One lasting lesson of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday is that great injustice is usually defeated by very average human beings who act in unexpectedly bold ways. In 1955, a 42 year old seamstress with a high school diploma named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, and the world was never the same. In 1962, a 44 year old lawyer and political organizer named Nelson Mandela stood in a courtroom and offered to die for freedom, and the world was never the same. And King himself was only a pastor and preacher but when he joined the protests and led the prayers that shocked the conscience of the nation, he became a prophet. And again, the world was forever changed.
No one appointed King or Parks or Mandela to authority. Each of these icons of social change drew on a strength that few could have predicted they had. They each decided that it was better to risk their lives in pursuit of a more just future than to protect their lives to live the inequality of the present day. That’s a lesson still worth teaching today. And we need look no further than our own communities to find the unfinished work of justice awaiting brave leaders.
In almost every school and neighborhood, age-old discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities remains. Just last month, I watched this ABC News special report on discrimination against people with Down syndrome in one American grocery store In a staged experiment, actors insulted Josh Eber, a grocery store employee with Down syndrome, as unknowing customers looked on. One person after another looks the other way as Josh is mocked and humiliated. The quiet stares of onlookers too afraid to be brave in Josh’s defense while he gets ridiculed are heartbreaking.
But it was equally powerful to watch the customers who found their inner bravery and spoke up. One striking response in the checkout line from an infuriated woman more than twice the age of the teenage actor insulting Josh was to “shove your stuff up your a— and get out!“ Asked later if she was afraid that she might get into a physical altercation with the offending actor, she replied, “When it has to do with injustice, I really don’t care. If I got punched out, I got punched out.” Later, a special education teacher makes us all proud when she confronts the offender with a mini lecture: “everybody deserves an education and everybody deserves a job and everybody deserves a chance in this life and you should be ashamed of yourself!”
We can do far more than admire these brave citizens. We can and should teach our children to imitate them. Bravery is part selflessness and part grit; part inner strength and part outer determination. All of these can be taught in effective social and emotional learning (SEL) programs where self-awareness and positive social values come together to bring learning alive.
When effectively implemented, not only do SEL programs improve relationships in schools but they also improve academic achievement and test scores. Engaged students are better students.
The SEL curricula I envision someday will be about bravery. It will include a unit on the bravery of a courageous Special Olympics athlete, the late Daniel Thompson. Years ago, Daniel wrote to me about an incident he experienced in West Virginia. He and a friend who was blind went to a small diner to get a hot dog. The manager tried to turn them both away because of his friend’s guide dog. Daniel didn’t miss a beat when told to leave: “I talked up loud,” he wrote, “and said this dog is named Muffin and is a working guide dog and is a loud under the 1988 ADA and if you say it’s not aloud, I’ll go to the fed court house and tell them…” Daniel’s spelling was perfect in my view. He was right to say he was “a loud.” He was brave to say it without fear or intimidation.
Around the world, there are thousands of young leaders in Special Olympics Project Unify who are already confronting intolerance in their schools, the scourge of our time. In classrooms and hallways and assemblies and gymnasiums, they’re learning to be “loud” and brave and strong in raising their voices against name calling and intolerance. They’re learning that the will to make a difference is not given by social status or economic power but is instead a power drawn from within, sharpened by self-awareness, energized by empathy and moral courage. It’s great moments often arise unexpectedly when bravery confronts bullying. Its’ victories always change lives. It can be learned and it can be taught.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, take a moment and talk to your children about bravery. Ask teachers to do the same. Remind them that they need not wait a single day to change the world—that the power to make a difference is as close as the school cafeteria, the bus stop, the playground.
You will do more than share a sound moral lesson. You will also help them learn how to create their own futures, how to be engaged not passive, how to be change makers not change victims.
The world needs them now as much as ever.