Which is why I’m reporting today on the polar opposite of terrorism: the inaugural Peace First Prize — a new award, introduced by a Boston-based organization, to recognize young people the group identifies as “peacemakers”: people in the United States from the ages of 8 to 22 who engage in courageous, compassionate and collaborative actions to make their communities stronger, safer and better over the long term.
The announcement of the winners, who will each be awarded $50,000, won’t happen until the fall. But the application round has recently closed and I had a chance to speak with some of the entrants — there were 658 from 47 states and the District of Columbia — and they offer a glimpse into a hidden side of reality, one that may help us to anticipate the future. While the peacemakers are not typically news headliners, there are a lot more of them than there are terrorists.
These young peacemakers challenge the standard notions many adults have about people their age. “We tend to look at young people in one of two ways: they’re either victims or potential victims we need to protect, or they’re perpetrators we need to punish. That’s our narrative. That’s our public policy,” said Eric Dawson, Peace First’s founder. “The idea behind the Peace First Prize is to offer a different narrative. That young people are peacemakers — powerful change makers.”
Consider Emily-Anne Rigal, from Virginia, who, at 16, turned her talents for videography and social media into a lively online platform, WeStopHate, that is attacking bullying at its roots, providing a space where hundreds of thousands of teenagers exchange views and insights about self-image.
Or check out the work of 11-year-old Gerry Orz, from Los Angeles, whose organization, Kids Resource, teaches young people how to prevent or respond to bullying. Gerry and his friends have made two short films that dramatize bullying: Day of Silence and Born to Bully; they’ve put together a public service announcement, and they are busy at work on other films. “I have gay parents and I am Jewish so people had two things to bully me about,” Gerry said. “I didn’t want to see any other child go through this.”
Many of these young people are drawing upon their own painful experiences. Amit Dodani, 15, from California, struggled with a speech impediment for many years. So he established My Name, My Story, offering a space for young people to exchange stories and start clubs that aim to build empathy.
Christopher Carswell, 14, from Georgia, has endured serious health problems and seizures for much of his life. After receiving life-changing assistance from a service dog, he decided to create1Boy4Change, an organization that provides service dogs and iPads to disabled children and veterans. Caitlin Chapski, 18, from New Jersey, was distressed to see friends and family members struggling with depression. For her Girl Scout Gold Award project, she brought youngsters together to express themselves through art in public places.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah Cronk, from Iowa, was a high school cheerleader. Her older brother, Charlie, was on the autism spectrum. After an older student encouraged Charlie to join the swim team, Sarah saw that it “turned his life around.” She wondered if she could open up cheerleading to students with disabilities?
When she approached school administrators, they were “incredibly skeptical,” she recalled. But she managed to persuade them to let her try it out. She found students who were excited by the idea; they practiced for a month and a half, and then, one Friday night, under the bright lights in front of thousands, they walked onto the football field arm in arm. “The crowd rose to their feet and started chanting in unison,” Sarah recalled. “I’ve never seen bigger smiles.”
Since then the Sparkle Effect has spread to 90 schools and Sarah has won a prestigious Do Something Award. Students with a wide range of physical and developmental disabilities, from different age groups, are involved. “Our youngest participant was in second grade,” said Sarah. “She’s never going to know what it feels like to be excluded.”
Young peacemakers are deepening our appreciation of the environment. At age 9, Avalon Theisen founded Conserve It Forward, and for the past three years she has been teaching others about habitat loss and conservation through class presentations, interactive booths at parks, zoos and community gatherings, and other outreach efforts. (Avalon is particularly compelling when she talks about frogs, and the importance of saving them.)
A sense of economic justice also runs deep. When Nicholas Lowinger, from Rhode Island, was 5 years old, his mother took him to a homeless shelter. He was shocked to see kids who didn’t have sneakers. When he was 12, he started the Gotta Have Sole Foundation to provide new shoes to children in shelters. “A lot of the kids are being ridiculed or bullied because they have used shoes or holes in their shoes,” he said. To date, Nicholas’s foundation has assisted 8,000 kids. “A lot of people in the United States think they have to go to a third world country to find poverty,” he added.
Yasmine Arrington, 20, isn’t one of them. A sophomore at Elon University, in North Carolina, Yasmine never got to know her father because he was in and out of prison throughout her childhood. When she was in high school, she took part in a program called LearnServe International, which encouraged her to address a social problem in her community. She created ScholarCHIPS, a scholarship program for children with incarcerated parents. “I understand the financial and emotional struggles that come with having a parent in prison and being stigmatized,” she said. ScholarCHIPS is now supporting its first four students. Yasmine hopes to support hundreds more over the next five years. “The average age of a child of an incarcerated adult is 8 years old,” she said. “There are a lot of children growing up feeling like they’re not good enough for college. We need to give them opportunities.”
Karim Abouelnaga, 21, a senior at Cornell University, agrees. Karim is the son of Egyptian immigrants and next month he will be the first person in his family to graduate from college. He attributes his success to a mentoring program. That’s why he started Practice Makes Perfect, a summer program that pairs academically struggling middle school students with high-achieving high school students from the same low income neighborhoods. Last summer, Practice Makes Perfect served 100 students in high poverty areas of New York, demonstrating impressive results. Karim’s goal is to raise $100,000 to serve 500 students this summer. “I think this is an opportunity to replace summer school for middle school nationwide,” he says.
Some of the children focus in on needs that adults overlook. Jessica Carscadden, 10, from California, was adopted at the age of 5 from an orphanage in China. She had been abandoned by her birth parents because she was born with a cleft lip and palate. Two years ago, Jessica was thinking about how frightening it is for children when they are involved in fires or car accidents and she got the idea to donate her stuffed animals to the local fire department. “It just kind of came to me,” she said. “I got really sad for those kids and I thought a cuddly bear could help them.”
Read previous contributions to this series.
Since then the We Care Bears Project has collected hundreds of bags of bears, which now sit in every emergency response vehicle in San Diego, as well as in hundreds of others across Southern California and Nevada, plus the Ronald McDonald Houses of San Diego and Las Vegas. For this October, Jessica is organizing a drive at her school, hoping to collect 500 more bags of bears. “They have to be clean,” she insisted. Her dream is to take the project to New York City, where she has heard about the bravery of the firefighters.
The peacemakers I spoke to had plenty to say about what they’d learned. They spoke of skills they’d acquired: how to work in a team, how to spread an idea, how to fund-raise, how to talk with the media, how to fill out legal forms, how to present themselves so people will take them seriously.
Given this extraordinary education, it makes you wonder if our schools should focus far more on peacemaking than test taking.
“We don’t call our young people to big things,” says Eric Dawson, whose organization has been training educators to teach peacemaking skills for two decades. “We spend our time telling themnot to use drugs, not to smoke, not to be a bully. All good messages, but at the end of the day what are we advising young people to do?”
Dawson suggests three things adults can do:
1. Ask young people questions of engagement. What do you think about that? What would you do? How do you think we could make this better?
2. Take young people’s ideas seriously.
3. Give young people concrete opportunities to act on their ideas.
“The idea is to invite them to try on this role,” he adds. “And to show that peacemaking isn’t holding hands and singing songs, nor is it the huge examples of Dr. King and Gandhi and Mother Teresa. It’s having courage and compassion, taking risks, showing perseverance, crossing lines of difference, mobilizing and working with others.”
I’ll follow up in October, when the winners are announced. And if you know of any young peacemakers in your community, please write in and share their stories.