Over the past months, we've witnessed a number of shocking bullying cases that have led to alarming school violence. What connects these tragic stories is a need for interventions that work, that give young people viable alternatives and a set of concrete skills to resolve conflicts peacefully, build empathy for peers who are different and work together to solve community problems. But equally important is the imperative to call our young people to something higher -- to harness their energy, passion, frustration and deep sense of justice in positive ways. As a society, we short-change young people by focusing them on what not to do: "say no to drugs" or "don't be a bully". We rarely suggest or celebrate all that they can do to take action and bring about meaningful change. And yet from Damascus to Des Moines we are seeing engaged youth leading with powerful examples of peacemaking.
Issues of bullying, social emotional learning and effective citizenship are receiving unprecedented attention in the media, public policy arena, and the broader cultural conversation. Unfortunately much of that conversation is still centered on young people's weaknesses. 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, risks to be managed. According to a major analysis by the Berkley Media Studies Group, only 1% of news stories about young people are positive. Young people's daily examples of courageous acts of social justice and peacemaking are seldom told.
For almost two decades throughout 32 states and 23 countries, Peace First (www.peacefirst.org) has supported transformative programming to teach young people critical peacemaking skills to reduce bullying, learn how to stand up for students being teased, and play a vital role in making their schools and communities safer places to live. Our students have moved beyond anti-bullying to create an alternative model of engagement.
I think of students like Alex, one of our fourth graders who fueled his tough kid image in many ways. Earlier in the year, he was fooling around in the bathroom when James, a small first grader became the unfortunate victim of Alex's bullying. James returned to his classroom in tears, quite shaken by Alex's physical and verbal intimidation. His class reacted with compassion and anger. They rallied around their upset classmate, comforting him and sharing their concerns. Then they sprung into action. Through discussions, they agreed to protect each other by accompanying the smallest students to the boy's bathroom. They would make sure this would not happen to another one of their friends. When Alex came to the class to apologize, the students expressed how angry they were that he hurt James and kept the school from being safe.
Since that day, a new relationship has been built. On his own accord, Alex now volunteers in the
first grade class. Every day during lunch, he gives up time with his friends to assist the first graders and their teacher. His daily deeds have translated into a productive forgiveness. Instead of being the focus of anger, Alex is now welcomed by the class.
The work in this moment is about movement building. How do we change the way adults think about young people? How do you scale a belief in peace? How do we mobilize local coalitions to make peacemaking part of every child's up-bringing? If we want to drive young people to be engaged, community-level leaders creating healthy neighborhoods and schools, we have to shift the language and image of who young people are and what they can do. It's not just about anti-bullying, it's about activism and peacemaking.
Mastering peacemaking is the key skill of the 21st century. It starts with addressing exclusion and bullying by developing courage, compassion and communication, and goes beyond that to engage young people in seeing themselves as agents of social change. In an increasingly connected world, our ability to form healthy and productive relationships, particularly across lines of difference, to care for one another, and to work with others to improve the lives of others has no other parallel. Empathy without action is meaningless. Action without empathy is heartless. Together they are essential.
Please help us start a peacemaking movement to bring our work to students and educators nationwide by donating to: www.peacefirst.org
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