A Sit-Down with Fish Stark of Peace First

As Part of the Heroes of Change Podcast

Jeremy Turner, Founder & Managing Director at EPIC Mission:

Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. This is Jeremy Turner, Founder and Managing Director of EPIC Mission and I’ll be your host here on the podcast. We are highlighting the trials, victories, and applied wisdom of our community change agents, unsung heroes, and those who empower them to be the change across Appalachia and beyond. We seek to inspire and equip everyday heroes just like you to take on our greatest challenges because together, we are the change and today it’s awesome. I get to catch up with an old friend. The one, the only, Fish Stark. We’re going to welcome him to the show, but first before we get to Fish, I want to read a little bit about him. So Fish Stark’s mission is to empower young people to build a kinder, fair world. Fish is the Director of Program Management at Peace First where he and his team lead the delivery of programs providing training and funding to thousands of youth activists across over 140 countries. Prior to joining Peach First, Fish trained to be a classroom teacher and founded BELONG, a nationally recognized program for student-led bullying prevention. He graduated from Yale University where he received a Dean’s Prize for his work to bridge divides between the university and New Haven, Connecticut. He serves on the board of the International Bullying Prevention Foundation. And again, it’s my pleasure to welcome Fish to the show. So, hello there.

Fish Stark, Director of Program Management at Peace First:

Thanks, Jeremy. It’s awesome to be here. Appreciate you having me.

Jeremy:

Absolutely. So everyone’s got a bio. Everyone’s got a nicely prepared paragraph or two about themselves, but let’s go past that. So let’s dig beyond the bio. Who are you? What are you about? What should people know about you beyond the prepared statement?

Fish

I often tell people that I’m an educator by training and organizer by nature and a social entrepreneur by accident. I grew up in a family where the one constant was a call to service and that tempered that sense of duty with a lot of love and a lot of laughter. I experienced a lot of things as a young person that drives me right now. A feeling of isolation, a feeling of being an outsider, and that gave me a call to help other young people feel that they belong in all the communities, that they’re a part of and feel that they can make a difference and become powerful. I’m chiefly concerned with an education system that cares a lot more about making kids great and making them good.

I think we live in a world right now that’s marked by deep injustice and that’s lost a sense of collaborative community. I think the thing that, the best thing that we can do when we look across all the injustices affecting the world from global poverty to climate change, to gender and racial injustice, it’s to build a generation of young people who think and act differently, who put community first, who lead with and care and generosity and who are ready not just to do the right thing, but to mobilize and lead others to do the right thing. So I trained to be a teacher but then decided to become a social entrepreneur focused on helping build a generation of young people in the U.S. and abroad, taking action to make their community stronger and better. You know, as Margaret Atwood said, “It’s only a small group of engaged citizens that can change the world.” And so the question that drives my work is “How do we bring that into practice?”

Jeremy:

I love it. There’s so much that you just said and you know, we’ve got a limited amount of time today. If I keep you too long, they call it kidnapping. So we won’t do that. Let’s see if we can peel that back a little bit. And you know, one of the places I’d like to start with folks, or at least make sure we get to is, you know, how did, where you grew up and who you grow up with, how did that shape and inspire you to be who you are now and focus on the things that matter to you now? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Fish:

Absolutely. So when I think about my early life and how it shaped who I am and what I do and what drives me, there are two forces that work together to build that. The first of the people that I had to look up to as heroes, I was raised by two parents who could have done anything and they chose to make a difference for people. My dad made an incredible career in business, gave it up to go into politics, and fight for healthcare, for working people. So because of his work, we have programs like Cobra that allow people to keep their health insurance when they are laid off from their job. The laws like EMTALA that allow people to be seen for emergency care, no matter how much money they have; my mother was a child policy advocate who helped create Early Head Start. So both of them together dedicated their lives, their careers, and their full selves to the people in communities around them. And thinking about not just how can we help people, but how can we make systems fair so that everyone gets the care, the support that is their birthright? And so I grew up in a whole where the expectations on me were not that I make a certain grade in algebra or that I make varsity football, but that I decide how I want to contribute to helping people and making the world a better place. And then whatever decision I made that I pursued that with discipline and intensity. And so that was something that drove me from an early age to be thinking about my career. Not in terms of what I can get, but in terms of how can I help?

