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Unleashing Young People’s Potential to Build a Culture of Peace

February 22, 2016

By Catalina Cock Duque - Fundacion Mi Sangre

Catalina Cock Duque is the director of the Mi Sangre Foundation, founded in 2006 by Juanes, the Grammy Award-winning Colombian musician and social activist. Juanes will perform at the 2016 Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England.

Also read the Skoll perspective from Analysis and Insight Director Cindy Chen.

I was born in a country where no citizen alive today has experienced peace: Colombia. Along with beautiful childhood memories of my family and friends I constantly recall the sound of bombs exploding near my house, the phone call in the middle of the night to inform us that a close friend had been kidnapped, and daily news reports about the massacres of campesinos and the displacement of thousands of children and women, fleeing to the cities in fear.

Finally, after numerous failed attempts to resolve our complex socio-political conflict through negotiation processes, a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), seems near.

This is crucial for addressing key structural issues, but it is only a first step. As in most peace processes, the biggest challenges lie in helping the society as a whole to reconcile, to rebuild trust, and to ensure social justice for those who have not yet enjoyed the benefits of development and economic growth.

Young people have a critical role to play in this. Unfortunately, youth are commonly seen as part of the problem, or as passive and apathetic at best. There is an obvious need to address issues like substance abuse and teen pregnancy that nurture the cycle of violence among youth.

But first and foremost we need to recognize youth as part of the solution and provide them with the necessary skills and enabling environments that support them in becoming active leaders in building a culture of peace. If this happens, passivity and risk behaviors will decline, because two of the most important human needs will be addressed: recognition and a sense of belonging.

Youth participants in the Mi Sangre program.

As the director of the Mi Sangre Foundation, I have met thousands of young people all over Colombia who have positively transformed their realities despite difficult life experiences. Such is the case of Candelo, a sweet red-headed boy with bright eyes from a very violent neighborhood in Medellin who joined an armed group to avenge the death of his paramilitary father. Thanks to his passion for music and his participation in peace building programs, Candelo left his gang and is now leading a hip-hop school to draw kids away from the risks of street life.

There are others like him—Karla, Niche, Andres, and many other young peace builders whose vision, energy, and creative powers are positively transforming their communities. At Mi Sangre, we envision a world where children and youth are active leaders in building a culture of peace.

Here are four approaches we use towards reaching our vision:


Of the 7.8 million victims identified in Colombia’s armed conflict, 39 percent are under 28. The emotional consequences of violence on youth impede their integral development and nurture the vicious cycle of violence. Amongst other negative consequences, violence generates fear, a sense of isolation, anger, and a desire for revenge. Many youth face post-traumatic stress and depression.

For youth to achieve their greatest potential in contributing to peace building, their emotional wounds must heal through psychosocial support. This involves working not only with individuals but also with their families and communities to enhance support networks and rebuild trust.


Ashoka, a global organization that invests in leading social entrepreneurs, suggests that when young people experience their transformative power at a young age, they will always be changemakers. Social entrepreneurship skills such as leadership, team building, and business and project planning are important to empower youth as peace builders. But more important are life skills such as empathy, creative thinking, decision-making, problem solving, and conflict resolution.

There are diverse innovative approaches around the world to teach these skills in fun and engaging ways. At Mi Sangre, we run workshops for youth based on Pazalobien, a methodology that uses social innovation to build young people’s capacity for citizenship and coexistence. We use art as the foundation of our pedagogical process. Through art, human beings are able to expand their abilities, reach faraway places, find new paths, and build tools to become better people. In our work, art is our pedagogical language to enhance learning by doing, and to empower youth as active peace builders.

Enabling Environments

Sixteen-year-old Cindy participated in our training programs. Cindy had great potential to create change. At school, however, she barely had the opportunity to ask questions or express her own views. Her teacher expected a silent classroom in which a student’s only role was to meticulously take notes. Is it possible to enhance youth participation if they live in rigid environments dominated by adults?

Involving teachers, parents, and community leaders as part of the process is critical for success. It is essential to provide enabling environments where youth can question, debate, propose, and co-create. Scaling our initiative is also critical. We train young people to replicate the Mi Sangre approach in their communities, which multiplies our impact.


Anyone who has attended the Skoll World Forum understands the value of peer learning, relationship building, and connecting your cause to a broader agenda. For Colombia’s young people, as is the case for most youth living in situations of conflict around the world, being connected to a larger network of peers and supporting organizations is fundamental.

Twenty-eight percent of the Colombian population lives under the poverty line, and twenty-five percent live in rural areas—both of these are factors that can make it difficult for young people for form connections. Through the National Network of Young Peace Builders, we are trying connect young leaders with learning opportunities, financial resources, and access to media and decision-makers in order to leverage their local and peace building perspectives.

Our founder, Juanes, plays a key role in this work. He is a youth and peace ambassador and connector; he helps bring attention to voices that often go unheard, by leading social mobilization campaigns involving young people.

Colombia has 13 million young people. Half the world’s population is younger than 28. More than ever, peace and prosperity in my country and around the world depend on the decisions young people are making every day. We must continue to learn, adapt, and scale up initiatives to empower youth as active leaders in building a culture of peace.

Cindy Chen, Skoll Foundation

Peace and the safeguarding of human rights are the precursors to all the major human development indicators; in fact, they are the foundation upon which economic and social development can be constructed. To date, no low-income, fragile, or conflict-affected country has achieved a single Millennium Development Goal to benefit its population.

Young people, especially women, are severely affected through lapses in schooling and low prospects for employment and income generation. It’s estimated that the economic costs of containing and dealing with consequences of violence in 2013 amounted to 11.3 percent of global GDP, and that children living in fragile states are twice as likely to be undernourished and three times as likely to be out of school.

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