north of neutral dialog

September 25, 2012

by anne lueneburger

Eric D. Dawson, President and Co-founder, Peace First 

Boston, MA

As Eric comes up to meet me at Columbia University for our interview, I am stunned by how young he looks. He easily blends in with the rest of the graduate student population and his grin has a boyish quality to it as he notices the cowboy boots I am wearing that day: “For our wedding, my wife wanted diamonds in her wedding band,” he recounts, “and the deal was if she got that I would get cowboy boots. For one, they make me taller. And as I grew up in the Midwest and my grandfather had grown up on a farm, it just felt like cowboy boots fit that aesthetic.”

Dawson’s youthful looks and easygoing demeanor can be deceiving. Nearing his forties he can look back over a long list of accomplishments, starting with when he was only 14-years-old and he launched a student-teacher movement against the discrimination of children with developmental disabilities. And while working towards three Harvard degrees, this ‘child advocate’ founded Peace First, with the aim of making violence in schools a thing of the past. In addition to impacting positive social change at large, Eric is also a dedicated husband and father of three

the context

Peace First, conceived in 1992 at Harvard University, is an independent non-profit organization. Headquartered in Boston, the organization also has offices in Los Angeles, and New York, and its reach is expanding rapidly, both in the US and globally. Its mission is to teach children critical conflict resolution skills, reducing youth violence and creating stronger schools and communities, in short: anti-bullying and pro-kids.

To date, Peace First has trained over 40,000 students as well as close to 2,500 teachers in conflict resolution skills; in addition, with its emphasis on community projects, the organization offers school children a sense of civic engagement. Peace First’s work carries impressive results: its partner schools are reporting a 100% reduction in racial slurs, an over 80% increase when it comes to students mitigating fights and being support champions for each other, and a 60% decrease in violence overall.

Eric Dawson, as the co-founder and head of the organization, has been nationally recognized for his leadership and contributions, including being awarded the prestigious Ashoka and Echoing Green fellowships. Dawson, who co-founded the organization at age 18, focused in phase one of his leadership on designing a curriculum of change, during phase two on building a growing organizational culture and, as Peace First has entered phase three, his emphasis is on scale and how to make the peace concept a universal one in order to address the soaring demand (so far over 250,000 schools and school districts worldwide have expressed interest to partner with Peace First).

growing up, taking a STAND

Born in St. Louis Missouri and the youngest of three, he moved at a young age with his parents back to Columbus, Ohio to be closer to family.

When Dawson was a freshman at his neighborhood public high school, the inclusion movement (advocating the idea that all people should openly accommodate any person with a disability without restrictions) was mainstreamed into schools. While kids with disabilities – particularly mental developmental disabilities – had previously been kept in separate wings of his school, Dawson saw them now included at lunchtime, and during music class or gym class. Unfortunately, a number of students would harass and ridicule these children: “It made me very angry. I started a group called STAND: Students and Teachers Against Negative Discrimination. We started with 100 members, both disabled and non-disabled students, and ran discrimination simulation exercises for the school. It was a huge success. We made harassment and bullying unacceptable and we ultimately changed the culture of our school.”

Dawson saw support for STAND come from a large cross section of the student body: “Change was happening from within, which made it so powerful.” As the initiative gained traction, Dawson and his fellow students created a teaching program for 4th, 5th and 6th graders for the entire district, which translated into 10,000 students being taught how best to fight discrimination. Much of the content focused on clarifying assumptions and answering questions about the disabled community. This in turn reduced much of the fear and aggression that had emerged when it came to interacting with people who were different.

In addition, quality control was an integral part of the training process, a feature Dawson had picked up from his parents’ consulting business on program evaluation: “We assessed on a regular basis what people took away from any given module,” Dawson shares. “And I remember getting this envelope of evaluations where a 4th grader wrote under ‘what did you learn’: I learned to see with my heart, rather than with my eyes. That was powerful.”

a kid in a candy store

Following in the footsteps of his Russian immigrant grandmother, Dawson was involved with a lot of theatre when he was growing up: “I hung out with a lot of adults, doing community theatre and also some television commercials. What I loved about theatre was the language and the power of storytelling. I grew out of it, for a lack of better words, when I was 18. I realized at that age that I liked my own language better rather than reciting what someone else had written. And I wanted to play ‘myself’, explore what is out there.”

Harvard offered just that for the high school graduate with a 4.2 GPA, it opened a variety of new doors, some unfamiliar, some uncomfortable: “Harvard was a bit of a culture shock to me. I was far away from home for the first time. And while I did not have money to go home for Thanksgiving and I was working 30 hours a week to pay for school, there were people who had their laundry done, and who had never thought about taking public transportation. Harvard was also intriguing to me. The school did not offer the structure I had experienced growing up, I was surrounded by lots of flexibility and not much nurturing or guidance.”

