Luke Dowdney, founder of Fight for Peace, talks about youth gun violence as a public health issue, and how to affect systemic change.

Caroline Smrstik Gentner: You started Fight for Peace (FFP) 18 years ago as a way to reach young people caught up in armed violence in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). What do you see going on today that makes your initiative still necessary?

Luke Dowdney: We’ve been in our neighborhood in Rio for all these years and had 15,000 to 20,000 kids through the program. We’ve helped a lot of young people step out of violence, and helped a lot of young people who may have been at risk of getting involved in violence to have more opportunities. We’ve done a lot of good in helping individual young people but, hand on heart, we haven’t made a systemic change in the community in terms of gun violence.

CSG: Is that what you were hoping to do when you founded FFP?

LD: I was a boxing trainer! The combination of boxing and martial arts with education and personal development has helped young people realize their potential. For me, the last 18 years have been about understanding these young people and their community. There are issues that are bigger than us – we’re not going down the lines of firearms regulation, trafficking, etc. Our focus is on young people, communities, and prevention. Safer Communities, our community safety program, looks at areas that have very high levels of armed violence, and focuses on bringing the key players together and finding systemic solutions.

In a community, 99% of the people have nothing to do with armed violence. But how do you figure out who that 1% is 20 years before they do something? That’s why these programs are indispensable to get young people onto a good path. In a good and just society, young people should be given access to opportunities.

CSG: You run two FFP academies – in Rio and London. Is that enough to make a difference?

LD: It’s a drop in the ocean. In our academies, we test and evaluate new methodologies for working with young people, codify that into a training package, and then train other organizations to be more effective. At last count, we’ve trained over 160 other organizations in 26 countries. That’s how we take something small and expand it, rather than trying to set up academies all over the place, which is expensive. We’re heading much more toward becoming a training organization.

CSG: From an intervention in a single hotspot in Rio, you’ve created a training package for worldwide use. How do you see FFP’s role developing?

LD: The importance of advocacy, working toward multi-sector responses, being a provocateur or a catalyst for that—that’s our job.

That’s what is exciting about Safer Communities: using collective impact, going into a community, supporting the organizations that might already be there, bringing together the different strands that should be working together. I believe this is the future for tackling the issue of armed violence from a systemic standpoint and at scale.

There’s also a lot to be done in terms of educating people. The more that low-income communities depend solely upon repressive policing as a response to increasing gun violence the more we see the violence rate rise. And cities become challenged from a socioeconomic and social development perspective.

I say time and time again: this is not a moral question, but a pragmatic question of what works. We need holistic solutions that align public policy with organizations in the third sector who are working on the ground and actively with the young people involved, and with the security forces. Unless all those parties are working together, there’s no solution. We’ve just scratched the surface in terms of looking at how you deal with this systemically.

“The more that low-income communities depend solely upon repressive policing as a response to increasing gun violence the more we see the violence rate rise.”

CSG: You make is sound like gun violence isn’t a public safety issue, but more of a public health issue.

LD: Exactly: we approach it from a public health standpoint. When you look at armed violence from an epidemiological perspective, it’s about primary (what kind of social or economic ingredient do you need to stop the cycle), secondary (who is in the area and at risk of becoming involved, and how do you stop that) and tertiary (who is involved and how do you help them step out) prevention.

People just don’t get tertiary prevention: why should we help someone who’s been involved in doing bad things? You can just put them in prison, but it’s going to cost your economy a lot of money, and they’ll probably turn out a lot worse on the other end. The statistical evidence tells us tertiary prevention is more successful in terms of recidivism, and it can be a lot less costly.

CSG: It sounds like you’re on to something: what next?

LD: We want to do the Safer Communities program with a development bank involved, a government and a technical agent for coordination and implementation. If we get the model right, we can start showing it to governments and ideally development banks elsewhere to pick up. FFP could become the training agent for the technical agent doing implementation in other countries. That’s the vision we’re working toward. This must become systemic if we’re going to make the region – and people’s lives – safer.


Luke Dowdney is founder of Fight for Peace (FFP), a global youth development NGO that adopts a public health approach to violence prevention. He is one of the ten recipients of the 2018 Klaus J. Jacobs Awards, which are bestowed to social innovators and change makers in the field of child and youth development.


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