That’s the question I’m trying to answer on my work. And then on the other side of it, I spent a lot of my elementary and middle school years feeling out of place and being pretty relentlessly I a charmed life in a lot of ways. You know, I was a white upper-middle-class kid growing up in America. And so I had a lot of privileges. But ultimately at school I faced a lot of gender-based bullying. I didn’t act the way I was supposed to act. And you know, in first grade if you read girls’ books and you wear girl glasses and you have a girl’s name, which is what I was told, you’re on the receiving end of your fair share of beatings. So it was that that inspired me to change my name. My name isn’t really Fish. So I changed my name from Courtney to Fish because I thought Fish was a hipper, more exciting name that would get me out of a little bit of trouble. But ultimately, I spent a lot of the early years of my life feeling isolated feeling made unwelcome. And really in those moments, it made me feel really angry. So I spent a lot of time as an adolescent feeling frustrated by a system and a culture that I felt like had let me down, but also let down a lot of my peers. And I started thinking as I moved into becoming an adult, “What are the things that I can do to make sure that everyone has access to that feeling of belonging, to make sure that everyone has access to that feeling of feeling valued and loved and supported and how do we build systems that treat people as valuable?” So that’s a little bit about what drives my work.

Jeremy:

I appreciate your sharing that and I can’t imagine that anyone listening to this couldn’t hear a little bit of themselves in that statement because you know, there are many times when I felt completely out of place and terribly uncomfortable and have been you know, on the receiving end of bullying as well. And you know, how many of us have not faced some sort of adversity or have had to face failure of some sort in our lives? And, you know, within the world of entrepreneurship, we so often talk about, you know, taking the things that have deeply impacted us that have truly resonated with us in some fashion and using those as an impetus for change, you know, recognizing the need for a solution in a particular area and then taking our own experiences and our passions and you know, pouring those into creating a set solution. So you know, I hope that listeners catch that piece and I’m sure that they will. So I appreciate you sharing that. So, you know, Peace First, maybe not everyone listening is familiar with the organization, so I want you to, if you would, to take a few minutes and talk about the organization, where it came from and some of the work that you’re doing and, and how you through that organization seek to change the world in a way.

Fish:

Absolutely. Yeah. So I work for a nonprofit called Peace First, and we believe that the best thing that we can do to change the world is empower young people to lead social change in their communities. When you look at the past 250 years of movement from the Indian Independence Movement to the Civil Rights Movement or the Gay Rights Movement here in the U.S., every single movement that has successfully changed our world for the better that has moved social progress forward has been either led by or powered by young people, youth activists at the Woolworth lunch counters or striking from their universities or even today leading movements against climate change and gun violence. They have been the power behind the social change that we hope to see. And so our feeling at Peace First is that the more young people we can get off the sidelines and into the work of making change in their communities and collaborating with others and using their compassion, we can do two things. The first is we can accelerate the pace of change through youth-led social action. The second is that we can build a generation of people who think in a community-minded way and who lead with this question of “How can I act with compassion and courage towards others? That’s why I need this Peace First, right?” It’s not about peace someday or peace when you get around to it. It’s about the idea that we need to build a collective consciousness about this generation of young people. Do we need to put something first that’s more than self-interest? So the founding story of Peace First is it was founded by a group of students at Harvard in the 1990s, including my boss, our CEO, Eric Dawson, his college freshman year roommate, John King, who eventually became President Obama’s Secretary of Education, and a crew of other students and they were going to college at Harvard in the 90s when the City of Boston was facing this alarming spike in youth gun violence. More young people were dying because of gun murders in Boston than anywhere else in the country. And the response by adults at that time was either treat young people as victims who needed to be protected as perpetrators who needed to get locked up. This led to mostly black and brown kids being in jail for crimes they didn’t commit or low-level drug crimes. Or, talking to them as if they were the future. You know, there were a lot of assemblies about realizing your potential, and Eric and John and others just thought that that was pretty screwed up. That, you know, if we wanted to solve the problem with gun violence in Boston, we needed to treat young people not as victims or as perpetrators or as the future, but rather as the solution. And then actually youth gun violence in Boston was going to be solved by young people changing the culture, not by edicts from adults. So they built a school program that taught young people how to be peacemakers, how to stop fights from escalating when they see them, how to build a culture of understanding and compassion in their schools and communities. They won an Echoing Green grant to help grow that program to schools in New York and Chicago and Fairbanks. We did that work for 20 years. We were a multimillion-dollar nonprofit working in schools and communities. And then eventually, a few years ago, our founder made the courageous decision to shut it all down. All of our school-based work and move to an online system where every young person in the world, regardless of whether Peace First was available in their school could access training and support and funding to do social change work on their own. And so we created the world’s largest global community of young people who want to change the world. And we’re trying to solve the access gap that keeps young people who care about making a change from being able to take action. So we’re putting social capital mentors tools, training, and financial capital, mini-grants, $250 right at the fingertips of young people, including some of the most marginalized young people in areas of the global South that don’t have access to this kind of programming. A little over three years, we’ve mobilized 15,000 young people to join our community. We’ve given out hundreds of mini-grants, we’ve helped project scale globally. And we look forward to the next 28 years of helping young people change the world from the bottom up.

