A lifetime of adversity could have broken Iran Nazario, mentally, spiritually and physically. He spent his childhood in foster care, was abused and then homeless on the streets of Hartford, became a gang member, lost a brother to a shooting, and served time in federal prison. Recognizing there was a better way, he charted a new life of positivity, working at the Institute of Violence Reduction at UConn’s School of Social Work, becoming a youth mentor, a mediator for the city of Hartford, and an expert in gang prevention and mediation. Today, he spends his days helping at-risk youth and striving for a more peaceful world. In 2016, he founded the Peace Center of Connecticut, a nonprofit that aims to be the “centralized hub for all peace efforts” across the state.
How did your background influence your life’s mission?
Throughout my childhood and into my early 20s, peace was absent from my life. The many challenges and obstacles I faced compelled me to repurpose my life to helping other youth overcome their challenges, serving the community and building networks that would help prevent violence throughout Hartford and the country. I committed myself to interrupting the suffering of other youth impacted by violence, drugs, abuse and neglect.
How does it feel to be a role model for at-risk youth?
It feels wonderful and humbling to provide guidance and support to those who need it. It feels good to see a light of hope shine in a young person. It feels healing. Every time I help someone it helps me grow as a person and heal as a soul.
What is your best piece of advice for young people?
Evaluate every decision you make. Weigh the short- and long-term outcomes of any action. Even through crisis and hard times there are possibilities. Do your best to see what is good about your existence and take the necessary steps to maintain or improve on what is good in your life. Reach out for help always and stay patient.
What gave you a vision for a Peace Center?
I wanted to see a unified effort for building peace in Connecticut. I wanted every peace worker and anti-urban violence group to have a central hub, a neutral space, for collaboration, support and for all to thrive. I wanted a Batman signal for Hartford that would bring everyone running to work together to solve a problem.
We’ve seen increasing gun violence we’ve seen in Connecticut’s biggest cities. What needs to be done?
As someone who spent many years in environments where gun violence ended the lives of many I knew, it’s a daily reminder of the negative impact of violence. In order to slow the increase we need to provide the resources for the communities impacted by addressing the core issues that result in gun violence. One is a feeling of desperation due to poverty and lack of opportunity. Also, we need to provide a platform for community members to share information on potential gun-related violence to help prevent the incidents before they happen, and we need to invest in a number of employment opportunities and on community engagement and outreach services that support the reduction of violence and conflict.
How do you rate Connecticut as a peaceful state?
We have our challenges, and in many urban communities they’re more glaring, but I rate Connecticut as a fairly peaceful state. Peace being so different for everyone, I base it on safety, unity and opportunity. The majority of Connecticut communities are very safe. I’ve been all across our state and have seen the unity that exists between members of these communities. I believe Connecticut has made progress in working toward ensuring that all residents of the state receive equal opportunities to thrive. Additional work is needed to arrive at the moment where equity for all is present but there is progress being made to achieve that.
The Peace Center honors local and national Peace Heroes, and this year’s class will be inducted on Sept. 23. Why is it important to recognize these people?
There is great value in learning about those who promote and work for peace across our state and nation. We believe this will help others join the mission and it will inspire others to choose careers focused on building peace and highlight the many ways heroes achieve peace in their communities. The stories and efforts of these local and national Peace Heroes allows for anyone to see themselves in them and show that if you start with one small step to help your community then you can achieve greatness in many.
Where do you find peace in Connecticut?
New Hartford. It has a connection to my childhood. I spent many days and nights at the reservoirs and have walked the mountains, trails and water’s edge along the lakes. It brings me calm and helps to clear my mind.
As society deals with issues of race, equity and inclusion, how can we come together in peace and solidarity?
We can come together as a nation by first embracing that we must look within ourselves and determine our role in decreasing hate, racism, injustice and discrimination. Then we must engage with our neighbors, families, friends and colleagues to ensure that everyone is heard and valued fairly and equally and move toward advocating for one another with love, appreciation and determination.
Who is your role model?
Professor Michael Borrero, a former UConn School of Social Work professor, mentored me at the beginning of my transition from gang life to positively serving my community. Also, Hartford community members Lew Brown and April Goff Brown, who shared their feedback, love and guidance with me.