A crowd of young people are gathered around a girl, who looks no more than 12. She is hesitant to speak, used to the abuse of her peers, and feels like running away. But this is different: she is not being judged or bullied, but, for the first time in her life, she is being listened to.
Working together, they have created a space where they can talk about their commonalities and differences and now the listeners do not taunt her or shout cruel remarks. They respectfully allow her to speak and convey the extraordinary struggle of having to cope with being transgender at a tender age in a less than universally accepting society.
It is just one example of how Peace First begins to make a difference.
A campaign based on empathy
US-based Peace First seeks to promote peace and justice by changing perceptions of young people and focusing on the issues that are at the core of social discord.
These issues can cause intra-community conflict and violence, and serious, even life-threatening mental and emotional problems among children and young people across America and worldwide. To combat these issues, Peace First is educating the young using the most powerful tool available – their peers.
One of the most extraordinary things about Peace First is the age of some of its Fellows: while all are young, some have initiated impactful projects in their communities before they have finished elementary school.
Isabella Griffin started the Be a Buddy ‒ Not a Bully program at her elementary school in Colorado, encouraging her classmates to stand up to bullying, and to wear a special bracelet to show their support for the initiative. The program was so successful that it was adopted by the entire school district.
Another project is based in Baltimore, a US city with a reputation for tension between the police and the young, male, African-American population. Here, Babatunde Salaam, a young man who had experienced police aggression at first hand, felt that something had to be done to promote mutual understanding between these two groups.
Aged 16, Babatunde produced a documentary on the issue that included the perspectives of both police officers and young African-American men in the city, and he went on to develop a training program for 400 Baltimore police officers, helping improve their techniques for communicating with young people. 92% of police officers said they found the training useful and over 50% said that they would change the way in which they interacted with young people as a result of it.
Examples such as Isabella’s and Babatunde’s have convinced the organization of the value of investing both resources and belief in the ideas, skills, and commitment of young people.
Crossing the lines
The organization’s Chief Program and Technology Officer, Raúl Cáceres, understands the need to be flexible and openminded in approaching social issues. Having started his professional life as an engineer in the private sector, Raúl soon made his mark in the voluntary sector, receiving the Online Volunteer of the Year Award from the UN for work he did in Sierra Leone in 2006.
“We ask young people to cross lines of difference, learning about the people who are affected by the injustice, but also the people who are creating the injustice. We find that this helps them create a much more powerful solution,” Raúl explains.
Peace First understands that it is not just the bullying, often escalating to violence, which needs addressing in such situations; it is also peer indifference and a failure to offer support to other children and young people who are suffering in social isolation.
The organization seeks to promote peace in the broadest sense, by making communities aware that their members may be threatened by gun violence, religious intolerance, or even a lack of food. It teaches peaceful conflict-resolution techniques and strategies for community support for those who need it most.
Challenging hate and neglect by giving victims a voice
Peace First has developed its programs over more than 25 years. Its current format is the Peace First Challenge (PFC), which is designed to be as inclusive as possible.
“With more demand, we have moved to a digital model,” Raúl explains. “We moved all our curriculum and open-sourced it, so that anyone, anywhere could access it. We were able to show an increase in peace-making behaviors and, through that, a reduction in violence in schools where teachers were delivering this curriculum.”
The PFC takes those skills one step further into a real-world application where young people create projects in their communities. Participants are invited to submit a project plan to address a social issue or ‘injustice’ that they feel particularly strongly about, often because it has affected them personally.
An international impact
Through its support, a range of projects have been able to make a huge impact in areas as diverse as access to healthcare and dentistry; swimming lessons for autistic children; support for children in the LGBT community; and promoting self-love and positive body image. The organization measures its outputs in terms of numbers of participants and projects, and its outcomes in terms of how young people have changed their beliefs and behaviors.
Finding new avenues to engagement
Peace First has come to value its partnerships as the way forward. It is currently working with organizations such as The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to engage with youth communities more effectively and learn more about the problems faced worldwide, and how better to address them.
There have even been some unexpected, but productive links with the world of showbusiness. The organization allied itself with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation as a way to connect with young people through its Channel Kindness Awards, making them aware of their rights and possibilities for peacefully addressing conflict in their communities.
Investing in ideas
Raúl has a clear idea of how Peace First is making a structural difference in how he hopes NGOs can operate and collaborate: “We are part of this coalition of organizations led by the Women’s March Movement which is thinking about young people at three levels: helping young people think about how to organize around issues that they care about; second, how do I start learning about how to vote; and then, later, how do I actually run for office? As an organization, we are supporting young people who are on the first part of that strategy.”
He is also keen for other organizations to learn from Peace First, harnessing the energy and enthusiasm, as well as skills and technological knowledge, of young people who want to be part of something, and taking a more active approach to making a difference.
“What we have learned is that it can be really, really powerful to work with young people and not only think about listening to their ideas, but going one step further and investing real resources in those ideas, which is the point where a lot of organizations are stopping. Young people have told us that we have trusted them from the beginning, not only by listening to their ideas, but by investing real money in those ideas, and that this is communicating a really powerful message.”