Jeremy:

Love it. And I love how clear it is that the problem that you’re solving right? So often in organizations you know, the, you ask them what problem you’re solving in some huge monumental thing or it’s 40 or 50 different problems they’re trying to solve. You very specifically noted the access. There’s not a lack of young people who want to change the world. They just don’t always have access to, you know, the social and financial capital in order to do so. So I think that’s super cool. And you know, hopefully that’s an encouragement that listeners can hear is, you know, get super focused on what it is that you’re trying to do. Because when you try to do everything, you really do nothing. When you focus on everyone, you focus on no one. And you got to get quite focused on everything. So, you know, you’ve talked a lot about young people and you know, the need to develop young people and to support them in their efforts to go change the world because as you said, all these significant movements are begun and, or led by youth. So as a young adult you know, you’ve been through a number of learnings in your life, in reflection. Thinking back to your younger self, what kind of advice would today Fish, give younger Fish?

Fish:

What kind of advice would I give myself as a young person? That’s a great question. I should know the answer to this a little better because I spend most of my day giving young people advice working as a coach and a mentor. I would say the most important thing that you can do is build teams of people you trust and listen to them. I would say believe in your own value and goodness, but have some skepticism about your own capability. Right? So young people often do the opposite. They get a little bit ahead of their skis in what they think they can accomplish, but they doubt their core. And so I would tell myself, I tell other young people to believe that their ideas and their passions and their motivations are right. And then have some humility about where you need to learn skills. And I would say don’t waste your time with things that don’t feel right to you, that you need to, that you feel like you might need to do or that people expect of you. Think about where your values and your heart, your passions are telling you to go and follow behind those. And you will only be treated as well as you treat other people.

Jeremy:

The golden rule, ‘do unto others.’ You know, what I heard in there was, I heard a lot. I hear when you speak, I hear a lot of things and I appreciate the depth at which you consider and share out your thoughts and ideas. Thank you for that. You know, I hear encouragement for young people to go forward and do things. And as we know, not everything you do turns out exactly as you planned. Right? Very rarely does it because you know, life happens along the way. So, you know, in our culture, I think we do a really terrible job of preparing young people for failure.

Fish:

Yeah.

Jeremy: 

We teach that failure’s not an option and win at all costs and it creates these terrible zero-sum games where there are only winners if there are losers rather than seeking opportunities for us all to move forward together. So if you would talk a little bit about failure in your life, anything, any failures that you’ve experienced or any regrets that you’ve had in life or business and maybe how those have shaped you or how you would hope that you know, those can shape others.

