Q&A: And The Children Shall Lead Us

Peace First launched 30 years ago at Harvard University with a single truism: In order to solve the world’s most pressing and difficult problems, young people must be empowered with the right skills, tools, resources, and knowledge. That idea morphed from an off-line educational effort to a multimillion dollar power house very quickly, but something was missing. Looking to start over and do things right, the founders shuttered the 90-person organization, reemerging as a global digital platform led by six passionate people. Today, Peace First is the world’s largest online incubator for youth-led social change. It currently hosts nearly 20,000 users between the ages of 13 to 25, giving them access to cash grants, tools, personalized mentorship, and a networking community of other social innovators. 

This month The Commons editor-in-chief Karen Bannan spoke to founder and CEO Eric Dawson discussing how to take an offline project online — while not losing sight of slow lane ideals. 

Q: Tell me about how you started Peace First. 

Dawson: Peace First was started back in 1992 by a group of young people — I was 18 at the time — around two big ideas. One is that young people need an opportunity to be successful. And the second is young people learn best by engaging in the world, rather than reading about issues — designing and building solutions to problems.

When we started, we worked in schools because that’s where young people are. We started with a pre-k to eighth grade curriculum that taught young people the critical skills of changemaking — cooperation, communication, conflict resolution, civic action. We had instant success. Young people loved the program, schools were interested, and we had strong, consistent evaluation data. And so we did what social entrepreneurs do when they have a program that feels successful: we replicated. We had started in Boston. Then we opened up an office in Los Angeles. For our third replication I went to Fairbanks, Alaska. New York, Chicago. So we opened up offices, we staffed offices, and we continued to have success. And then we hit the scale wall, which is something a lot of organizations do. We were serving a couple dozen schools in half a dozen cities and had a waiting list of 240,000 schools around the globe. That’s what’s called a supply problem, not a demand problem.

Given the human capital costs of doing that work — adding staff, raising money, sending people into the schools — at the rate at which we were growing it would have taken around 5,000 years to meet the interest that was out there. So that was one driver in our thinking: How do you scale something that’s expensive and is human capital intensive? We had a second question, too. A mission question. We were trying to solve this problem — a variety of problems in the world — by helping young people to learn skills, and for schools to be a place that would teach and nurture young changemakers. And what I realized is that there was a much larger issue that has to do with a culture that supports and encourages violence. That doesn’t recognize or support change among young people. And so we did this really interesting research work with a consulting firm to look at culture change as a driver of impact. 

So if you think about this triangle, where on one side, you’ve got your service — how do we feed clothe, house, teach? The other side, you’ve got policy work. So how do we use the levers of government to create change? The third is culture change, which is really how do we change the way that we think about ourselves in relation to one another, in relation to the world.

At the end of the day, we are the stories that we tell about ourselves, the stories that others tell about ourselves, and the stories that we tell about the world. And we want to understand how those changes happen. So we studied movements over the past 120 years from the Workers Rights movement to the Arab Spring — dozens of case studies. The most interesting is that every single one of these examples that we found, these movements that have made the world more fair — more jobs, more kind, more open — they have all been powered by young people, in most cases, led by young people. And this discovery that young people are some of our most powerful creators of culture, not just music and fashion, but values and ideas. We weren’t going to and nobody was going to be supporting that scale. And so what we realized is that we were not going to affect that problem or create a solution by opening up another five schools in Poughkeepsie. And so, about five and a half years ago, we shut down our multimillion dollar, 90 person school program and started over as an eight-person tech company basically building the back office for this generation’s organizers, activists, creators.

