Peace First Prize Encourages Youth To Seek Change

The group Peace First is handing out $50,000 in prizes to young people who promote peace in their communities. Host Michel Martin speaks with Eric Dawson, the co-founder and president of Peace First, and recipient Babatunde Salaam.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Politicians, school officials, the news media - most adults spend at least some time talking about the problems that affect children and teens - things like bullying, poverty and police brutality. And they often talk about solutions. But why not ask the people themselves? That's what the organization Peace First decided to do. For two decades now, the group has been trying to teach young people peacemaking skills. But now the group has just awarded, for the first time, a Peace First Prize. That's a $50,000 prize awarded to 10 young people from elementary school age to college for projects designed to promote peace in their communities. And joining us now is Eric Dawson. He's the founder and president of Peace First. Eric, thank you so much for joining us.

ERIC DAWSON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us is Babatunde Salaam. He is one of the Peace First winners for his efforts to improve communication between police and youth in Baltimore. Babatunde, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations.

BABATUNDE SALAAM: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So, Eric, tell us first about Peace First. I mean, as we mentioned, this group's been around for two decades. What gave you the idea? I understand you started it when you were a young person yourself.

DAWSON: I was, Michel. So I grew up in the "Just Say No" generation, right, where Nancy Reagan went on "Different Strokes" and told us not to use drugs. And then they had the frying pan and the egg, and one was supposed be my brain, and one was drugs. And then at some point it, was smashing things in the kitchen. I can't remember that far back. But the idea is the same, that we tend to tell young people what not to do. Don't smoke. Don't drink. And now we've got this zero tolerance, don't be a bully. And the problem is we don't call young people to anything, right? We don't, and then we're shocked that they don't show up.

And so the whole idea behind Peace First is, what would it look like to unleash young people's moral imaginations? That just as we teach young people how to read, how to write, if we taught them the critical skills of peacemaking - and when we talk about peacemaking, we're not talking about holding hands and singing songs or even Gandhi, Dr. King. We're talking about a varied set of practical skills that are essential for healthy human development - cooperation, communication, conflict resolution. And so we really started Peace First - myself, I was 18, with a group of other young people - because our models for thinking and talking about young people is that they are victims or potential victims that we need to protect, or they're problems that we need to fix.

MARTIN: So, Babatunde, tell us about your project that led to the prize. And once again, congratulations. How did you get the idea?

SALAAM: So what happened was we just - it kind of organically - in the afterschool program, young people were constantly confessing or talking about the problems that they had in their communities with police. You know, young people were getting beaten up. Young people were being arrested for small crimes or small things that maybe weren't even necessarily crimes. And so what just kind of came up was that, why don't we do a film about it since we were a film afterschool program? So that's what we did. We interviewed officers. We interviewed other young people who, you know, we knew their experiences and we interviewed legal activists, lawyers from ACLU. And so from the success of that film - and I really do like that film, even though I'm, like, 16 in it, and my voice was, like, squeaky as a mouse - it hit on some real core issues that affect Baltimore.

MARTIN: Well, let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KIDS AND COPS")

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: If I see you, and you're dressed in colors we call on the Eastside - I don't know what you call it on the Westside - but if you're dressed in a bandanna style uniform, then I'm going to stop you. I think we, as police, can do a better job when we stop you - educating you on why we don't want you to dress like that.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: It's like all this Crip and Blood stuff just happened out the blue. I had heard about it on TV and in California. I wouldn't worry about it 'cause I was like, man, they ain't coming to Maryland. I ain't worrying about it. I used to wear the red ones, the blue ones, green ones, yellow ones, black ones, pink ones - all of them.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yeah?

STUDENT #1: Man, you can't wear red. You can't wear blue. You can't wear no color.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things I liked about this is that you talked both sides, Babatunde. You talked to both the police, and you talked to, you know, your friends, presumably people that you know. I was curious if that was always part of your plan or whether that's just something that happened?

SALAAM: At the time, I was really just interested in what the young people had to say. But during the making of this film and then later on when we started doing our youth sensitivity paradigm in the police departments, I really did get to understand the other side of it - what it means to be an officer. Like, how stressful is that? You know, what's it like to go from, you know, a robbery to a domestic dispute to a rape to a murder and then to constantly - this is your seven-hour, eight-hour, 10-hour day at work, you know. So I did get to hear that side. Although I didn't agree with everything the officers had to say, I did gain a level of respect for the job.

MARTIN: Eric, talk a little bit more about the idea behind the prize. I mean, $50,000 is a lot of duckets. You know, that's not small over two years, and you're giving it to some kids who are kids - people are kids. I mean, do you have parameters on how that money is to be used?

DAWSON: So the big idea behind the prize and the $50,000 purse was we wanted it to be big 'cause what we wanted to say to young people is that your peacemaking work matters. We wanted to get people's and frankly, adults' attention. And the idea behind the prize is not just to give young people money, which is great. And it can either go toward their college, their education, or it can go toward a nonprofit they're doing their work through.

But each of these young people receive a two-year fellowship to invest in their peacemaking work. The idea is to develop young people's leaders, to help them scale their programs or peacemaking work - whatever way that means for them - and then to build a collective movement so to connect young people with each other to change the way that our country thinks about young people and the way our country thinks about violence.

MARTIN: Was part of that rooted in your own experience? I remember you were telling us that when you first started your organization, you really felt that people were kind of patting you on the head in a way or really didn't take you seriously at all.

DAWSON: Yeah. We unfortunately tend to look at young people as either cute, cuddly things that will grow to something in the future, right? You'll be a great artist or a great athlete or a great activist someday, which is deeply disempowering. Or we tend to look at young people as problems. And so my experience of starting the organization was very, very few people took me seriously, which is one of the reasons I started.

MARTIN: Babatunde, I guess I'll give you the final word here. What do you hope - first of all, what are you going to do with the money, if you don't mind my asking? And where do you hope your project will go?

SALAAM: So, one, I'm going to Disneyland. I've already booked my flight. And...

MARTIN: I don't believe you.

SALAAM: No, actually...

MARTIN: I don't think so.

SALAAM: ...I'm not going. But as far as what I hope for the project - so I want to happen is for young people and my friends and my colleagues and my peers, for us to really organize. I feel like one part of it is that young people aren't organized because we all have the same issues. We all have the same problems, but often, when we're all separated or individualized, we can't see the common good, or we can't see what we both want together.

MARTIN: Have you seen any change so far from just the work you've done already?

SALAAM: I would say I've seen the personal change of the people who took part in the work, for sure. And it's harder to measure whether or not I've seen change in the officers. To be frank, sometimes I was like, no. You know, as a citizen of Baltimore, I'm still nervous when I see the flashing lights when I'm driving, you know. That's just on some real stuff. But as far as the people that I work with, the young people who did this project with me, I've seen changes. I've seen us grow as people and to move on and do other cool and creative stuff.

MARTIN: Babatunde Salaam is one of the winners of the first Peace First Prize. He's a student at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and he was kind of to join us from member station WEAA, which is on the campus there. Eric Dawson is the cofounder and president of Peace First, and he was kind of to join us from WGBH in Boston. Thank you both so much for joining us.

DAWSON: Thanks, Michel.

SALAAM: Thank you.

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