Eric D. Dawson on how to create world peace one school at a time
How would you go about creating a world where people live in peace? Rather than dismiss the question as hopelessly naive, think of it as a practical challenge. Where would you begin? Eric D. Dawson, the founder of Peace First, says the logical place is with children. If we can eradicate violence from our schools, we can build from there.
Dawson says the first step is changing the way we view children. Typically, when fighting erupts in a school, the adults quickly assume command. They divide the kids into perpetrators, victims, and witnesses—and they mete out punishment. But they rarely engage the students as problem solvers, so little improves in the long run.
Peace First’s approach is to teach the students how to be peacemakers. Over the past decade and a half, the organization has taught techniques of nonviolence to tens of thousands of elementary and middle school kids in the U.S. and abroad. The results are impressive: Principals cite big improvements in “school culture,” while graduates of the program say they’re teased less and can walk away from fights without feeling like losers.
Dawson, who founded Peace First (formerly Peace Games) while a freshman at Harvard, talked with us about his vision of building an international movement to teach peacemaking.
Why did you start Peace First?
Peace First was created in response to the huge increase in youth violence and youth disengagement in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Most ‘solutions’ to those problems of school violence looked at young people as the problems. As a country, we were medicating kids, incarcerating kids, literally turning our schools into prisons with cops and metal detectors. Our big idea was, what if, instead of looking at kids as problems, we prepare them to be problem-solvers?
What do we need to learn as a society to meet Peace First’s mission?
We need to let go of the myth that we’ve got a choice between either preparing thoughtful, kind, compassionate kids or churning out kids who do well academically, and recognize that those things are related.
Schools weren’t created so that kids would do well on a test. They were created so that we would have a thoughtful, engaged, educated citizenry.
How does Peace First work?
Kids get Peace First as a class every year from kindergarten to eighth grade taught by young adult mentors from the community. We do intensive work with classroom teachers to focus on their work with kids, [as well as] with the school principal to focus on the school culture and climate.
They spend the first half of the year learning the concepts: fairness, perspective-taking, empathy. In the second half of the year, they apply it to community problem-solving. So by January we’ll have thousands of kids who will go out into their communities and make a difference.
When it comes to fostering peace, what are children capable of that adults are not?
On one level, nothing. I refuse to give up on people. But one thing young people bring that makes it easier is creativity.
What kind of creativity?
Last year I taught a group of third-graders at a school here in Boston. For the service project they created, the problem they identified were the eighth-graders. They said that the eighth-graders were under a lot of pressure, but really what they were saying was that the eighth-graders were picking on them. So the third-graders tried to figure out what they could do to help the eighth-graders feel less stressed, and they decided that they would organize yoga classes for them.
Yeah. These kids had no idea what yoga was, but they knew it was something that relaxes people. The third-graders went out and recruited yoga teachers who taught the middle school students how to do yoga.
Who would have thought of that? I mean, really, how many adults in a school setting would have done that? No, what you would get is, ‘Let’s suspend them, let’s take away their fun day,’ or whatever the punishment might be.
What’s the funniest thing or most absurd thing you’ve seen in your work?
There was a young boy in my program, a third-grader. It was his second time in third grade. [That year] the kids learn the ABCD method of solving problems: you ask what the problem is, you brainstorm some solutions, you choose the best one, and then you do it. Their homework had been to use it at home, and this kid had never [before] raised his hand to share what he had done.
He had this wonderful look of satisfaction on his face that finally, finally he’s gotten something right. It was just this lovely reminder to me that real social change work is messy and complicated and it involves small steps and movements rather than transformative work.
Do you have any advice for somebody aspiring to a career of social impact?
Don’t think just about the context of your work — youth work, the environment, working with the elderly; but think about the content of your work — what you want to do every day.
I can’t tell you the number of people who have applied over the years to be our office manager, and [when] I ask them why they want this job, they say, ‘I love working with kids.’ And I say, ‘I can’t hire you.’ I want someone who loves working with fax machines and answering phones. Because ultimately our work is the tasks that we do, so make sure that you’re connecting the content of your daily tasks to your passions.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser