielle and brother, Kenneth, numerous times as children, but by 2001 had settled in Maryland; a short distance from the country’s capital of Washington DC. It was here that she and her family would witness the attacks on the World Trade Centre that would reshape her world in countless ways.
“I was 12 was when 9/11 happened and, living not very far from DC, our school shut down – a couple of people’s parents had died in the Pentagon attacks. It was a very fascinating time in America. Over those years there were these protests in DC against the war and a massive amount of debate in the country about Iraq, whether we should be at war (and) how we should be treating people. I was a kid coming of age that year, when you really start thinking for yourself and trying to understand the world; it was a very foundational period for the way I saw things into High School and beyond”
When the Bush government announced the intention to wage war on Iraq amid a blur of investigation, emotion, and confusion, Danielle had questions. And when she was exposed to the media coverage of the war itself, it continued to impact a pre-teen Danielle in a deep and profound way.
“CNN was playing video footage of the bombs being dropped in Baghdad – as if we were watching fireworks – and I just remember sitting there having tears stream down my face thinking, “There are humans in these buildings how can we possibly play this on television…so detached from what’s actually happening?”. I was a very inquisitive kid and had wanted to better understand, because I knew there had to be a better way and we weren’t living up to American ideals”
Over the next few years, Danielle – as a practising Catholic – went searching for an understanding of Islam through the Quran, studied Buddhism and Tibetan Philosophy, read the Bhagavad Gita to gain an understanding of what Gandhi had done for the peace movement, and sought to learn more of Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King’s efforts for peace. In the face of the political climate in the US at the time, her passion created some challenges as an early teen. With relatives in the military, her family sponsored Navy Plebes (which saw young military personnel come through the family home) and her feelings generated somewhat of a controversy within the family network, but Danielle’s passion saw through the immediacy of these challenges and her goal was to continue to work out ways to tackle the larger issue and do whatever she could to help generate change; whatever that looked like. And by now, as her thinking was beginning to externalise, she wanted to find ways to intelligently generate a conversation with her peers; this started with creating her own initiative called The Future Voters Of America, designed to get young people engaged in the political process.
“I was in AP classes which were meant for the top performing students and I was talking to a teacher just after we’d passed the 1000 death mark in Iraq. We both were lamenting the loss of American and Iraqi civilian lives when a student walked into the class and said he didn’t know we were at war; period. We’d been at war for years and he had no concept that this was happening, and yet we’re living in this affluent town and he’s in, what’s supposed to be, the best local high school and also in this advanced program…and I was so horrified by that…the lack of understanding. If we’re not educating Americans to better understand what’s happening in the rest of the world how can we possibly expect people in the Middle East to take the time and energy to learn about us so that we can promote cross-cultural understanding?”
Around this time, Danielle was also nominated as the spokesperson for the Student Peace Alliance that proved an effective vehicle to lobby those in power. It started with conversations with the local Congressman and led to traveling back and forth to Washington to engage with Senators, eventually seeing her advocating general legislation with a view to impacting policy. But despite gaining all of this experience and a fast developing network of influential people at only 15 years old, it was actually through a chance encounter that she would co-found what was – and continues to be – the largest initiative for peace Danielle has developed. Again, looking to her generation to educate and promote ideals that would aspire to see a change in thinking throughout the community in the face of existing and future issues.
“I was designated driver for my parents at a party – bored out of my mind ‘cause here I am, at the start of 16 in a room full of 40/50 year olds – and I see this woman walk in late in the night and she had a Gandhi pin on and I thought, “Thank goodness; someone I can go have a conversation with!”. So I introduced myself and we ended up having a philosophical conversation around, “If we were to create peace in the world, where would we start?”. She (Jill McManigal) was a young mother who had gone through the same years since 9/11, dissatisfied with the changes she saw in America. She disliked raising her children in an environment of distrust where what they saw on TV was often fearful and hateful”
This simple but profound conversation would be the beginning of Kids For Peace; an organisation now in its 10th year with a vision for a safe and peaceful world through youth leadership, community service, global friendships, and thoughtful acts of kindness. They met again two days later in Danielle’s backyard to sketch out what their idea would look like and, after creating some flyers calling for others from the local community to be involved, they were pleasantly surprised with the turnout.
“We had 12 kids or so kids show up at this first group and the very first session was asking the kids, “What does peace mean to you? And if you were to create peace in the world what would you do?”. So we mapped out all their ideas and from that meeting, and the first couple of meetings, we ended up coming up with this peace pledge on the kids ideas for what they wanted to do in order to create peace, which remains the core of the curriculum. Our programs have reached 36 countries and our peace pledge has been translated in languages across the world”
At 16, Danielle was meeting with lawyers and accountants to lay out the logistics of starting a not-for-profit, and her involvement with Kids For Peace would continue all the way through her time at the acclaimed Harvard University. Initially approaching College with a view to use the time to step back and really reassess where she was heading, Danielle recognised a strong political ambition and set about studying government, but after a year didn’t feel she was getting the educational return (particularly given the cost of attending the Ivy League school) and changed direction into year two.
