Eric Dawson is co-founder and president of Peace First, an organization with a track record of reducing violence and promoting youth social-emotional learning by building the long-term capacity of schools to teach basic skills of peacemaking. We caught up with Dawson, a presenter at the Aspen Ideas Festival, to learn more about his goal to teach youth to be problem-solvers.
He spoke at the Festival on June 28th on a panel called "Making Peace a Winning Proposition."
The scene could have been any school assembly at any school in the country. A group of restless young people listening to a suited speaker explaining how they are the future. How some day, they will Change The World. This is a lie. Young people are not the future. They are the present. And in many ways the best hope we have for repairing a world divided by fear, hatred, and violence — right now.
We all know the headlines: bullies, school shootings, apathy, and disengagement. But our current responses — overprotecting our kids by keeping them in a nurturing bubble or overreacting by punishing them in advance with zero tolerance policies and metal detectors — only worsen the problem. It is time to stop viewing our children as either potential victims or perpetrators and empower them as agents for positive change. In other words, we need to prepare our young people to be peacemakers. Not holding-hands-and-singing-songs peacemaking, but the crucial work of compassion, coming together to solve problems, and taking risks to help others.
For more than 20 years, Peace First has been galvanizing a movement — working with young people throughout the country to counter the culture of violence present in all of our communities by working with unlikely allies to identify a place of common hurt and disconnection and design projects that addresses it with creativity, humor, and courage. And we have met unbelievable young people.
Leaders like Wei, who at 17, led an eight-day boycott of his South Philadelphia High School after 26 Asian immigrant students were assaulted. His insight: those young people who were beating him up were just as much victims as he was of a school culture that condoned and encouraged the violence. His work led to a successful Justice Department lawsuit, sensitivity training for the school staff, a new principal, and a much more stable and safe school community.
Powerful voices for justice, like Babatunde, who created a powerful movie about the police and young people of color after his own experience being stopped walking home from class. His innovation was to not just tell the stories of young people but to interview police officers as well, realizing that neither group understood each other and it was this fear that led to destructive cycles. Babatunde went on to train two-thirds of the Baltimore police force on how to work with young people.
And activists like Mary-Pat who, after attending more funerals than graduations as a 15-year-old, realized that gun violence is not only a real problem in communities across America but that it is preventable. She is taking a page from the smoking-prevention efforts over the past 10 years and has created youth-led “shock ads” to remind young people to think twice before picking up a gun to hurt someone. In her pilot work in Atlanta, the areas around her billboards have seen dramatic decreases in gun violence. And she is just getting started.
If we are going to do anything worthwhile as a global community — end violence, protect our environment, ensure everyone has food to eat and a place to sleep — we must prepare a generation of young people with the skills and commitments to be audacious problem-solvers. We are building the platform to engage millions of young people to join a movement to put peace first, providing tools and opportunities to feed the good in themselves and others — not some day in the future, but right now.