Preparing Youth for Peacebuilding Action: Some Principles and Considerations

Megan Chabalowski

Global Peacebuilding Center, U.S. Institute of Peace ([email protected])
(Featured article: Issue #122 July 2015)

ugandasoccerIn 2010, two young Ugandan men, Nudgwa Hassan and Ahmed Hadji, were injured in the bombing of a café during the FIFA World Cup finals. They now dedicate themselves to fighting violent extremism and preventing the radicalization of youth through the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum, an organization they formed to promote peace and tolerance in the region. As Ahmed says, “I do not just talk peace, I live peace, act peace and, through these efforts, partner with others to create opportunities for young people across all faiths.”

In the Middle East, young Palestinian and Israeli musicians banded together to form Heartbeat, a music group that has performed across Israel, the Palestinian Territories, and the United States, aiming, in their words, “to amplify the voices of the silent majority of Israelis and Palestinians that yearns for a peaceful and just future.”

Here in the United States, a high school student in Virginia was surprised to learn that her peers were not as aware of or engaged in global issues as they could be, so she created The Global Issues Forum at her school, a full-day student-run event that brought in speakers to teach students from Richmond high schools about important global issues.

These stories, and many others I encounter in my work, demonstrate that youth around the world are engaged in driving change and building peace in their own communities in diverse ways. The Global Peacebuilding Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) recognizes this and seeks to extend this movement. Engaging middle and high school students and educators in the United States and around the world, we are teaching them peacebuilding knowledge, skills, and attitudes, and providing them with opportunities to take action for peace. Our approach is reflected in our Peacebuilding Toolkit for Educators, which has become a valuable resource for those working in peace education.

Young people often tell us that they are not taught much about conflict and peace. As one young person said after visiting the Global Peacebuilding Center, “I realized that I knew tons more about violence, and war, than peace.” We teach youth about some core principles in conflict management: that conflict is an inherent part of the human condition; that violent conflict can be prevented; and that there are many ways to be a peacebuilder. We help young people understand that conflict is a natural part of life; in fact, it is an important component of living in a healthy democracy. Conflict becomes problematic when it escalates to violence, but peacebuilding tools such as active listening, conflict analysis, negotiation, and mediation help us avoid this escalation. Since peacebuilding is based on knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can be learned, anyone can be a peacebuilder, and we provide youth with examples of people—most especially young people—who are engaged in building peace.

In our work with educators, we also cover these core concepts in international conflict management, as well as sharing some helpful guidelines for teaching students about these topics. While some of these considerations are simply good teaching practice, they are particularly helpful when introducing young people to complex topics in global peacebuilding.

heartbeatBridge the local and the global. When we help students connect a global issue to their own realities, they gain a better understanding of why this issue matters to them. They can begin to see the interconnectedness between their lives and the lives of people around the world, and how action they might take in their own communities can have global relevance or impact. For example, the mediation skills that a diplomat uses to mediate peace between two countries are very similar to the skills young people might use to defuse a conflict between friends in the schoolyard.

Emphasize multiple perspectives. When teaching complex issues of conflict and peace, conflicting perspectives are bound to arise. Our responsibility as peace educators is to remind students not to be afraid of perspectives that might differ from theirs, but to instead value and pursue them, and to equip students with the skills they need to navigate these differences and learn from them.

Teach dialogue skills. Dialogue skills provide students with the means to discover and hear new perspectives. While debate is a common tool educators use to engage students in exploring other perspectives, it is quite different from dialogue. In debate, the goal is for your perspective or idea to win; in dialogue, the goal is to hear new perspectives, with the potential of your own perspective being expanded. Dialogue can be a formal process. Alternatively you, as a peace educator, can incorporate a dialogic approach to your teaching. You can learn more about the differences between dialogue and debate from an educator’s perspective in this handout.

Share real stories. One way to help students connect to global issues is to share stories of real individuals from around the world. While statistics can be important, they can also be overwhelming and leave a person feeling powerless. For example, the statistic that there are approximately 50 million refugees and internationally displaced persons in the world (1) certainly leaves me feeling disheartened. However, hearing the real stories of refugees, such as this story of Syrian children in a refugee camp in Turkey, helps young people feel connected to the issue and may provide them with ideas of what they can do.

Leave students feeling empowered. Teaching students about a local or global issue is not enough; young people need to feel empowered to do something about it. Every morning when I read the news, I am often left despairing over the future of our world. What pulls me out of despair is knowing that I have the knowledge, skills, resources, and opportunities to do something about it. Young people need to feel similarly empowered. This can be achieved by gaining a greater understanding of an issue that is important to them, the necessary peacebuilding skills to address this issue, and the resources and opportunities to take action. Our Peace Club Starter Kitis our answer to help students take peacebuilding action themselves. It provides young people with a framework to learn about, plan, and take peacebuilding action.

We speak often as a peacebuilding community about the capacity of young people to drive change to create a more peaceful world. Our role as peace educators is to provide them with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities necessary to engage in building peace. This summer, many of us are preparing for action around the International Day of Peace on September 21. In the Global Peacebuilding Center, we are going to prepare youth to take peacebuilding action on that day and throughout the year, and provide them with a platform to raise the visibility of their positive contributions to peacebuilding efforts in their own communities and around the world. I hope you will join us, and the community of peace educators, in this awesome task.

About the Author:
Megan Chabalowski
is a program officer in the Global Peacebuilding Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where she develops educational content and facilitates workshops for students and educators. As part of the Global Peacebuilding Center team, Megan engages new audiences and increases young people’s involvement in and understanding of international conflict management and peacebuilding. Prior to joining the Global Peacebuilding Center, Megan served in USIP’s Congressional Relations and Intergovernmental Affairs offices and the Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations. Previously, Megan has worked as a substitute teacher and taught English in Argentina and El Salvador. She holds a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an M.A. in international peace and conflict resolution from American University in Washington, D.C.

Notes & References:
(1) “Global conflicts ‘cost 13% of world GDP.’” BBC 17 June 2015.BBC News. Web. 25 June 2015.


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