Peace in the 21st Century: Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith

Videography: Jean-Pierre Larroque, Interviewed by Jessica Chapman, Flat Earth Media

Is the idea of peace in the 21st century an idealistic vision or an achievable goal?

OEF recently asked that question to notable thinkers who research trends in violent conflict and other key drivers affecting global stability. Their responses are captured in the series, "Peace in the 21st Century." In this video, Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith explains how building a movement, such as was done for the Civil Rights Movement and anti-smoking campaigns, will be crucial for achieving peace.

Deborah Prothrow-Stith:

[Peace is] an idealistic vision that we hope and pray is achievable. I think you have to have that vision though, and given the success that we've had on the ground in terms of youth violence prevention in a lot of cities in the United States, and given the national and international data about the reduction in violence and war, I think it's possible. 

When I think about sources of optimism, for me, they are really grounded in some of the work with cities and parents and young people and various agencies around youth violence prevention. That work, when successful, is definitely multi-disciplinary. It definitely involves the community.  It kind of comes from the ground up and the top down. We've worked with mayors’ offices and those are some of the cities that have had the strongest results.

So, I think about this as a social movement. The Civil Rights Movement, for instance, is an example that gives me hope, but also helps me to understand that it's going to take a long time. There are a lot of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings out there, but they have to keep doing what they’re doing because they're not going to be THE Rosa Park or THE Martin Luther King but it all sort of adds up to set the stage.  Thinking about the Civil Rights Movement as an analogy also just helps me stay focused and contribute my piece, knowing there is a collective out there.

Another analogy, out of public health, is the reduction in smoking we've had in the United States.  It's measurable, it's dramatic. If you ask anybody in public health why smoking is down, they might talk about changes in social norms. They might talk about the legislative initiatives. They might talk about classroom education.  But there's really no one strategy.  From the first Surgeon General's report in 1964, it took 30 plus years to see any impact and it took all of those strategies. 

Those are the kinds of analogies I keep in my mind when I'm talking about peace and violence prevention. It's really building a movement and it's going to take time.  It's going to take a lot of people and it's going to take my little piece.

I think one thing that needs to happen is a greater understanding and intentional strategy for connecting individual activity to a larger collective. Often the discussion is “Either-Or.”  But, in order to find the Rosa Parks that's going to make the difference, we really have to be intentional about that connection. Those who are on the ground working have to keep their eyes and ears open for the leader, for the change agent, for the person who can really help this movement go forward.

Those who are working at the policy level and the legislative level have to appreciate that analysis is not enough. You've got to have those Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings-- you've got to have those people who come forth and articulate it in a way that galvanizes people.  So, I think we've struggled to connect that because people often have an “Either-Or”…  "I work here on the ground" or "I work up here and I talk about policy and data." They can be connected.