It took Haley Swem nearly half an hour to stitch the word “peace.” When she was done, she had a 10-by-10-inch canvas that read “Unity is peace and peace is thanks.” The Montara seventh-grader’s art piece was one of dozens submitted by local kids for a peace flag that now billows outside Half Moon Bay City Hall.
The project, initiated by local activist and artist Runa Ray, was designed to encourage reflection about peace, following a summer that marked the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and — for Ray who is originally from India — the attacks against Muslims under Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year. Her hope was that art would slow people down enough to help them internalize their own definition of peace.
“Signatures are so easy to get. You get something printed and you have one million signatures,” Ray said. “Here you’re calling for something pretty big — to get them to step away from their comfort zone, sit down and think and do something that they did when they were children.
“Once you put it down, you’ve subconsciously put it in your system,” Ray said.
Ray approached the Half Moon Bay City Council with her idea. On Sept. 15, the council approved the project in a resolution that also pledged its “support of policy changes to end environmental injustice, racial discrimination, war and climate change,” according to an accompanying staff report.
Once she got the city’s approval, Ray contacted schools on the Coastside for submissions.
Swem, 13, heard about the project from her health and wellness teacher at Sea Crest School. Participation wasn’t required but she decided to take part after many dinner table conversations with her family. Together they would discuss the news, including the clashes between racial justice activists and the police following George Floyd’s death. She found a quote that resonated, and decided to stitch each letter a different color.
“For me, it’s about unity. If you’re divided, you can’t really have peace, you know?” she said.
Swem said most in her class of 20 submitted a piece. Based on a conversation she had with other students, she believed the peace flag made an impact. It was one of the few times she had a deep conversation about current events with others her age, which she admits doesn’t happen as often as it does at home.
Ray received more submissions than could fit in the allotted 100-by-100-inch collage approved by the city, so she’s working with the city manager’s office to find space for an expanded piece in the coming months.
The originally planned flag went up earlier this month. After its run in Half Moon Bay, the flag is bound for the United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2021.
Though the first installation is largely made up of artwork by youth, Ray said she has already asked some adults to contribute, including Darienne Hetherman, co-founder of the California chapter of World Beyond War, a national antiwar organization.
Hetherman and her colleagues have been working to get California to pass a peace budget resolution that asks the state to cut off military spending that goes toward nuclear weapons. She said the peace flag was a different form of activism that brought her back to her childhood.
“I’ve always enjoyed expressing myself through artwork. I don’t do enough of it in my adult life now, so it was really lovely to spend a few minutes meditating on what peace means to me and expressing it in color and form,” Hetherman said.
Her piece depicted a globe overlayed with a fire-colored heart. When asked what it means, she paused to think.
“That love is what connects us to each other, to other forms of earth life and to our universe,” she said, finally.