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From pieces to peace
Making jewelry on the road to independent living

(Published December 1, 2003)

Staff Writer

"She’s one of those O’Keefe’s, you know, that famous lady painter. Georgia O’Keefe." That’s what Margaret Myers said while waiting for Maureen O’Keefe Ward to pull her car in front of One Massachusetts Avenue NW.

Myers works with MakingPeace, a D.C.-area nonprofit organization empowering low-income women through jewelry making. It is Ward’s brainchild. Sort of. Giving credit where it’s due, it took the gentle hand of a supreme being to move Ward closer to the path she is destined for. Health problems, diagnosed as stress related, gave her reason to take stock of her life.

Twenty years ago, Ward became a lawyer, eventually, a partner in the prestigious law firm of Steptoe and Johnson. Before that, Ward was a nun.

"I figured it was better to be a good lawyer rather than a mediocre nun," Ward said, "I wanted to leave the firm. The more senior I got in the firm, the less time I had for pro bono work. For the longest while, I wanted to do something actual."

Her first litigation was pro bono on behalf of tenants, suing the D.C. government for closing the Upshur Street clinic. One day she was diagnosed ill. Stress related. That was all it took for her to pack her briefs and head out the door.

Here is where life goes full circle.

"My first thought," she said, "was to do good and practice law. Knowing I am interested in people, I thought, possibly, becoming general counsel for a nonprofit organization."

Not one to sit idle, Ward discovered jewelry making. Thinking of many women she met over the years, Ward figured if she could make jewelry, so could other women.

"I have long been troubled by the fact that many people work full time at one and even two jobs and still are not able to support themselves and their families in dignity." Ward said. "I often thought it might be helpful to explore the living wage principle in the context of a small business involving low income women.

"One day, the thought came for applying my new skill to low-income women. Jewelry making was something women could, with a low investment of money, work toward bettering their lives. It offers a good return on investment and can provide the basis for a living wage for workers. I developed the concept of a nonprofit training women, working on a collective brand, creating and marketing jewelry, so they could move forward in the world," Ward said.

Ward speaks about her Mississippi childhood memory of quilting bees as an inspiration in "MakingPieces, MakingPeace."

"It's like an old-fashioned quilting bee brought into a modern business context," she said.

She said she wanted to share what she could about this process of women joining together. The women of MakingPeace sit around the beading table, dazzly with sparkling beads, semi-precious stones, sterling silver, freshwater pearls, eye-catching beads, exquisite pendants and other glass objects, contrasting sharply the lives they seek to enrich.

"We sit around a table, sharing our latest creative ideas and learn we're all much more alike than we are different," Ward said.

MakingPieces, MakingPeace started in 2001. Ward launched her community of women, artisans and artists, empowering other creative women through handcrafted work, as a Mississippi corporation, operating primarily in the District. Ward plans to expand the program to other locations.

"Women are making pieces to make peace, in a broader sense. By promoting economic justice for people who are economically disadvantaged," she said. "At the same time we are providing economic development opportunities to women emerging from unemployment, underemployed, poorly paid jobs and other low income individuals, a route out of poverty, through job training and mentoring, we are providing lovely jewelry to the public. The principles of a living wage, workforce development and self-determination, and fair trade, will strengthen the fabric of community."

Ward’s vision includes having social services on the side. She sought interdenominational social partners. "I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel," she said. Catholic Charities of DC, Community Family Life Services, and the Foundation for International Community Assistance wanted to partner. The partners provide invaluable knowledge, experience and assistance, she said -- from emergency and employment assistance to health care, supportive housing, legal aid, mental health, substance abuse programs, small business loans, training classes in entrepreneurship, technical assistance for building businesses, motivation to repair bad credit histories, and incentives for savings.

MakePeace and its partner organizations developed the basic curriculum, a two-part pilot in the District, consisting of a three-month job training program and a model jewelry business.

"The program started four days a week. The women didn’t need four days a week. So, it moved to two days a week for three months," Ward said. "Trainees receive a weekly stipend. The curriculum includes hands-on activities, audio-visual aids, training booklets, hand-outs, and field trips."

