Ayesha Harrison: Program Coordinator

An HCZ Peacemaker student at P.S. 197 had been hungry and acting out. So, he went up to the office where he knew “Ms. H” would prepare him a cup of soup and chat with him.

That day, Ms. H had to step out for a moment. As soon as she left, the student turned to the other staff in the room to reveal a big secret about the program coordinator.

“Did you know that Ms. H can change her voice?”

Ayesha Harrison, “Ms. H,” has a lilting Jamaican accent. Even when she “turns it off,” hints of Caribbean patois (or dialect) can still break through, especially when she’s excited or telling a joke. To most students, this is just how Ms. H talks. But this student thought it was some sort of amazing trick.

When Harrison came back into the room, her staff were rolling with laughter and couldn’t wait to share what they learned of her “second voice.”

“When the students hear my accent, that’s love—that’s what it truly is. For me to take off my mask and talk to them as myself, that means I care,” laughed Harrison.

As a program coordinator, Harrison lives to celebrate individuality and authenticity—and not just by letting students hear her Caribbean roots. At her Peacemaker site, she and her staff have championed unique programming through “streams,” which allows students to follow their interests and individuality and for teachers to share their passions with students.

“Streams” are small, curriculum-based classes, each focused on skill-building such as mosaic-painting, photography, upcycled fashion design, and even deejaying.

She doesn’t only create these spaces at HCZ. Harrison beams with pride as she explains her initiative, “Patchwerk,” where she engages children across the Caribbean in skill-building projects, not unlike the Peacemaker streams. The difference is that Patchwork projects can result in an item that is auctioned off to earn a little money for the children and their families. Patchwerk organizes community projects that celebrate cultural expression through storytelling, art, language, and nutrition. Children who participate in Patchwerk can create diasporic art and even receive meal kits to prepare with their families.

“We are acknowledging our differences, respecting that they are going to remain, and accepting they make us greater,” said Harrison.

In addition to celebrating individual uniqueness as enriching to the whole, Harrison also loves to celebrate small acts of kindness that can make a big impact—something as simple as preparing a snack for a student or noticing and connecting with the quiet student in the room.

She remembers as a child what it was like to be afraid to speak up and ask for things. And she remembers feeling seen and valued when someone would make even a small overture of kindness. “I want the kids to know I’m an advocate for them,” said Harrison. “We all have multitudes, impulses, and moods. Sometimes just paying attention to each other makes a difference.”

She still laughs about the student who paid such close attention to her accent.

“[The student] thought he was roasting Ms. H about her accent,” Harrison said. “But he’s accepting me for who I am. It was a small thing for him, but it meant the world to me.”

Photos of P. S. 197 Peacemaker students and their “streams”.