|Slater and Jeni (threedotdash.org) |
A few months ago I met Jeni "Mama Peace" Stepanek
for the first time. I was struck immediately by the warmth, kindness
and acceptance emanating from her, even though we didn't know each
other, and by the way she moved through the world around her with a
Stepanek is better known as Mattie J.T. Stepanek's Mom. Mattie was a
young boy poet-philosopher who said he wanted to be remembered for
having played after every storm. Mattie believed that peace is possible
and shared his message of hope, peace, love, and a just world through
his poetry, "Heartsongs". Mattie barely lived half a life in human
years, passing away in 2004 at the age of 13 after a lifelong struggle
with muscular dystrophy, but he touched and inspired millions of people
with his open heart and continues to be a shining light in the world.
Stepanek could easily have chosen to live a life shut off from the
world. She's lived through great physical and emotional pain, the loss
of all four children, and the ongoing trials of living disabled. But
this does not define who she is. Jeni is one of the most beautiful
people I've ever met, with a heart as big as a house, and a spirit that
continues to share, and give, and connect despite life's hurdles.
spring I was honored to be a youth delegate, a "Global Teen Leader", at
the We Are Family Foundation's Just Peace Summit in New York City. I
was one of thirty young people chosen from around the world who lived
and worked with the goal of bringing peace to the world by first
addressing human being's basic needs. This is where I met Jeni, one of
the guiding forces behind the summit. In the organizers' search for
"The Next Mattie," they brought together projects that ranged from the
environment and climate change, to human rights, bullying and gender
equality. We're used to immersing ourselves a lot in what's wrong with
the world, but here was an opportunity to live and learn and grow in
what was right with it and live in the possibility of peace and
acceptance. And something else happened. At the end of the summit I
realized I had a new hero... Jeni Stepanek.
I was able to speak with Jeni recently and asked her a few questions for this story.
|Jeni Stepanek and the 2012 Global Teen Leaders. (Photo: Marc Birnbach)|
Could you tell me a little bit about the Just Peace Summit? How it started, and your thoughts about it?
2002, Nancy Hunt and Nile Rodgers reached out to Mattie, because they
wanted to launch the We Are Family Foundation. They needed a
spokesperson and there's Mattie, who right around that time was in an
international spotlight. That was in the first twelve months of the
world knowing about his message, it was six months after the first Oprah
Show. They reached out to Mattie. Mattie loved what they were doing, he
fully supported it, and said "Absolutely, I'll give a speech, I'll
accept your award..." he didn't do it for the award mind you, it was
that it was a reason to have an event, by having the first Peacemaker of
the Year Award. Mattie fully supported Nile in launching his vision of
"peace is possible". Mattie had Mosaic of Gifts, Nile had We Are
died two years later, and Nile and Nancy said "We will not let Mattie's
Vision of a world at peace physically die with his body, we will find a
way to take this mosaic vision forward through our work." We made a
promise to Mattie that we'd take his vision of Mosaics and a Just Peace
forward. But Nancy's the one that said "Let's find more Matties". To
find people who peace matters to, and they're using whatever gifts they
have to make peace, and she focused on what Mattie had written in the
Just Peace book which is to focus on addressing people's basic needs
(water, shelter, food, education, etc). So that's how it began.
are now 117 young people in the world that I know if they become a
President, or Prime Minister, or a King or Politician, or an Ambassador,
or whatever, they will not declare war. They will not resort to
violence to resolve conflict. They will engage in conflict, they will
disagree, but I feel very confident that those 117 teens that have come
through our Just Peace program will reflect on an I AM statement, will
reflect on their three choices for peace ,and will understand that peace
is not a project. It's a way of living and being in every moment of
every day, and they will be a different person, and our world will then
be a different world because of that. The more people each of you
touch, the more that reality grows in our world, and that's why I say
peace is possible. We just need to make peace the news. We need to make
peace so sensational that is what is at the top of the headline rather
than the fluff that's included, if they have an extra five minutes
because news was slow today. That's my goal, is to make peace news.
tell Lauren and Nancy, "One of these years Mama Peace will be Grandma
Peace sitting on the front porch and one of you all will be taking
Mattie's Message forward. You'll take what he said and shape it in the
way that seems natural coming from you." And that's what I do, I take
what Mattie said and give it the Mama Peace touch.
don't have to be a Global Teen Leader to make peace a priority. I
envision all of you are going to grow up and very few of you will be
"peacemakers". Your peace projects will end, but that does that mean
that peace is no longer possible? Does that mean that all the things
that you've learned about balancing choices and rebuilding the mosaic
and kindness- those things I would hope become a part of your day job.
Become a part of your family life. Become a part of who you are when
you're sitting on your front porch and 83 years old and watching the
world go by.
|Jeni "Beach Philosopher" with Micah|
I hear you say a lot that you'd like to be a beach chair philosopher. Could you tell us about that?
chair philosopher: think about it. You sit by the ocean, you think deep
thoughts, you reflect on the things that matter, and then you go back
to the real world and you share what you've discovered through stories
and photos and art. You share about the things that matter, to try to
inspire other people to think about the things that matter.
think if we each made reflecting on what matters a part of our daily
life, it would make life easier to move through. Whether the ocean is
symbolic or we're really sitting at the ocean's edge, I think it would
be easier to get through the waves of challenge that we face. The role
of a beach chair philosopher is to keep people anchored to why life is
Since I've known you, you've brought up the idea and the concept of being part of a greater mosaic. Can you explain?
Mosaic was Mattie's vision, it's understanding the world as a mosaic of
gifts. You look at every person, past present and future. Mattie's not
talking about today's world, he's talking about pieces of the mosaic
from 2,000 years ago, and people in the Holocaust to people who have
been villains and victims. Everybody's a part of the mosaic whether you
like it or not. We have existed, we do exist, we will exist, there you
are. Do we want this mosaic scattered, and not coming together with some
collective good message, or do we want to gather those pieces? Mattie
said we can begin to work together and gather those pieces, and that
message can be different, that mosaic can be shifted into either hope or
peace... that our collective message could be one of hope, or peace or
of life or something good. Because the world is filled with good people.
He believed everybody comes into the world good. People don't always
make good choices, but people are (essentially) good.
always difficult looking at the greater world and seeing how much
suffering and misunderstanding and hatred there is in it... Do you think
that acceptance and peace on that grand scale is possible?
answer is YES, absolutely yes, Peace Is Possible. Peace is even
probable if we can get to everybody, particularly children, and
teenagers. The older we get the more we take our attitudes and they
become like stone. I think an attitude can always change, you can be 83
and change an attitude, but it's harder, it's like a habit. That's why I
share the three choices for peace: make it an attitude, make it a
habit, make it a reality, which means learning about your neighbor.
really hard to be a peace bringer, to make peace a reality if you're an
angry person. If you are not a person that at your core wants peace,
then you're not a person whose really going to be able to bring peace to
our neighbors. We have to want peace, and then we have to become
peaceful people. When I get angry, and I do, everybody does, I've a
right to be angry, and anger is a feeling. But what do I have a right to
say to someone else in expressing that anger, or do to someone else in
expressing that anger? How can you still be a peacemaker and express
your anger, your disappointment, your frustration?
do we make peace a part of everyday life? People who are doing films,
and people who are dancing, and chefs and parents and school teachers,
whatever your job is, you can't take on one more thing. So, why would a
teacher add peace to a curriculum when you're already stressed out over
state standards and testing and getting the homework graded? We need to
find a way to make peace, just simply, how we think. How we speak with
each other, and how we learn about other people, other than are you
black or white or yellow or purple or tie-dye or whatever. What we learn
about others... that leads to connections.
where education comes in. If we do not know about our neighbors, if we
want to help people medically but we have an ethnocentric view of
medicine, we can't help our neighbors around the world. Education is
crucial to that third choice of bringing peace to others. Education
doesn't necessarily mean a PHD, but it means becoming aware of people.
Don't just read the features section of your local newspaper and skip to
the comics and the horoscope. I'm embarrassed that the Washington Post
world news is buried deep. Unless it's a disaster in the world what I
learn about my world is on page A25 and it's just little tiny things.
|Jeni and her son Mattie (MattieOnline.com)|
was already on the path to getting her PhD before she got married and
started having children. Her first doctoral program was in clinical
psychology, nothing to do with peace, or so she thought. It had to do
with neglected children who had been abused at home and who patterns of
research showed could potentially become bullies and worse as adults. So
ultimately, those who destroy peace. But when her children became very
ill and she could not do her job well, she withdrew from the program. It
is now many years later and she is now Dr. Stepanek. So why was it
important to go back and get her PhD?
to me is not the letters after your name, but getting as much education
as you are capable of. Knowing your own potential, and knowing what
you can do for the world. I knew that I had the capability of studying
at the doctoral level, and I wanted to do that. Am I using my PhD? No. I
don't have a single job that really necessitates that. Am I proud of
it? Absolutely. Would I like a job that uses it? Yes. I think it
does give me a little credibility to be used as Dr. Stepanek, rather
than Ms. Stepanek. I do think it carries a little bit of weight, and
maybe people will listen more. But what I have learned is that the
goals that we set, and train for and seek and pursue, are not always the
things that matter most. It's the lessons along the way, and I've
become Mama Peace and it has nothing to do with my academic programs,
although I'm using peace in what I'm doing with my PhD.