Trainees are encouraged to assume planning and decision-making roles, leading the way for those who participate in future training programs.

"We teach our women financial awareness, for example," Ward said. "They learn how to get credit, how to cure credit problems. Once they cure financial issues, they move on in a positive framework. They learn to planning, marketing, budget, handle expenditures. For some, literally, it is often the first time they have a checking account."

Building the model jewelry business is in its start-up period. The women are guided on establishing outlets for selling their jewelry through retail stores, national catalogues, house parties, fairs, seasonal sales, lobby shows, website links and word of mouth. Graduates meet periodically, with staff and volunteers, to work on management, related bookkeeping and MakingPeace inventory.

One firm, sharing in Ward’s commitment to a living wage concept, Bogeysandbirdies, asked MakePeace to provide a pink ribbon item for their store.

"Using the traditional ‘lost wax’ technique, we designed a unique open heart and crossed ribbon emblem, which we've produced in both pewter and sterling silver for a number of applications, including beaded necklaces and bracelets, pendants, tie tack pins, key chains, zipper pulls, stamp boxes, book or Bible markers, vases, mugs, bedside pitcher sets, and more," Ward said.

Two classes have graduated 11 women. Graduates receive certificates in financial literacy or for combined curriculums of jewelry making, financial literacy and entrepreneurship.

Irene Kingston, the program’s first graduate, is now an instructor. Kingston wraps a strands of pink pearls in her fingers, cupping the attached silver rose in her hand. Her face lights up as she models her art in her hands. The pink reminded her of soft smooth candyfloss. She paused thoughtfully at the two-dimensional carved silver rose. Life can be like that, an onion or a rose, depending which way you peel it.

Kingston moved into her own apartment in Northeast Washington. She giggles, proud to say those words. She bought a car last year. A1990 Chevy Cavalier, a hoopdie, she laughs. Four weeks ago, Kingston says she heard herself laugh. "I didn’t recognize the sound. I love laughing," she said.

Kingston had a 22-year drug addiction. She came clean in 1994. Since then, she lost her mother. She lost her father. She couldn’t work after she broke her hip. She was a cook. She couldn’t pay her bills. She couldn’t buy food. She was a step away from being homeless. She saw the jewelry making program flyer. Her deceased mother taught her crafts. Kingston said, "That’s for me." And the rest is history. "Now," she said, "I get to help others coming from my background."

Margaret Myers tells her story. It is quite different. With prompting, she points to the necklace she made. This was indeed a work of art, mirroring her life. Its colors and design reflected crinkles of joy and laughter, interspersed with lines of sorrow and difficulty. Myers is from Richmond. She was hurt on her job at the post office. She was forced to move into a shelter. Her family doesn’t know she is living. She is proud. When she needed help before, they weren’t there, Myers said. "I won’t give them the chance for me to turn them down. I’ll take care of myself," she said. An unpaid manager at the shelter, she saw a flyer advertising the jewelry-making class. She signed up for it. Then, she did something that made her feel good about herself: She finished her first piece. Things changed. Now, she is working toward becoming independent.

Myers was all smiles. She and Kingston had spent a financially successful afternoon, hosting MakingPeace’s first jewelry lobby show at a Classic Concierge Inc. property. Classic Concierge Inc., a District-based building concierge services, selected MakePeace as its community service project for the year, facilitating the nonprofit hosting jewelry shows in their D.C.-area building lobbies.

"We have heard again and again from the women how gratifying it is to watch customers purchase the items they have made." Ward said.

Ward smiles, Cheshire-like, when asked if she is related to the famous painter, Georgia O’Keefe.

"I've learned as much from the women – about strength, patience, persistence, and courage -- as they may have learned from me about how to twist wire or market a product," she said.

She is reaping the benefits of investing in women -- hugs and smiles, hope and tomorrows for women who lost faith in the greater being: themselves. She watches personalities evolve, often into giggles, a sound that is new for many of their ears. In principle, the women are bound to "pay it forward." Ward hasn’t had to ask, yet. The women of MakePeace just seem to do it naturally.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator