Sandy Hook, Columbine, Virginia Tech -- three schools, three places that should be associated with learning and growth and brighter futures.
Instead, for many Americans, those names will forever be associated with horrific acts of violence. SWAT teams, guns and body bags are the images seared into our collective memory. Years later, we still picture terrified young people clinging to each other for support, trying to make sense of the madness that engulfed them without warning.
That's the insidious thing about violence: It leaves a scar on everyone, not just its immediate victims. When we read about the latest shootout in a shopping mall or movie theater, we all feel a little less safe, and life seems a little less normal.
Given the steady stream of violent images on the evening news -- not to mention the reinforcement that we get from video games, movies and TV -- it's easy to imagine sometimes that violence has become the norm in our society, while decency, humanity and goodness are in danger of extinction.
Based on what I see in public schools all across America, I'm happy to report that decency, humanity and goodness are still alive and well among our young people. The perpetrators of violence may have a stranglehold on the national consciousness, but they still represent only a minority. The headlines, thank goodness, are in no way reflective of reality.
Still, I have to wonder why violence hogs the headlines, while myriad acts of peacemaking go almost entirely unreported. You might argue that violence is newsworthy simply because it's extraordinary, but I would counter that peacemaking is extraordinary, too. I'm not talking about everyday decency here; that's as pervasive as the air we breathe, so there's no reason it would make the evening news.
But true peacemakers -- those who actively commit themselves to bridging differences, fostering understanding and creating goodwill -- those people are outliers in the long tail of human goodness. They offer inspiration and hope as a counterbalance to our cultural fascination with violence. I believe that as a nation, we pay a huge opportunity cost if we don't intentionally seek out and celebrate such extraordinary individuals.
The Peace First Prize is an attempt to do just that, and I'm proud that Communities In Schools is a partner in this effort. After more than 20 years working in schools across America, it was clear to Peace First that young people are natural peacemakers, despite their often-negative portrayal in pop culture and the media. What was missing was a national forum for celebrating and learning from the finest examples of youth peacemaking.
With this in mind, the inaugural Peace First Prizes were announced last year, including a fellowship to advance the peacemaking work of each winner. There were 10 winners in all, and every story was amazing, from the high school cheerleader who founded the nation's first cheering squad for students with disabilities to the boy with Tourette's who launched a citywide Tolerance Fair to promote tolerance, respect, and kindness instead of discrimination.
If you're looking for some encouragement and inspiration, take a moment to learn more about each of these outstanding young peacemakers:
The stories are diverse and the peacemaking efforts are creative, but the common thread that ties everything together is this: Peacemaking isn't just for world leaders and global summits. It's happening all around us, in unexpected places and unexpected ways. All it takes is someone who cares enough to display commitment, courage and collaboration with a healthy dose of perseverance!
If you know someone like that, I hope you'll fill out a nomination form for this year's competition. With the recognition, mentoring and financial support provided by the Peace First Prize, you could literally help a young person change the world.
Think you don't know anyone worthy of a nomination? That was my nephew's initial reaction when I told him about the competition. "I don't know anyone like that," he said.
"Well you should," I responded. "You need to know people like this in the world. It will change you."
"Where do I find them?" he asked.
"Look around," I urged him. "The courageous peacemaker might not be the person you expect -- in fact, they are probably not. Allow yourself to be surprised."
That, I think, is good advice for all of us: Search out the peacemakers, align with them, aid them in their cause. You'll likely be surprised by the good that people are doing -- and that's so much better than being shocked by the violence.
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