If you had the attention of the world for five minutes, what would you do or say?
Rodgers says we are family, and Mattie Stepanek says we are a mosaic of
gifts, and I'd want to talk about what that means to us. I'd wanna talk
about the choices that we have to make, and really call people to own
their choices. My message would be that hope is real, peace is possible,
life is worthy, to make that your choice. I cannot stop Joseph Kony
from what's he doing, I cannot save every child that's going to die of
AIDS, I cannot stop political leaders who are making choices to declare
an unjust war, or violate the rights and needs of citizens in a
particular class or country. I cannot save the world. But I CAN choose
to think my own thoughts, I CAN choose what I think about other people,
and I CAN choose to stop saying "What can I do because..." I need to shift it to say "What CAN
I do because?" Maybe it's giving a dollar here or there, maybe it's
just talking to someone, maybe it's simply smiling at somebody on the
street. Peace starts with me, peace has to begin with me being okay with
who I am, but once you've got that you need to start thinking about
your world. I do believe that peace is possible, but I believe that it
necessitates people owning their choices, owning their own I AM
statement, and shifting the focus from what others are or are not doing,
to what WE are doing, what I am or am not doing.
could say my children are dead and it hurts to get out of bed every
morning, and I'm in pain when I wake up, I'm not gonna walk today and I
still don't have a steady job. Why am I going to go on today? Or I could
say, Alright, those are my realities, what difference can I make today?
I want to spend time trying to be a catalyst for people to think that
way and to think about "Okay, my piece in the mosaic is going to touch
other pieces, do I want it touch with a jab, or do I want kindness?"
|Sandy (at left) and Jeni at Oprah taping. (Jeni Stepanek ())|
had an amazing journey, and met incredible people and gone through
amazing experiences yourself... who is your hero, and why?
have many heroes. And obviously, the answer that you know to the
question is my children, not just Mattie. My other children didn't live
the heroic life that becomes book material, they didn't live long
enough. But my everyday life hero that's living and inspiring me today
is somebody named Sandy Newcomb. The world will never know Sandy
Newcomb's name, she isn't famous, but she lives the way that Mattie
asked us to live.
I met Sandy, I was up and walking, Mattie hadn't even been conceived
yet. Sandy and I played tennis, we went roller skating, and I now share a
house with this woman who helps me with personal care. She's not my
care attendant, she's my BFF, like a sister. I remember Mattie said to
Sandy, "Why do you do what you do for my mom and I? Why do you help us
so much? It's not ever going to get fixed, I am going to die, my mom's
going to die." Most people can't take it and walk away. Sandy talked to
him about her beliefs that all we're asked to do in this life is to be
kind to others, be kind to the people that are in your path, be kind to
your neighbor. As a Christian, she took the words of Jesus, but the
words of Jesus are the words of any other good prophet, good speaker,
good humanitarian- love your neighbor as yourself. She said your
neighbor is whoever happens to be in your path. And that really affected
Mattie deeply. And that's how she lives. Does she get angry? Yah. Does
she get sad? Yah. But, this is a woman who's been through absolute hell
in her own life, a different hell than I've been through, and yet her
goal each day is to make a difference to someone else, and to simply be
her best self. And that to me is a hero.
looking at the world around me, I get overwhelmed, frightened and feel
hopeless. We as a global community are more connected to each other than
ever before, but we're also more aware of the horrors hiding in the
corners. Sometimes I wonder what I can do to make this world a better
place and feel so helpless... I'm just one person. And I think that's
where people like Jeni come in. Because life can seem that much brighter
from a smile, from a small act of kindness. If we truly open our hearts
to each other and allow our individual Heartsongs, our pieces of the
mosaic, to touch those around us, I think that peace is possible. Thank
you Jeni for being such a beautiful light in the world, and for showing
us that peace can be as simple as a game of chess and a cup of tea.