Dawson sounds like a kid in a candy store as he is reflecting back on this experience. One particularly important encounter proved to be with a professor of children’s literature out of the University of Connecticut who had launched festivals for children which encouraged them to take leadership roles with the aim of creating peace in the world. Her idea was that adults had had their turn to make the world a better place and had failed. According to her it was now time to let kids speak up and to make peace happen. Dawson remembers vividly how, with a group of other likeminded students, he began building a program around these peace festivals: “In my freshmen year I was eligible for advanced standing and I could have had the opportunity to finish in three years, but my academic learning was taking second place to being drawn to how to help kids to be peacemakers. It was the early nineties, the height of youth violence in Boston and cities around the country, young people were dying. Eighteen kids were shot or killed every day by handguns in the US.” This sense of urgency caused Dawson to decelerate his studies and he got involved as the education director to develop a peace curriculum that led to launching what is today Peace First.

Not victim, not bully, but problem solver

What sets Peace First apart from similar initiatives is its approach to not look at children as victims that need protection nor as perpetrators that need incarceration: “We arrest kids, medicate them, turn our schools into prisons, either literally with metal detectors and police officers, or spiritually with zero tolerance policies. We have a whole language of looking at kids as problems, and as a young person that made me angry. Our big idea was: “What if we were to look at kids as problem solvers rather than problems? What would it look like if every child in this country had a tool belt, an opportunity to work for peace?”

Dawson and his team at Peace First launched a three-week curriculum for schools around Boston which quickly expanded into a year long curriculum and a training program for teachers. Parallel to Dawson starting his Masters in Human Development Psychology on a part time basis, Peace First was launched as a non-profit with the help of two fellowships and a quarter million dollars philanthropic investment. With the limited resources of two full time and nineteen part time staff, Peace First created a weekly curriculum model mapped onto the academic public school framework, starting with kindergarten all the way through to 8th grade.

 a playful approach to conflict

Not all conflict is bad. In fact, when well-managed, it can result in more creative ideas and solutions than a conflict free environment, as exemplified by Peace First curriculum that operates on two key premises, as Dawson explains: “It all starts with the assumption that young people are good and have natural inclinations towards peacemaking. It is our job to unleash young people’s imaginations around resolving conflict and to give them tools to support that. The second premise is that peacemaking skills need to be in every community. Violence exists in all communities, it is not only a problem of poor communities and we want to create a shared sense of responsibility, to be courageous and compassionate.”

The first half of each school year, the Peace First curriculum focuses on creating awareness around the concept of conflict and explores it experientially in the form of games and role play: what is conflict? When is it good to have conflict and when not? What makes conflict get worse and what makes it get better? How do we, as a community, want to resolve conflicts? These are all questions that the school children address together with their Peace First teacher and their classroom teacher.

During the second half of the year all children identify a problem in their community that is important to them, develop collaborative solutions and then implement them: “We have kindergarteners who start recycling programs, 3rd graders who develop yoga programs for 8th graders who pick on them, and we see 8th graders develop workshops for their teachers on sexism. The options are endless,” explains Dawson.

Much of the Peace First approach and content is applicable in the adult world and in fact reminds me of how we coach executives when it comes to conflict management in organizations: We help leaders assess the situation at hand, to become aware of their very own behavior and conflict management style, to weigh the risks and consequences of options for action, and to build empathy and the courage to act on what seems right.

nobel prize for peace

To feed the demand in the market, Peace First is working actively on a solution to reach a wider audience: “We are developing an online digital platform where teachers anywhere in the world can go online, type in for example ‘10-year-olds and communication skills’ and lessons will pop up which they can use. So they can take our content of over 400 lessons that we have developed over the course of twenty years and use it as they see fit.“

Dawson’s plan is generous, as the service will be offered free of charge and open for anyone. But there is more when it comes to building reach: “For many, the concept of peace carries a somewhat soft ‘touchy-feely’ connotation.  People think of the 60s, 70s, holding hands. It may be inner peace, meditating. What we will launch is a kind of Nobel Prize for kids, called the Peace First Prize, a national search for young people who transform their communities in phenomenal but accessible ways. The prize does not require extraordinary acts, rather it targets delicate, transformative acts of peace that we may see on the news and think ‘I could do this’.”