“I’d always loved studying religion since age 12 when I first had picked the Gita and the Quran, and been raised Catholic and studied Catholicism quite a lot too, so I ended up studying religion and sociology. (I) worked for all 4 years at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, which focused on advancing the science of humanitarian response. All of the peace work I had done up to that date had felt good and it gave kids this amazing place where they could have the freedom to be a child, experience peace, and spread peace in their communities, but I did want to understand monitoring and evaluation. How could we measure these things and make sure that programs are effective?”
From her position on the board of the Harvard Democrats, she would continue to be very engaged in politics and would compound her work with Kids For Peace. Instead of sunning herself in the Hamptons, her summers were spent working with children affected by violence in Bolivia, but on the home-front, it would also be a year of profound change as she and her family were affected by violence in a very personal way. Not only did the tragedy result in the obvious pain that goes with a family loss, but it challenged the resolve of someone who had spent their life advocating for peace in the face of violence.
“My only sibling was murdered in my junior year. I’d already been doing this peace work for many years, my brother had been our first volunteer in Kids For Peace, and my whole family had gone from, “Why are you focussed on peace? Isn’t that unpatriotic?” to, through the years of seeing what this program was doing, really shift(ing) and had become a part of Kids For Peace in their mentality. And so it was amazing to see, at least with my parents, that from the moment that tragedy happened we had decided we were not going to be a family that was vengeful. I don’t know if we’ll ever know who killed him; but if the killer is ever found we had all agreed that we were going to be about peace. For me, personally and politically, it impacts everything (including) how I see the death penalty; because in this country we don’t have a choice, so if the killer were to be found he could be put to death and that’s hugely problematic to me”
This also created some noise when she was awarded a fellowship from Harvard for personal and intellectual growth soon after, and while fellow recipients took time to do enjoy the study resort architecture in the Seychelles, Danielle elected to travel to South East Asia and observe children who were survivors of mass-violence with a view to understanding how the experiences of violence in their youth had affected their life-narratives. This created some difficulty as the voices at home around her implied a selfishness in her choice; that it put her parents in a situation where, a year after losing one child, they would have no choice but to worry about the other in some of the most dangerous places on Earth. But Danielle recognised a bigger calling and remained resolute, understanding within herself that the painful experience she and her family had recently experienced could be used so positively to benefit so many others.
“I know what suffering feels like. Typically in the work I do with kids affected by violence – child-soldiers, or refugees, or children whose parents are accused of terrorism, these sorts of settings – I never talk about myself because it’s not my role, but I think the ability to really empathise is one of the best gifts I have to give. Which is: one, the commitment to peace that I’ve always had, but two; a true understanding of how awful it is to experience violence”
After working with survivors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and The Secret War in Laos, she went on to Africa to work with child soldiers in Northern Uganda, then to Musha (Rwanda) to work with children whose parents were incarcerated for genocide. She also spent time in the West Bank in the largest Palestinian refugee camp (Balata Camp in Nablus) where she would discover the need to navigate the realities of the cultural divide with her Kids For Peace curriculum and negotiate the cultural nuances to make the program most effective. But alongside all the positive growth and understanding she was seeing both for herself and her Kids For Peace initiative, traveling to these areas of the world also provided some realities that working alone in conflict areas can bring.
“I wasn’t affiliated with any group other than my own Kids For Peace and we had no umbrella “SOS” system or anything, so there were all kinds of things that came up along the way. Like being chased with a machete, being at knife point…a soft-kidnapping in Jordan. So by the end of all this, it was over a year, I was very tired (and) I decided to come back to America and try to have a normal life for a bit, knowing I was going to get back on this road. I’d also been sold the idea that private sector skills were needed to be someone or do what you want to do”
Danielle took a “regular” job in New York, and amongst her daily responsibilities founded their Cultural Responsibility program while still volunteering after hours with various activities to keep herself engaged in her commitment to peace. After the first year, having been awarded their employee of the year award, she recognised more than ever that money was not a motivator for her, and it became clear that she needed to leave corporate life. She set her sights to a non-profit which took her to her current role as the US Manager for the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative.
“It’s a really unusual opportunity to get to learn from a world leader working to make the world a better place. He has done a lot for peace, but in a way that reflects the complexities of our world. He, of course, was involved in the decision to go to war with Iraq, and at the same time helped to end conflicts in Ireland and Sierra Leone. Now he is helping to strengthen governance as a way to help countries get back on track after conflict, and to prevent conflicts. In this role, I have the opportunity to see how world leaders live their lives, how they manage their time, the things they engage in and the things they don’t. It is a phenomenal learning opportunity”
It’s staggering to try and reconcile the accomplishments of Danielle’s 26 years and worth stopping to appreciate her clarity of purpose and the incalculable good that has come from that understanding. To consider how, as a 16 year old, she responded so personally and purposefully to the horrendous events of September 11, only to take action and shape that experience into initiatives that generate real benefits to people on the ground; to consciously be the change see works so hard to see. It seems a matter of time before she’s carefully dotted her resume with the required political capital and is put into a position where she can continue her campaign for change; whether it be on Capitol Hill or for the United Nations, you can only hope that someone with such vision, intellect and genuine empathy is allowed the breathing space to create fresh vision, be part of policy-defining conversations, and continue to affect a positive shift for peace on a global scale.