Fish:

I’d love to talk about a failure. And it’s not a regret, it is something that profoundly shaped me. And that ultimately I would do again if I ever had to. But was that absolutely a mistake? We have failures, so I think you’re right. We don’t talk about failure enough. We don’t, and when we do, we talk about it as a transaction, right? We talk about failure as a learning experience. Failure is something you have to do to get to being able to be successful. And to give what that, what that commodification of failure does is it doesn’t teach them, people, the important message that sometimes failure is something that just happens, right? And that’s especially problematic because failure is most likely to happen to be young people or the people with the fewest resources, right? With the least connections or access or training. And so we really, one of the things that we’re trying to fight against in the youth leadership, youth activist space is this commodification of success and failure. This idea that young people need to show up a certain way or do their work a certain way or that something is not adequate with them. So let’s talk about my story. I went to college at Yale University which is an Ivy League college in the middle of New Haven, Connecticut, which is an amazing city that faces some really severe economic hardship. And a big part of that hardship is because about half of the taxable property in New Haven is owned by nonprofits, including Yale University, which has a nearly $40 billion endowment, billions of dollars worth of property that they don’t pay a single cent of property tax. So you’ve got this, you know, you’ve got this very, very wealthy, wealthy university, and then you’ve got this city that, well, thriving in many ways also has residents that are struggling. You know, there’s not enough availability of good jobs. There are not enough nurses to serve every school. And so you, you’ve got this very much, this tale of two cities. And when I went to New Haven, I spent a lot of time working in the local community as a teacher. I spent my summers there and I taught you know, classes to kids in New Haven public schools, high school, social studies, middle school English just because I like being out and involved with whatever community I’m in, but I was noticing that that at the university, you know, the student culture was to look at New Haven as a place that was either irrelevant to them or a place that was dangerous, right? A lot of that is fueled by assumptions that the largely white, wealthy student body had about these largely low income of color, New Haven. And the idea I had was first that we needed to solve this problem about getting students out into the community and really having a respect and a feeling of citizenship for the city they were a part of. But second, that the only way to solve the problem of the university as the wealthiest entity of the city not making its fair share of contributions to the City of New Haven was to change the way the students thought about their responsibility to the city. Because Yale, for all its virtues is a pretty slow-moving institution. But the one thing it’s responsive to is the pressure from its stakeholders. So anyway I was thinking about what do, and I was talking with a good friend of mine and he and I had worked together on some, on a progressive campaign for the mayor in New Haven, a man who was running on a reform clean money platform. And ultimately a couple of the people from that campaign came to the two of us and they asked us if we would work together and have me run as a candidate for city council representing a district that was eight, about 80% Yale students. And so I listened to the, those folks in the community that I trusted. And the problem was that there was an incumbent in the seat, someone who used to be a student and graduated some years ago and who was not really living in the city anymore but was, you know, staying around and was voting the way the powers that be in the city wanted. So they would prefer to keep her around even though she wasn’t doing the work of engaging students in the city. So I ran for city council at the age of 19 which is not an easy thing to do, although I had a lot of help and support doing it from friends, from a great team. And people didn’t like that. I got calls on my cell phone from statewide elected officials in Connecticut who had I’m sure far better and more important things to do than harass a 19-year-old college student telling me that I better drop out of the race or offering me things if I quit. And you know, I had people cornering me and telling you they were going to make my life miserable if I didn’t drop out. I mean, it was ridiculous for a city council seat representing 6,000 people, but you know, we worked, we did the work the way we wanted to do the work. We built a platform for youth issues that we designed with young people from high schools all around New Haven. We built a team of volunteers that knocked on the doors of every single person in that community and talked to them about what their issues were and had conversations about how they could serve New Haven. And ultimately we built a pretty robust platform saying this is what the university needs to do for the City of New Haven. This is how we change the relationship between students in the city. No, we lost that election. They spent a lot of money. They put a lot of paid organizers in there. They brought in, you know, statewide politicians to stand up. The polls would be incumbent. We lost by about 150 votes. We got a lot of support from the community. Ultimately it wasn’t enough. So in a sense, we failed. But what happened after that campaign was because the conversations we had started, the people we had mobilized, the culture on campus started to change. Students started going out and volunteering in the community more. That student government put a position on their executive board for collaboration with the city, which is something that we have pushed for the university, expanded programs for students to connect with the city, and put more money into those programs, which is something that we have pushed for. And eventually, we’re about five years out from that campaign. You know, we saw as a result, these actions that we pushed for that got students more connected with the city, we have now started to see what we had hoped for in terms of students pushing the university to change the way it contributes to the city. So in the wake of Coronavirus, the university student body president just endorsed for the first time a measure to encourage the university to increase its voluntary contribution to New Haven in collaboration with the new mayor of New Haven just now occurred who was the one who had told me to run for city council in the first place. So all the, you know, the point of all this, the point of this long story about failure is, failure is not just about what you learn. Ultimately, the act of standing up and doing something that you believe is right or that you think is going to make a positive difference in the community, it is something that in itself is a radical act that can inspire and unleash some of the change.

