Please, stop telling young people they are the future.
The scene could have been any school assembly at any school in the world. 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.” If they just work hard enough, study long enough, then someday they would be great leaders. 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 sheltered 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.
Peace First was founded in 1992 BY young people FOR young people to facilitate the development of compassion, courage and collaboration skills. Today, these skills seem more relevant than ever. There are 1.6 billion young people on the planet hungry to be part of something bigger, something positive: to feed the good in themselves and others and to solve the world’s most entrenched problems. Right now, they don’t know where to go; and no one is putting REAL resources—tools, mentors, capital—to support and amplify their visions. As a premiere destination for young people who want to change the world through empathy and understanding, Peace First is bridging this divide.
Imagined as a “science fair” for social justice, the Peace First Challenge calls upon young people to identify a place of hurt, disconnection and brokenness in their community and then puts project design tools, caring adult mentors and mini-grants into their hands to uncover and implement compassionate solutions to some of our world’s most urgent problems. Co-designed with young people, the Peace First Challenge platform is an on- and off-line blended learning model that guides participants to create an impactful, boundary-crossing, community-changing project through step-by-step tools, compelling videos, interactive exercises and adult mentors. Teams of young people start by identifying a problem in their community (eg: cyber-bullying, education access). Next, they deepen their understanding of that issue through research, interviews, and reflections to create a compassionate insight describing the problem and how to solve it. Each team is required to engage with an “unlikely ally,” defined as someone who might normally disagree or block progress on the project. Using this insight, teams design and implement a project, recruiting others in their work. Finally, leaders reflect on the impact of their projects, both on themselves and their community.
Leaders like Wei are a good example. At 17, Wei led an eight-day boycott of his South Philly High School after 26 Asian immigrant students were assaulted. His insight from the experience was that those young people who were beating him up where 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.
Other examples include people 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 mutual 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 then we have innovators like Omid Gholamzadeh. Omid is still in secondary school but he is working with a partner in Uganda to reinvent access to health care. Whether it is building an app to identify the closest defibrillator on a city street or helping improve wait times in rural health centers, he and his team are imagining solutions that bring human-centered and youth-led solutions to the places where they are needed most.
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. Not some day in the future, but right now.