My heart soared when I saw the photos of youth participating in the “March for Our Lives”. My lifelong professional and personal mission has been to educate and support youth to learn how to help, not hurt, each other. And here they were showing how they can work together to bring changes in a world thirsty for healing, eager for safety, and determined to find hope.
The horror of gun violence and school shootings in the USA was clearly the tipping point to generate such massive youth involvement in peaceful protests. I think the incredible cooperation between youth from all over the country came about in part because of their experience and knowledge of the power of peer support.
For more than 45 years my colleagues in the USA, through the National Association of Peer Program Professionals and in Canada through Peer Resources, have been training teachers, counsellors, and other school, college and university personnel to establish peer programs in their institutions.
Virtually every student has been enrolled in a school where peer helping was a significant service in a range of ways to provide support for students. Often students who knew about or participated in peer-based services as elementary students demanded or started such services when they were in high school or entered college. Student peer helpers in high school expected such services to continue to be available at their college or university.
While the type of peer service on offer differed from place to place, the ambiance and foundation that peers helping peers was the most powerful influence, whether in a formal or informal way, became known as the most potent force in the lives of young people.
Unlike the myths associated with “peer pressure” and its negative connotations, most young people have realized that peer support or positive peer pressure is a force that could be used to manage, cope with, or transcend many of the challenges associated with youth.
The massive numbers associated with the “March for Our Lives;” the inspiring speeches given by student leaders and participants, the thrilling feeling of being part of something much larger while not losing your own identity, and power of hope generated by being with and for each other independent of differences are outcomes we dreamed about back in 1970 when we initiated the first peer trainings in Canada and the USA.