I’ve been asked: Why is the Peace Heroes program urgently needed right now, at this point in time? It’s a fair question. And here is my (shorthand) answer.

There is no denying that the contemporary political climate around the world is one of fear – a climate that lends itself to the many radical voices that are quickly becoming mainstream. This fear is manifested in a growing suspicion of anyone who does not belong to the factions we associate ourselves with, causing people to move more deeply into their own groups and alienating anyone who is different, or “other,” than them. In fact, the fear of the “other” is turning into something of a crisis on a global scale, as is evidenced, for example, in the massive (and heartbreaking) influx of refugees worldwide and the way in which countries are struggling to receive these displaced people, both politically as well as socially. So many events today highlight the world’s growing tendency towards nationalism, towards an enclosing of people within their own groups, without the desire to reach out and engage with those who are not one of their own. Diversity is no longer a gift to be celebrated; it is almost an existential threat, a word fraught with apprehension and fear.

And yet, beneath the surface of this seemingly disheartening reality there is a strong (but largely silent) undercurrent of people who desperately want to find a way to counter these extremes, but don’t know how to do so, in a practical way. Time and again I have heard people speak of their deep sense of helplessness in the face of all that is unfolding, both globally as well as in their own local contexts. How can we the “little people” speak into this growing darkness?

For the past few weeks we have been asking our pilot program students to tell us what peace is, or what it means to them. Some of our fifth graders at an international school in Kenya said peace is:

“When you are relaxed and nothing disturbs you . . . plus you are happy”

“When you are calm, relaxed and focused”

“Something that is free and happily working”

“Where there is no violence involved”

“When war is over and you can settle down”

Some of our fourth graders at a Palestinian school in East Jerusalem said:

“Peace means treat everyone the way you want to be treated”

“Peace means if someone hits you, you don’t hit him back. You will do something good for him”

“I think peace means to be against racism, to not hit, and to forgive”

“Peace is to be kind to everyone even the bad people and to listen to people”

There is no right or wrong answer to the question, and each of these perspectives reflects something very real about the composite nature of peace. But there is one striking difference between answers given by kids at the Kenyan school and answers given by kids at the Palestinian school: Namely, the role of personal agency in definitions of peace.

I have no doubt that the students’ different cultural, social, and political contexts account for their varying perspectives on peace; but perhaps more telling is the fact that the Palestinian students have had a year of the Peace Heroes program, while the international students are at the very beginning of its implementation; they have not yet learned about any of the heroes. This makes me wonder: Could it be that learning the life-stories of people who have worked for peace instills in students a very deep sense that peace is also something you do, rather than something that just is? I would like to think so, because I truly believe that how we define peace makes a difference in how we live our lives. And in the current state of global affairs, that’s not a point to be taken lightly.

The question is: What definition of peace do we want to pass on to the next generation? Do we want to hand our children a concept that leaves them feeling helpless in the face of a growing insulation, or do we want to give them tools that they can use to counter the fear of “otherness” in very real and practical ways? The difference between these two options might very well come down to the students’ understanding of what is peace.

If the program helps students redefine peace in a way that encourages them to be agents of change, then it will have done its small part in countering the fundamentalist voices that are so prevalent in our world today. Seen in this light, peace education has the potential to turn the world on its head by teaching students that peace is something they can do – that they, too, can become real life peace heroes, and make a difference for good, no matter where they are. Herein lies the urgency of implementing this kind of education in schools across the globe. After all, as Nelson Mandela once said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which [we] can use to change the world.” It’s just a matter of whether or not we have the courage to see the need – and act upon it.