I was probably the most resistant person [to making the change] because I loved our school-based work, but the world has also changed. When I started back in 1992, our program was in curriculum binders that humans took to schools to teach. When you’re at a point where 74 percent or probably more young people in the United States have smartphones and are used to accessing information at the touch of a finger, you have to change. Also, I was really interested in having unmediated relationships with young people who wanted to change the world. There’s so many adult gatekeepers — the superintendents, the policymakers, principals, teachers, funders — that would determine whether or not a young person could get a set of resources. And so the idea was to build a digital platform that was always on. I think about our work as being like the Khan Academy for social justice. So if you are angry about being bullied at your school or watching body bags taken out after school shooting or children being washed up on the shore as they flee Syria like, where do you go in that moment of obligation, of anger? Maybe you belong to a faith-based group or a school-based group, but if it’s 10 o’clock on a Thursday night, and you’re inspired or angry, you don’t want to wait three months for your bar mitzvah program, you don’t want to wait for your Key Club at school. You want to be able to act in that moment. And so what we wanted to build was an always on, evergreen opportunity for young people who wanted to change the world to get started on their journey. 

Q: What does that look like from a technological perspective? 

Dawson: What we designed is a process that takes young people step-by-step, starting internally to figure out what they care about. And, externally, [the ability to talk] to other people to build a theory of change. Talking to folks who are causing the problem, people who are affected by the problem, and then building that theory of change and building a project that addresses that.

What we provide is our digital design tools, funding to help them get started, and then caring adult mentors. We are issue-neutral and location-neutral. And what technology opened up was the ability to be there for young people, whenever and however they needed us and to help them on their journey.

Q: What does the program actually look like today? 

Dawson: We are three things kind of wrapped into one. One is we are a digitally-enabled change making journey that takes young people step by step how to create a social justice or social innovation project. That includes curriculum tools, guidelines, videos, coaching, support, help from other young people all accessible online. Whatever it is that they need, we provide it. From funding to mentorship. We are currently active in 147 countries. We’ve supported about 20,000 young people who’ve started about 8,000 projects. We’ve provided funding directly to a thousand of those to help them get off the ground. Some are quite small — three 13-year-olds who go into their school cafeteria and find that one kid that no one is sitting with and go sit with that kid. Some are quite large like the young people in Uganda and Italy who are mapping every defibrillator on the planet on a map. Some are businesses like young people in Colombia who started an eco-bike tour to get folks to come to their rural community. Some are inventions. So we’re helping a 17-year-old who’s built a water filtration system using garbage, literally garbage, that’s 80 percent cheaper than anything else in the marketplace. And some are social justice oriented. We’re helping a group of young people in Baltimore train the Baltimore police force to work with young people of color.

The other thing is, we’re an accelerator. We don’t privilege scale. So those three 13-year olds in New York City going into the cafeteria? We love that project, but they don’t need to scale. But some young people want to grow their work, and it is nearly impossible to raise money as a young person, particularly if you live on the margins demographically or geographically. So for promising projects we run accelerators, where they get $2,500, nine months worth of mentorship to help grow their work. And then there’s a third step, which is $25,000, to help them globalize their ideas. So we have built the world’s first venture philanthropy fund focused exclusively on young people. And then we’re a community. So all of this work — the recruitment of young people, the funding of young people, the mentorship of young people — is all done by our fellows-in-residence who themselves are young people under 26 who are social entrepreneurs based around the world. We have just about every geography covered, every major language covered, and the cultural competencies that go with that. They also work on building connective tissue among our young people. So we are building the world’s largest marketplace of youth-led, youth-created innovation.

Q: Your platform is very basic and it doesn’t use a lot of technology. Also, you started completely offline. Was going lower tech a conscious decision?


One of the best pieces of advice we got when we were building our digital platform was not to over invest in it. To build just enough so that young people can use it. I’m a huge fan of beautifully designed things, so this is not to knock the importance of design. Only that if something is useful, people will use it. And so we’re on the third version of our platform, and there are a ton of things that don’t work about. It is a very clunky interface. It is web-based, mobile-enabled, sort of. We’ve struggled to attach more language functionality. It’s not integrated. There’s no real AI component to help guide young people through their process. And young people consistently say they love it and figure out a way to make it their own. And so in some ways, it is the position of the platform that matters more than the product itself. Right? Our position with young people, when they sign up we ask how can we help? The whole orientation is like what do you want to do? Young people love that invitation. They love the ability to create design. They love the ability to feel like they’re in control of their experience, so while the interface is clunky, the values are not. It is those values that young people find compelling. 

