The Youth are Asking to Actively Engage in Change: How Andrew Blum and Colleagues at USD’s Institute for Peace and Justice are Responding

Andrew Blum is a Professor of Practice at the University of San Diego’s Institute of Peace and Justice. Following our attention to youth focus in some of our previous blogs, we are excited to share some of the efforts that Andy and colleagues are taking to engage youth in peacebuilding efforts aimed at social change and justice.

Throughout my career, I have been in-and-out of academia, including more practitioner-oriented work such as at the U.S. Institute for Peace. This fits really well with my work at USD’s Kroc School of Peace Studies as a Professor of Practice because I get to bring these experiences from the professional and policy sector into the classroom to help students connect scholarly literature and theories with real-world praxis and examples. As a professional school, we are always working to build our students’ skills to be competitive in the workforce, skills such as monitoring and evaluation, grant writing, facilitation and others. My professor role often takes shape through 1-unit skills-building workshop courses and I am also actively involved in advising other faculty on how to embed these experiences and skills into their academic curriculum as well as community and global peacebuilding initiatives. 

I define “peacebuilding education” as education designed to create action that ends or prevents cycles of violence. These efforts might focus on addressing current violence, prevention of violence, or recovery and reconciliation. While “violence” can mean many things including structural and historical conditions and trends, when I refer to violence I primarily mean work that is addressing physical violence and the promotion of safety and security from physical violence. I have been privileged to be involved in these efforts locally and abroad in Iraq, Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Guyana, and Turkey.

One of the growing focuses of my work has been responding to youth interest in being involved in social change efforts. Globally, the feedback that we are getting from youth is that they no longer want fake scenarios and simulations, they want to be involved in fixing real problems that affect them and their communities. They want to do and to lead. 

One specific way our Institute has responded to this is through the Social Fabric Initiative, which brings together high school youth from across San Diego County with USD college interns and community mentors for a summer program. Our primary goal for this initiative is to build more social cohesion by creating meaningful and intense opportunities for youth to work together and solve problems. This emerged in response to what we observed to be primarily individual-centric youth programming efforts across the county as well as a belief that just teaching conflict resolution in classrooms was not enough to move the needle forward. The program design draws from the literature on contact theory, which argues that getting people in a room together is a start but that in fact, the most powerful forms of contact, those most likely to lead to the profound change, is contact that creates friendship and contact that creates collaborative opportunities to achieve shared goals. (Nick Joyce, 2017, Intergroup Contact Theory; Dovidio et al, 2017; Reducing intergroup bias through intergroup contact: Twenty years of progress and future directions; Pettigrew et al, Recent advances in intergroup contact theory, 2011)

Youth who take part in the Social Fabric Initiative are invited to work in intentionally diverse groups on a problem they are passionate about. These have included addressing plastic pollution, the school to prison pipeline, LGTBQ issues, human trafficking, homelessness, and others. Youth get experience working in teams and learn tangible skills through “just in time” leadership education in human-centered design, management, and networking. We also host a launch and summit event which brings in different community organizations to support and learn from these youth. We have completed a successful two years pilot with 40 students/year, have a solid model down, and are working towards solidifying implementing partners to take up these efforts long term. In San Diego alone there is a lot of room for scale!

Overall, I have seen a global shift towards seeing youth as important actors in change and peacebuilding efforts. Yet many organizations are still struggling with what it means to engage youth in meaningful ways. We still have a lot to learn. Thus, while efforts such as the Social Fabric Initiative are designed for San Diego communities, as with all our programs, we try to ensure that we are creating learning that can be applied in many different contexts both locally and globally. It is not to say that these efforts will be the same–it is critical to take into account the context of each country, community, including the trauma and history of violence they may have–but we have a responsibility to try to thread together common ideas that can help move the peacebuilding field forward by leveraging the power of youth. 

Youth participating in the Social Fabric Initiative at the Kroc School of Peace Studies, USD

While these efforts, which I would call “horizontal,” have the ability to prompt change, I also believe that “vertical” efforts that work to make institutions and systems more just, inclusive, and accountable, must be developed in tandem with the horizontal efforts. What we have found around the world is that one of the key predictors of violence is a broken relationship between a community and its governing institutions. If governing institutions are seen as equitable and fair, and able to help resolve disputes, violence is a lot less likely; if those institutions are not fair, captured by certain groups, or marginalize some, these dynamics may predict a higher chance of violence. Efforts to address this vertical axis have garnered increasing attention in the peacebuilding field, yet for some, the shift has provoked discomfort as these efforts push beyond the traditional intergroup dialogue approach and often require new alliances with social movements and activists. These alliances have the potential to create exciting new approaches that leverage the potential of social movements to spark change and the experience and expertise of peacebuilders to make that change peaceful and sustainable. 

To follow Andrew Blum’s and USD’s Institute for Peace and Justice efforts in San Diego and abroad please visit look forward to connecting with him soon to get updates on these key partnership developments.

Meet Andy Blum

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