Lijah Fosl was once a participant of the PeaceCasters program during late middle and early high school when it was run by the Center for Interfaith Relations. Eventually the program came under the umbrella of Peace Education Program. While Peacecaster has changed a lot in the ensuing years, Lijah (they/them/theirs) has long found it a relevant and inspiring way to activate leadership in young people, which is why they returned as a mentor, a volunteer, a paid facilitator, and now works full time as the program leader.
“When I first came back to the program, I started working with Mark Steiner [who created the program with Barbara West] to re-imagine the program as one that focused on social media. We started focusing on connectedness and media literacy. We incorporated the values of conflict resolution and de-escalation. Over time, I led the development of a new curriculum for us which is called the Youth Influencers Curriculum,” Lijah says. PeaceCasters is at its core a youth-empowerment program and aims to have programming 100% youth-led.
There are many reasons why the PeaceCasters program is empowering. According to Lijah, it is “authentically uplifting the voices and leadership of young people.” Leadership isn’t like a lightswitch that gets flipped on the moment a person becomes an adult. The traits of leadership are inside children and youth from the beginning. To become more comfortable with those traits and therefore stronger, more nuanced leaders, young people need opportunities to practice in ways that are meaningful to them. “PeaceCasters doesn’t believe young people are the future; it believes young people are the present. They should be the leaders of right now,” Lijah says.
PeaceCasters has two primary components: camp and after school programs. Prior to COVID-19, the three-day camps involved food, games, and time in the digital media lab, and the hope is that with vaccinations, there can be a movement back to this from virtual camp. The after school programs were launched right before the pandemic closed schools down in 2020 but are more like being part of a weekly or bi-weekly extracurricular club at school.
No matter how young people participate with PeaceCasters, their focus is on four pillars: empowerment through story, community and civic engagement, social media messaging, and online conflict resolution. Lijah says seeing the results of this focus happens over the long term, especially with individuals who stay connected with PeaceCasters as mentors and facilitators and become activists in their own right, but it also happens on the smaller scale. “I’ve seen radical changes in participants from folks who wouldn’t speak at all to speaking in front of an audience of 150 people to share an emotional personal story and a call-to-action. That kind of change is notable in the program,” Lijah says.