About Peace First
Today, what began as a one-day festival is a now a national movement that Peace First is catalyzing to celebrate young people and their potential to create positive change around them. Our work is grounded in teaching young people the skills of peacemaking; empowering educators and parents to teach and model these skills and values; and creating social messages that raise expectations for young people to demonstrate compassion and empathy. Headquarters: Boston, MA. URL: Peacefirst.org.
About Eric Dawson, Co-Founder & President
“Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” – John Lennon
John Lennon was not alone. Eric Dawson is another dreamer—one who has made it his life’s mission to, in his words, “unleash peace.” A childhood experience with violence as well as his parents’ work with high-risk youth in his home of Columbus, Ohio, both informed his life’s direction. In high school, he created what would today be called an “anti-bullying” organization to change student attitudes. That commitment to working for others has never left him. As a college student, he was exposed to an annual festival called Peace Games through his involvement with Harvard University’s volunteer association. In the playing of cooperative games and shared visions for peace, Eric found his calling.
While still in college, he grew Peace Games from an annual festival into a yearlong conflict resolution program serving thousands of Boston area youth. Writing for the Crimson, he exhorted readers to care about the world our kids live in: “Listen to the voices of children. Children are taught, disciplined, analyzed and tested, but rarely heard. Children who are seen but not heard will lose their voices. We live in a social and political culture that ignores a significant portion of its members. Young people must be seen and heard and our national agenda must be expanded to include the voices of its youngest citizens.” When he graduated from Harvard in 1996, he converted the program into an independent nonprofit. He was 22.
Nearly 20 years later, Peace First (as it’s now called) is a national movement whose aim it is to spark a conversation about the potential our young people have to create positive and meaningful change. The broad-based engagement platform inspires, celebrates, and connects youth in creating a more peaceful world.
They teach youth, particularly elementary school-aged children (with whom the learning “sticks” best) the skills of peacemaking: improving their social-emotional skills so that peacemaking behavior is the default; integrating those skills into regular classroom practices; and empowering schools to have a strong peacemaking culture. Three tenets underpin every lesson: compassion, courage, and a belief in collaborative change. Through the program, children are asked to identify places of common hurt and disconnection. They are then encouraged to imagine a different world and to find unlikely allies to aid them in their efforts to create that different world.
The Peace First curriculum was developed in cooperation with the Harvard Graduate School of Education (where Eric also got a graduate degree). It uses developmentally appropriate experiential activities and cooperative games to address themes such as conflict resolution, fairness, friendship, and consequences of actions. Skill building development is complemented by giving young people the opportunity to put their newly learned skills into action through the creation and implementation of community service learning projects.
For the first 16 years, that curriculum was delivered at partner schools in three cities: Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Using a high-touch model, the first iteration had trained college students teaching the peacemaking skills in classrooms. That segued into having AmeriCorps members take over the teaching, instead of college volunteers. Their impact was impressive. Collaborating with colleagues from Harvard, UCLA, and the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University, Peace First created evaluation tools and methodologies that canvassed more than 5,5000 students and 300 teachers. The evaluation showed that their efforts more than doubled the likelihood that students would resolve conflicts calmly (or simply walk away) and treat each other with respect, and it clearly demonstrated that peace building skills training also has the effect of creating students who are engaged and willing to lead.
Marcia Reed, principal at Los Angeles’ 186th Street School, said, “Peace First is our lifeline.” Reed has baked the program into her school’s ethos. Nearly 1000 PreK–5th graders start every Monday with an assembly in which they take part in a champion cheer. They hold an annual Peace March. All parent activities at the school’s vibrant parent center include Peace First skill-building activities.
And what the children learn at school ripples out to the community. The children carry their peacemaking values with them, home to their families and as part of the fabric of their being as they navigate the vicissitudes of growing to adulthood.
The culture of caring that Peace First has worked with Reed to bring to her school has earned it the distinction of being the first school in Los Angeles to be recognized with the California School Board Association’s Golden Bell Award. Reed chuckles as she recalls a kindergartener who spoke up after being read the tale The Three Billy Goats Gruff, saying “That troll is not being a peacemaker.”