In addition to connecting all applicants in the Peace First community, the 5-10 winners of the Peace First Prize will get a two-year $50,000 scholarship to support their peacemaking work and will also go on a speaking tour. Dawson’s passion around the idea of making a lasting impact is reflected in his body language as he leans forward: “I get excited about movement building, inspiring young people, and about having the prize be a vehicle for peacemaking on a larger scope.”

Not unlike the folk story of the Stone Soup, in which a hungry soldier, with his powerful and persistent rhetoric, persuades an entire village to volunteer additional ingredients to the soup he is making from a stone, Dawson has used his strong conviction together with his ability to influence and mobilize those around him to make Peace First the powerful force it is today. Influential support champions such as Hollywood actress America Ferrera, national television and print media, as well as non-profit organizations such as the Girl Scouts have signed on to support the Peace First Prize which aims to reach about 25 million young people.

Having said this, there still remains a disconnect between everything Dawson wants to accomplish and what he is actually able to do given the resources at hand: “Running Peace First is like being a parent. Sometimes it is so lovely, the best thing I have ever done, and sometimes it is a pain the ass.”

conflict, up close and personal

As with many of us, managing conflict effectively on a personal level is also a challenge for Dawson: “I was a naturally empathetic kid. Empathy is a phenomenal skill. To be too empathetic can also lead to making it difficult to engage in conflict as you can get hypersensitive as to how someone might experience it. Conflict is not about fighting. It is about honesty and listening deeply to what you need and what the other person needs.”

As he went through Harvard’s divinity school for his masters, Dawson worked as chaplain in the Intensive Care Unit, supporting people who had been stabbed and many of whom were dying: “I expected it to be emotionally exhausting, but it turned out to be spiritually exhausting. I would show up in a room and would have nothing practical to offer. I was not a social worker, nor a doctor, all I could do was sit and listen to them.” It turns out this was just what was needed, active focused listening: “It was transformative because what it showed me is that problem solving is sometimes not useful. Sometimes all we need to do is to show up and be there for the other person.”

Active listening has become an important tool Dawson uses when it comes to addressing conflict in his personal life. Working on resisting his need to please others or to ‘fix what is broken’, he makes “a conscious effort to make space for his professional and personal interactions, and to embrace conflict, giving it space to rise and subside.”

save yourself and you can save the world

As an 8-year old, Dawson got bored after school and decided to design a utopian community.  Unlike most of his peers, he did not focus on trees or mountains, but designed economic systems where everyone was taken care of with hospitals for anyone who got sick, and with free housing for everyone: “The challenge I had as an 8-year old, I couldn’t figure out how to get people to work that did not have to, as everyone was taken care of.”

Yet, it were the very three elements that we know sustain motivation at work that had kept the young Dawson so enthusiastically focused to his project: autonomy (he was in charge of designing this utopian community), growth (as he build the project he was learning along the way and developing new ideas), and finally a sense of purpose (to take care of everyone in his community and make it a better world).

Motivation to work was never a challenge for Eric Dawson. He lives to work: “I want to be careful about using this language, but I am an addict to work. It fuels me, I crave it. Not meaning to belittle people who have a chemical addiction but I think the brain works the same way when it comes to being addicted to work.” Not unlike his entrepreneurial parents who ran their own business, which often meant that work would know no boundaries, Dawson struggles to add discipline to his schedule and to create boundaries between his personal and professional life.

There were a number of occasions throughout his life when he disrespected these boundaries and it was forced on him to slow down: “During my sophomore year in college I was taking five classes, I was working four jobs, and I was running Peace First and organizing a summer camp in a public housing development. I got very sick, my body stopped working, I was hospitalized. I realized I couldn’t do it all.”

One of Dawson’s colleagues bluntly commented on Dawson’s work ethic: ‘Eric get off the cross, we need the wood’. And Dawson is determined to set boundaries to realize a richer personal life: “I get up very early, 4.30am, go to the gym and am at my desk around 7 and I stop at 5:30ish, go to my family, and I am a dad. Then I go to bed at around 9pm. I spend every first Friday of the month with my family. From Friday night to Saturday night I don’t work, and what helps is my wife and children who demand that I am here for them and fully present. Yet, it remains a constant struggle.”

The struggle clearly stems from Dawson’s sense of possibility for the positive social impact Peace First can have, not only for his children but for countless more children out there. The idea of resolving conflict is not new, yet it is his sovereignty over his work and his passion and creativity on delivering his message that is contagious and that has created huge momentum. And that gets him in trouble when it comes to balancing his life. As his mother once said to him: “If you were using cocaine, we would know exactly what to do. But what do you do if your son is trying to save the world?”

And with that, cowboy boots long forgotten, Eric Dawson heads off – clearly mulling over the next life-affirming developments for Peace First as he goes…

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