Jeremy:

That’s great. You know, there’s such ritual lessons in that. It’s, you know, again, I think that as a culture we focus so much on winning is the only positive outcome, right? And you know, you and I both know that that’s not the case. And your story there is a great representation of that. And that really leads me into my next question. And here it is. When you, you know, the name of this podcast is the Heroes of Change. The tagline for my company is Guiding Heroes or Change. When you hear that phrase, Hero of Change, what does that mean to you? And then why is it so important for everyday heroes to stand up and move forward to be the change that we wish to see in the world? 

Fish:

To me, a hero is someone who assumes risk for the greater good. I think some of the strongest heroes, even some of the ones in the comics do their work in the shadows, right? We think about Batman. I don’t think a hero necessarily, it has to be a leader. I think a lot of good heroes are good leaders and vice versa, but I think those things are different. I think they often get complaint, which is a real mistake. I think a hero is someone who assumes risk to themselves to be clear in that we think about that as physical risks that the first responders assume, but it could be, you know, the financial risk that social entrepreneurs assume or that you know the emotional someone assumes when they put themselves out in our community and someone who’s assuming that risk for the greater good. So to pursue a set of ideas or goals or hopes beyond themselves for the benefit of the community around them, to me that’s what a hero is. And a Hero of Change is someone who does that. In order to specifically target the status quo and move the way our communities are, systems work to a way that’s closer to those ideas. So I think a firefighter is not a hero, but a firefighter is necessarily a Hero of Change, right? Because we know how to fight fire. We’re going to go in and we’re going to fight the fire or to put the fire out. That’s good. Not every hero has to be a Hero of Change. But to me, a Hero of Change is someone who figures out a better way to put out the fire or somebody figures out that the fire department is actually providing faster service to the white neighborhoods closest to the fire station. And neighborhoods with communities of color farther away from the fire station aren’t getting the same responsiveness and figures out a way to change that. So that’s what a Hero of Change is to me, someone who assumes risk for the greater good, challenging the status quo, and changing the way the system works.

Jeremy:

Love it. And so why is it so important for everyday people, you know, people like you and I and people that are listening to say, “You know, enough is enough with the status quo. I’m going to stand up and I’m going to do something. I’m going to purposely target the status quo.” Why is it so important for everyday people to become these Heroes of Change?

Fish:

Because that’s the only way change has ever been made. You can’t map – there’s no way to put like social movements aren’t centrally planned like cities are. Right? When you look at, again, whether it’s a movement that liberated a country from colonialism, on a national scale, like the Indian Independence movement or the kind of movement that builds a new park or changes the city policy. Anytime that we see any sort of social change or meaningful change happen, it’s because people who didn’t necessarily always have power or didn’t necessarily weren’t always identified leaders came together and said, “We’re all going to take some sort of action to make a difference.” And you know, those sorts of changes, they always happen in community and they always happen with risk involved. Soo they’re not easy. But ultimately, ultimately, when people step forward to do those things, not only are they able to accomplish a lot, often a lot more than they thought possible, but they also feel, I think the most incredible feeling, the incredible reward in the world of doing purposeful work that changes lives with the community of allies and friends. And so that’s the feeling and that’s the hope. And that’s the ambition that my work is all about; teaching the young people anyone from any generation can be a change maker. But I’m always inspired by the Gandhi quote that says, “If we’re to lead to real peace in the world, we have to begin with the children.” And so my work, whether it’s about building bullying prevention programs or when I worked as a preschool teacher, my work now with Peace First is thinking about “How do we specifically ask, are the youngest among us not only to take this kind of action?” but to build it as a lifelong habit of mine.

