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Catalyst: Youth Voices Rethinking the War on Drugs

We empower schools from across the Americas to rethink drug education and foster youth-driven innovation around issues of drug policy.

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Despite the grave human, environmental, and economic costs that prohibitionist drug policies have exacted across the Americas, the general public within the Western hemisphere remains resistant to the idea of drug policy reform. At Catalyst we see education as the key to fostering a new generation prepared to think of innovative drug policies that favor peace, planet and prosperity. We build bridges between schools from communities that have been affected by the War on Drugs across the Americas and empower them to become sites for generating youth-driven drug policy innovation. In order to apply for the Catalyst's yearly summer incubator, school will assemble a team made up of one student, one teacher and one administrator. A total of 20 teams (60 participants in total) from across the Americas will be selected to participate in the incubator. Need-based scholarships will be offered to ensure a diversity of participants. During the incubator students will participate in a series of interactive workshops lead by policy makers, social innovators and youth development experts. They will gain a transnational, systems-level perspective of drug policy, cultivate leadership skills and forge meaningful bonds with their peers from around the world. Teachers will work alongside students to translate their learning into engaging, youth-driven pedagogical tools that they can use in their classrooms when they return home. Principals will join their teachers and students for the last week of the incubator to develop a yearlong, school-wide project geared towards transforming their school into a site for innovation around issues related to drug policy. These will be rolled out in participating schools over the next year. To incentivize project roll out, the 10 teams with the most impactful projects will be invited back to the following summer incubator to pass their knowledge on to the next cohort. An online platform will allow participants to stay connected after the incubator.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Our beneficiaries are: -adolescents (15-17) from communities affected by the War on Drugs across the Americas. Students will benefit by gaining: the knowledge they need to join conversations about drug policy reform as well-informed, critically thinking stakeholders; leadership and innovation skills; an opportunity to travel and a transnational perspective on drug-policy; membership within a pan-American network of likeminded young people who are committed to rethinking the War on Drugs; and ongoing support and mentorship from the Catalyst team. -high school teachers and principals from communities affected by the War on Drugs across the Americas. Teachers and principals will benefit by gaining professional development; an invaluable transnational perspective; a space to develop and experiment with new pedagogical strategies and institutional innovations; membership in a supportive international network of teachers and principals; and support and mentorship from the Catalyst team.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Where existing drug education programs focus on drugs as a matter of individual choice and personal health, Catalyst is the first drug education program to frame drugs and drug policy as issues of peace, planet and prosperity. By bringing students, administrators and teachers together we disrupt traditional educational hierarchies and create new space for youth-driven innovation to emerge within educational settings. This strategy also allows us to identify the schools that are open to innovation at a structural/administrative level and sets up our students and teachers for success in launching bold and impactful ideas within their schools when they return home. Contrary to the brain-drain effect that most international schooling efforts tend to have, our unique model provides participant with invaluable transnational exposure and social capital, while keeping them firmly grounded within their own communities where they stand to make the most meaningful impact.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Early Adoption: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the intended users of the idea. I have begun to expand the pilot for early adoption.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Catalyst is reinventing drug education for the 21st century to empower the next generation with a new vision of drug policies that favor peace, respect for the planet and prosperity for all communities across the Americas.

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • No, but we are a formal initiative through an accelerator, hub, or other entity.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Catalyst grew out of a series of conversations between a group of friends from across the Americas. Looking back on the drug education we had received as teenagers, we shared a common frustration about the lack of information and space we had been given to understand the wide reaching and destructive effects of drug policy upon our communities and the continent at large. We set about imagining the drug education we wished we had been taught when we were in high school. The result was Catalyst.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

In his 2016 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos urged world leaders to rethink the War on Drugs, calling it perhaps more destructive than all the wars of the world combined. The drug policies of the present have had (and continue to have) devastating effects on peace, planet and prosperity—most notably perhaps in the North and South America. Peace across the continent has been disrupted by the gang violence, corruption, militarization, mass incarceration and overdoses that result from our present day drug policies. Planet has been affect by the environmentally destructive campaigns of aerial fumigation and the ongoing deforestation that our current "cat-and-mouse" strategies of illegal crop eradication entail. Prosperity has been effected in countless ways: from the billions of dollars that are wasted every year on the ineffective strategies of prohibition to the lost economic potential that mass incarceration and drug-related violence cause.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

In many ways we see Catalyst as walking alongside the work of our participants rather than the other way around. Our goal is to create the conditions for our participants to take the lead in launching impactful projects within their schools and to have their voices heard within the drug policy reform movement. There is much excitement about Catalyst within the drug policy reform community and the education community alike. We recently collaborated with the institute for Latin American Studies at Columbia University to adapt our curriculum to New York Public Schools and give teacher trainings to high school teachers in the Tri-state area. We are also growing a relationship with various teachers networks and recently introduced 150 public school teachers to our curriculum in Bogotá. We are also pursuing a research collaboration with the Drug Policy Program at Mexico's CIDE. Such engagement allows us to expand the reach of our curriculum and learn about the needs of students and teachers.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

Our students are incredibly hungry for the kinds of discussions that Catalyst allows them to have. They have an energy, outrage and openness to new ideas that is unique to adolescence. Teachers and principals are also hungry for a productive framework to speak about the difficult topic of drugs with their students. Coming from the frontlines of the War on Drugs, our participants know the failures of our present policies first hand and can articulate alternatives that won't repeat past mistakes.

Geographic Focus

North and South America.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

36 months.

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No

Attachments (1)


User Experience Map for proposed Catalyst Incubator 2019-2021.

1 comment

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Photo of Monica Brasov-Curca

This is very amazing. I hope you all keep growing it.