In 2012, Eric and his Peace First team, eager to scale the kind of ingrained culture shift in evidence at its partner schools, made a carefully thought-out and very courageous fundamental shift, and altered the delivery model of the peace building skills training. They pivoted from their high-touch model, which was costing $100,000 per school and reaching fewer than a dozen schools, and adopted an online delivery model. The Digital Activity Center, featuring an updated curriculum, provides free and open access to the peace building programming for grades K-6.
“It’s created a dramatic difference in scale, from a handful of schools in three regions, to 3,250 registered users in all 50 states and 70 countries,” comments Lauren Chamberlain, Peace First’s Director of Programs. She adds, “There’s been a real shift in ownership, which has been lovely to see…educators take responsibility for the content delivery and bring it to life in ways that are most relevant for the students.” The teachers also report that the curriculum is easy to integrate seamlessly into their lesson planning.
The new lighter-touch model provides training and oversight when educators request it. A group of showcase schools (schools that made the transition to the online model from the traditional model) and pilot partnerships help Peace First test out different models and opportunities for this new delivery pattern, as well as provide inspiration for others through their successful adoption of the model.
The other “revolution” (as Eric refers to it) that occurred in 2012 was the introduction of the Peace First Prize for young people, aged 8-22. Designed to highlight young people who “have confronted injustice, crossed lines of difference, and had the courage and compassion to create lasting change,” the prize comes with a $25,000, paid out over two years. Peace First uses the prize winners’ stories of powerful change to further spread their message of peace.
The five annual prizewinners enter into a fellowship that includes the winners of the past years. The staff work to make connections for the fellows, providing support through monthly coaching calls and training to grow their projects. The Peace Fellows gather annually and have an opportunity to build community and learn from experts and mentors in a series of panel discussions, brain trusts, and workshops. “Peace First has been my emotional support system allowing me to navigate this path I’m on,” said 18-year-old Matthew Kaplan, a 2014 Peace Fellow and founder of the Be ONE Project, a middle school anti-bullying program.
Eric and his team are just completing a strategic planning process that’s ushering in, in Eric’s words, “an evolution, not a revolution.” That evolution is to supplement the offerings of the Digital Activity Center, which currently includes lesson plans and tools for educators and other adults, with peace-building activities that are inherently fun and interesting for young people. One obvious potential addition is a smart phone app, particularly as they bring in programming for middle and high school students moving forward.
As part of this evolution, the Peace Fellowship will be focused somewhat less on helping prize winners grow their projects and more on supporting their development as movement leaders, so that they can inspire other young people. There are also plans to scaffold the program down, so that there are regional and local prizes feeding into the national prize.
Dan Cardinali, president of Communities in Schools (CIS) and Peace First board member, is excited about the work Eric is doing:
Eric has been extraordinary in that he really asks the question, ‘What would it take to really push the idea of peacemaking out there?’ Our culture needs an infusion of hope. My work [at CIS] has taught me that our kids are in survival mode. Eric is telling us that every day there is an opportunity to unleash their potential. He tells them, ‘Today, I expect you to be successful.’ It’s a cultural counter-narrative that is powerfully insightful.
Eric has partnered with the Girl Scouts, the Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, City Year, and others to spread word of both the Digital Activity Center and the Peace Prize. Also helping broadcast his message of peace is an impressive array of celebrities, headed by former Peace First volunteer America Ferrera, and including the likes of Sofia Vergara, Vera Farmiga, Amy Poehler, Andy Samberg, Jesse Ferguson, and many more.
In our world, where the prevailing cultural narrative includes an expectation that young people will be violent, and where violence and bullying are very real, Eric’s fundamental belief that peacemaking can be taught is helping change the story. Study after study has shown that the most effective way to curb violence is to invest in the social-emotional development of our young people. According to the National Education Association, 160,000 children miss school every day because they are terrified of getting picked on, bullied, or beaten up. Eric‘s brand of muscular peace building is a first and necessary step in shaping a new story of hope for our children.
Eric Dawson is a 2015 recipient of the Elfenworks In Harmony With Hope Award.