Jeremy:

That’s great. You know, I think we do have to start with our young people. You know, we can’t leave out the older generations either, but you know, we definitely have to you know, help support our young people better than we have in the past. And your organization’s doing a terrific job and you are doing a terrific job in doing that. I’ve got two questions for you as we move towards wrapping up. And my hope is that perhaps we can reconvene another conversation on another day and dig into some more topics. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. 

Fish:

Amazing. I would be glad to. 

Jeremy:

Awesome. I’ll hold you to that. So question number one of two is my hope is that there are people listening to this and something that you’ve said has really hit them hard in the most positive of ways. You know, maybe they are on a journey and you know, they’re feeling a little bit of strife, a little struggle in their journey to go be the change or you know, maybe someone that desire to go be the change has now been activated after hearing you know, some of what you’ve shared today. So there are Heroes of Change that are out there that are listening to this. What advice would you give them as you were to meet them on their journey?

Fish:

First thing I’d say is call me. My number is (304) 382-8448. My email Fstark@peacefirst.org. I think the best thing that people can do on their journeys is not be afraid to ask questions and ask for advice. That I think the best thing that we can do as leaders is be available. Be a witness to people who want to make change and be an ally to people who are just getting started. The other thing that I would say is there’s only so much planning you can do. I know a lot of people who spend their days really getting wrapped up in thinking about what they’re going to do to make a change, whether, again, it’s to start a business or to speak out against something or take some sort of social action. The people I know who have the most success in it are the folks who are thoughtful about how they plan, but ultimately there’s a point at which they stop and they go and they just do something.

The third thing I’d say is build a team. Even if you’re doing most of the work yourself and you’re just bouncing ideas off of people who trust you, again, whether it’s a business or a campaign or a movement you’re only as good as the brain trust that you have around you. And ultimately nothing worth lasting was ever built by lone vocals. So those are the things that I’ve not only learned in my own journey but in coaching thousands of young activists and social entrepreneurs. And I think the rest of it, you know, it depends on the person, what they want to sell.

Jeremy:

And I do hope that someone reaches out to you. I hope that many someones reach out to you because I know that offer is genuine and you know, I appreciate that. So the final question for you is if people want to learn more about you and the work that you’re doing with Peace First, how can they do that? You gave your phone number and email address already, you can give it again if you like, but then, you know, perhaps your website, social media handle.

Fish:

Yeah. So if folks are interested in Peace First, whether you’re a young person, we serve young people 13 to 25, who wants to start a project in your community and make a difference, or whether you’re an older person or an ally who wants to support the work by donating or by mentoring, you can visit peacefirst.org. That’s P E A C E F I R S T dor org. And if you want to get in touch with me or follow along with my work, you can find me on Facebook. The only Fish dark on Facebook or you can find me on Twitter @fishstark. And Jeremy, I look forward to connecting with some of your listeners.

Jeremy:

Absolutely. I appreciate it. And we’ll share your contact information on the website when this episode goes live as well. So, Fish, I really appreciate you and I’m going to hold you to the next conversation piece and I look forward to connecting with you offline some time.

Fish:

Well, that’s good. We’ll do it another time. Maybe I’ll bring some more young people with me.

Jeremy:

Okay. That’d be fantastic. I appreciate that. Well, everybody that’s all for this episode of the Heroes of Change podcast from EPIC Mission. We hope that you have been inspired by something that you heard today because together, we are the change. Tune in next time as we dig into the story of another hero and learn what they do, how they do it, and most importantly, why they do what they do. In the meantime, take care, stay encouraged, and we’ll look forward to seeing you next time on the Heroes of Change podcast. Thanks so much.