In a Florida high school auditorium not too long ago, a shy, awkward freshman approached a group of older students to ask for directions. With her strong Haitian accent and unstylish clothes, the new girl was easy prey for the sophomores, who slipped instantly into a kind of group hunting mode. They taunted and teased and tore at the girl with insults that only grew louder as the humiliation etched into her face.
But one sophomore laughed a little less loudly as the new girl slunk away, isolated and alone. Nephtalie had made the trip from Haiti to Florida when she was much younger. She'd had time to soften her accent and learn the latest styles, time to make friends and fit in.
In other words, Nephtalie had had time to become cool, but she realized in the auditorium that day that she couldn't be cold. The pain in the new girl's eyes ignited something unfamiliar inside her -- a spark of empathy that she couldn't ignore. She sought out the new girl to apologize, and then she went back to her own friends to confront them about what they had done.
A moment of violence followed by a small act of kindness and then a real act of courage? Not the ending we've come to expect from a story of high school bullying.
But the story doesn't actually end there, because Nephtalie's newfound sense of empathy still wasn't satisfied. Realizing that there wasn't just one "new girl" in the school, Nephtalie recruited her friends to start a club that would seek out all foreign students to help them fit in and learn their way around. The "mean girls" are now an unofficial welcoming committee, and they're finding their new role immensely satisfying. "It brings joy to my friends and I as we help our fellow peers despite their accent and the clothes they wear," Nephtalie explains.
It's an extraordinary story, isn't it? How often do you hear of teenagers with the courage to resist peer pressure, do the right thing and create a little bit of peace in their world?
There's no doubt that Nephtalie is a brave, decent and inspiring girl, but I'm not so sure that those are extraordinary traits in our young people. In fact, I operate under just the opposite thesis: Bravery, decency and inspiration manifest themselves every day in every school across America, but those stories all too often are overlooked simply because they do not fit into the dominant cultural narrative that casts young people as perpetrators of violence.
In other words, it's not extraordinary when our students seek to create peace in their schools and communities -- it's only extraordinary when we hear about it.
I know that I would never have heard Nephtalie's story, except that I happen to serve on the board of a wonderful nonprofit that is deeply committed to bringing such stories to light. Peace First has spent more than 20 years fine-tuning a curriculum that teaches "the essential social and emotional skills of empathy, personal awareness, relationship building and promoting inclusion" to students from Pre-K through eighth grade.
Now, under the able leadership of co-founder Eric D. Dawson, Peace First is expanding upon its school-by-school "retail approach" by introducing an ambitious new effort to discover, celebrate and empower young people who are already out there doing transformative work.
Several months ago, Eric shared the stage with Chelsea Clinton to announce the Peace First Prize, a two-year, $50,000 fellowship conceived as a kind of Nobel Peace Prize for young people aged eight to 22. Winners will be chosen based on three key criteria: compassion, courage and the ability to engage others in creating positive change. Five fellowships will be announced in September, and the cash awards plus high-level mentoring are sure to make a lasting difference in the peacemaking efforts of each winner.
In a way, however, the real power of the Prize goes far beyond the individual winners. By creating a premier showcase for those who have "confronted injustice, crossed lines of difference, and had the courage and compassion to create lasting change," Peace First is seeking to inspire young people everywhere by shifting the narrative from violence to peace. Here's how Eric described it to me:
"The need for peacemaking today is more critical than ever before. We are bombarded with negative stories about young people in the media, when in reality, the norm is that young people are leading social change. Making a positive difference. Standing up for justice. Those are the stories Peace First wants to tell...
"We have to give young people alternatives in their lives. We need to give them hope and a vision to aspire to. And we have to celebrate their accomplishments. That's what the Peace First Prize will do."
Hope. Vision. Celebration. It's rare that we talk about young people in such terms -- and rarer still that our young people hear those words applied to their generation.
The Peace First Prize offers a chance to change our vocabulary and our perceptions. Every time we tell another story of courage, conviction and compassion, we help to shift the narrative in a more positive direction. We show kids like Nephtalie that they're not alone, that they're making a difference, and that we believe in them.
Thank you for reading Nephtalie's story, but please don't stop there. Find the young peacemakers in your own community, and share their stories by April 12.
Peace is alive and well in our schools. It's our job to search it out, recognize it, and build on it.