At Peace First, it’s Young People Who Are the Real Positive Influencers

I was an angry kid. Less of a “get-into-fights-skip-school-stick-it-to-the-Man” angry kid and more of a “why-is-the-world-so-messed-up-and-no-one-is-doing-anything-about-it” angry kid. It started in my first year of high school. I went to a huge public high school in the Midwest. It was the start of the inclusion movement when students with disabilities were being mainstreamed – included in “regular” education classes – many for the first time. Every day, I would watch students with disabilities being mercilessly teased, humiliated – even beat up. So a few classmates of mine and I started rallying students to take a stand and to shift the culture of our school to make this type of bullying unacceptable. This, of course, didn’t feel like enough so we organized ourselves to bring disability awareness workshops to the elementary schools in our district. 

I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Harvard, which opened up a lot of doors for me. I co-founded Peace First there to pursue a deep conviction:  that young people were natural problem-solvers and creative thinkers; that they had an innate sense of justice and a real desire to help others. Young people like Raul, who brought rival gangs together for a cease-fire in his neighborhood. Or Julia who started a gay-straight alliance at her high school after students were being beat up. Or young Tamika who got her neighbors to create a mural to cover up graffiti. These are the positive influencers and “peacemakers” I have come to know through Peace First.

But sadly, young people's courageous acts of social justice and peacemaking are rarely told. Anti-bullying regulations, zero-tolerance policies, metal detectors and police officers in schools all send the same message: young people are problems to be fixed. According to the Berkley Media Studies Group, only 1 percent of news stories about young people are positive.

We know that’s not the full story and that young people deserve recognition for their leadership and their solutions. That’s why Peace First, in partnership with America’s Promise and 12 other national nonprofits, will be launching the Peace First Prize this winter. The Prize will celebrate the positive contributions young people (ages 8-22) are making to their schools and communities and share their stories with the country. Prize winners will be chosen based on their compassion, courage and ability to engage others to create positive change. Here’s the kicker – winners will each receive a $50,000 Peace First Fellowship to further their peacemaking projects.  We’re serious about this investment in future peace leaders. We want to hear from you. We want to share your work with young people and adults across the country and inspire others to follow in your footsteps. Get involved with the Prize – spread the word or apply yourself.  

The Prize is a step toward changing the way adults think about young people while mobilizing young people to be engaged community leaders. It’s our way of harnessing your energy, passion, frustration and deep sense of justice in positive ways. So that your work as “positive influencers” will grab headlines ...and leave the negative talk behind.