07/24/2014 03:35 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2014

NAN's Huddle Uses Positive Peer Pressure to Tackle Societal Issues

This week saw the Obama administration make some major strides towards significantly improving the standard of living for the country at-large and for young people in particular. On Monday, the White House announced tens of millions of dollars in new private sector commitments and other organizational pledges for the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative. On Tuesday, President Obama signed the Workforce Development and Opportunity Act. This measure will help millions of Americans get access to workforce training programs to better prepare them for the many unfilled job opportunities that currently exist and for those that will be available in the future.

These measures are vitally important policy prescriptions that will serve as a great complement to more grassroots approaches that focus on creating cultural paradigm shifts though internally driven mechanisms. One model that is serving as a catalyst for promoting this kind of cultural change among urban youth is the National Action Network's (NAN) Youth Move Huddle. The Huddle brings young people in the New York City area together on a weekly basis to discuss solutions to some of their most pressing issues and then put their formulated ideas into action. The founder of the Huddle, Ashley Sharpton, has come to be known as "The Bishop" because of the large cadre of activists that she is helping to cultivate. She has been pivotal in creating spaces for young people to organize around issues that directly impact them.

One of the many issues that the Huddle has tackled is gun violence. Youth from the Huddle along with other organizations like the Harlem based Street Corner Resources have staged lie-ins in in Harlem, Newark, New Jersey, and in the Jamaica section of Queens. These lie-ins consist of large numbers of people lying in busy streets to bring awareness to the gun violence epidemic and to remember the lives of those who have been lost to senseless violence. NAN National Youth Move Director, 16-year old Mary Pat Hector, has also helped to launch a similar campaign of safety, education, and action in Atlanta, Georgia where people are encouraged to "think twice" before picking up a gun.

A key tactic that is employed by the Huddle is the cultivation of positive peer pressure. The greatest potential influence on young people is arguably their peers. The Huddle provides a youth led environment where youth receive guidance in the development and implementation of ideas on how to stop gun violence, improve access to employment, become an entrepreneur, and improve urban education among other things. The youth encourage and push each other to see their ideas go through the implementation process with assistance from supportive adults.

The football analogy that "the Huddle" concept is derived from is fitting because one of the shining examples of the potent impact of positive peer pressure among urban youth is athletics. Coaches often don't have to spend much time encouraging their players to focus on their sports; athletes generally encourage themselves to concentrate on their primary common interest. They often build upon existing norms and values that are already established in the peer culture. This peer culture has led to the development of world class athletes and sports teams in some of the country's most economically disadvantaged communities.

Ultimately, public policy and governmental intervention can get the ball to the "red zone" but only an internal cultural shift will get us as a community into the end zone for consistent touchdowns. We must put community structures in place for young people to not only huddle on football fields but to also huddle and achieve excellence in academics, civic engagement, community development, and moral leadership. This will go a long way towards the creation of a paradigm shift that will dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, bring down homicide rates, reduce school drop outs, and see more young people matriculate into post-secondary educational institutions increasing the numbers of those who are able to secure gainful employment, and foster the kind of entrepreneurship that will increase the realm of economic and social opportunity in their communities.

Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Administration at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University