Q: Is that a problem? 

No, because I don’t often think about Peace First as a technology company. We don’t have any technologists on our staff. This may be why our platform isn’t up to code or what it should be. What we invest in is the relationships. I think this is in response to something that’s particularly problematic in the public for-good space: We’ll over invest in clever technology at the expense of human connection. Technology should be an enabler to connections, rather than a good in and of itself. So what I’m excited about when I think about the tech for good space is the ability to spread, democratize, to open up opportunities. What I worry about is when there are problems that cannot be solved through a fun app getting them to work. That’s not where the energy of social change is coming from.

I sit between two camps, one who thinks there’s a tech answer for everything and the other that thinks technology is destroying us. I sit in a camp that understands that technology opens up opportunities, but it only works when it’s in service to a human goal, which I think at the end of the day is just helping to make people’s lives better, more connected, more purposeful.

Q: You’ve told us a lot of stories. How do we change how we change stories that we tell about ourselves in the world using technology?

Dawson: One of the things that technology does — and this is an amazing gift and it’s also dangerous — is it democratizes storytelling. It removes gatekeepers from that process. We’ve certainly seen the dark side of that: political radicalization. On the positive side, one of our users in Tunisia can record the story of his cool project and put it on our platform and have his story amplified as an example of what young people are doing. It allows these invisible stories to become visible, and changes the story of who is a changemaker. You don’t need to have access to NBC News or a celebrity influencer to be heard. You can be part of a growing group — in this case other young people — who are building, designing and creating that narrative.

Q: How do technologists push back when someone says they need technology to make changes? 

Dawson: The question they need to ask is, what is the problem that we need to fix? What’s our theory of change about the world? What is the solution that we want to create, how do we want to intervene, and what are the best strategies to accelerate that? It might be a technological fix because technology offers a ton of benefit, but I do think people tend to ask the wrong question, which is how can technology solve this problem or tackle this issue? As opposed to, ‘How do I build a deep understanding of what the issue is, how the problem functions, and invite others in to look at this together and imagine solutions.’

We’ve invested in and supported 8,000 projects around the world, and some of them are real creative ways, but those three 13-year old girls deciding to sit next to someone who’s alone still feels like one of the most powerful innovations that has come across my desk. It’s small. It’s human. It’s innovative and infinitely replicable. Yes, a lot of our projects are tech enabled, and there’s beauty to them. But I am increasingly convinced that the most powerful social change models are small. Small things. And what we need to get good at is doing small things at scale, rather than big things. If we can figure out how to have a billion people, do what those three 13-year-old girls have done, the world would be a radically different place.

Q: What’s next for Peace First?

Dawson: I’m really interested in how Peace First can scale behind these young leaders. How we can grow by the demands of where young people are pushing us. It’s just really exciting to think — now that we’ve figured out how to have fellows and residents and ambassadors — it’s a relatively easy model to scale. I’m also really interested in fundraising models that are powered by young people. If you think about it we’ve gone from youth serving to youth led. I want to be youth financed. So we’re beginning to explore how we can leverage young people’s collective economic power, which right now is about $3 trillion a year to fuel their work as activists and innovators. Because that will be sort of final democratization, which is access to capital. A 17-year-old in India doesn’t have a lot of economic power. But the 100 million 17-year-olds and young people in India do, which is why we’re in the early stages of working on a design to harness that collective economic power.

Eric D. Dawson is the CEO and Co-founder of Peace First. Eric has been with Peace First since its inception as a student-run program at Harvard University. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the National Point of Light Award, the Youth Service America’s Fund for Social Entrepreneurs, the Echoing Green Fellowship for Public Service, the Ashoka Fellowship for leading social entrepreneurs and Pop!Tech’s Social Innovation Fellowship. He received his A.B. from Harvard University, his Ed.M. from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and his M. Div. from Harvard Divinity School.