THE BLOG

Young People: Changing the World for a Better Tomorrow, Today

02/06/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

The Aspen Challenge -- launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation -- provides a platform, inspiration, and tools for young people to design solutions to some of the world's most critical problems by engaging with leading global visionaries, artists, and entrepreneurs. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) will send teams from several schools to compete with each other to present their solutions at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, Peace First Co-Founder and President Eric Dawson explains how the Challenge prepares students to be leaders and problem-solvers.

Please, stop telling young people they are the future.

The scene could be at any school assembly at any school in the country. A group of restless young people listening to a suited speaker explaining how they are the future. How some day, they will change the world.

Young people are not the future. They are the present. And in many ways they are the best hope we have for repairing a world divided by fear, hatred, and violence.

Over the past months, we have been witness to a number of violent incidents involving youth. And as a reaction, our instinct is often to protect our children - and I would argue overprotect them, by keeping them in a nurturing bubble. But in doing this we are losing a precious resource. We are losing the inherent compassion and courage and energy of our young people.

Peace First started over 20 years ago with this simple idea: if we are going to do anything worthwhile as a global community -- end violence, protect our environment, ensure everyone has food to eat and a place to sleep -- we have to prepare a generation of young people with the skills and commitments to be audacious problem-solvers. These youth are what we call peacemakers, young people who are doing the crucial work of compassion, coming together to solve problems, and taking risks to help others.

As part of this peacemaking movement, Peace First launched a major national campaign in 2013 to identify and recognize young people building more peaceful and just communities. Modeled as a "Nobel Peace Prize" for young people, the Peace First Prize not only celebrates young people who make a real difference in the lives of others, but invests in their long-term capacity to work for transformative change through a $25,000 two-year fellowship.

But the Peace First Prize is not just about winners. The Peace First Prize is about recognizing the thousands of young people across the country who each day are taking a stand, confronting injustice, and working together to build a more peaceful world through incredible acts, both large and small. Young people throughout the country who are working to counter the culture of violence, intolerance, and hatred present in all of our communities. Through the first two cycles of this Peace First Prize we have begun galvanizing a movement, and we have met some unbelievable young people.

Young people like Babatunde, who used his own negative experiences with local law enforcement to develop a sensitivity training for the Baltimore police department that aims to reduce the violent interactions between them and young people of color.

And Tea, who fought bullying and discrimination based on gender expression at her school by uniting students and staff and demanding all students be protected; eventually reaching the entire Chicago Public School system.

Stories like these show what the Aspen Challenge and Peace First have known for some time: young people are hungry to take on the problems that plague our society. They want to, and should be taken seriously. It is time to stop viewing our children as either potential victims or perpetrators and empower them as agents for positive change.

As I survey the world from Ferguson, Missouri, to Gaza, I am increasingly convinced that it will be young people who will lead us out of this mess.

Because young people are not the future.; they are powerful leaders capable of transformative change. They are peacemakers -- right now.