Today's kids might not know exactly who Martin Luther King Jr., Bayard Rustin or Harry Belafonte are. But for those lucky enough to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech August 28th, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, just being part of the experience sets them up for a lifetime of civic engagement.
It would be an honor to be back in my hometown of Washington, D.C. this week to commemorate the people and events that would inspire my own activism decades later. D.C. is an incredible place to grow up. It's where kids are exposed to the historical events, both good and bad, that have made the country what it is. I was fortunate to soak up so much of it and take those lessons throughout my life.
As a child I was fascinated with the work of legendary civil rights activists thanks to a surprisingly comprehensive education both in and out of school. I was thrilled to be cast as Rosa Parks in a kindergarten production of famous leaders. I admired her strength in refusing to give up her seat on that bus in Montgomery, AL, and I wanted to be as brave as she was.
But I still couldn't imagine a world like the one that I learned about in books and movies about the Civil Rights Movement. I remember shrieking and crying during the scene of a police melee in a biopic of Ruby Bridges, the first student to integrate an all-white Southern elementary school. As a naí¯ve child attending a diverse public school in the nineties, I couldn't fathom how a little girl could incite so much hate. Why are people so angry? I wondered. She just wants to go to school.
That was a particularly upsetting incident that made me want to ask a lot of big questions. Even as an adult I don't know the answers to many of the issues I pondered, but I was happy that adults took my concerns into account and encouraged me to speak out about injustices I saw in my own little world. Maybe sticking up for a classmate wasn't on par with being imprisoned for protesting, but as Dr. King would have said, "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
I've now been to a number of protests, rallies and town hall meetings where I've felt like my presence has made a point. From a child attending the Million Mom March with my mother to being a college student engaging in thoughtful debate, I'm grateful for even the unpleasant experiences that have spurred me to stand up for the issues I care about.
Some parents might understandably be wary of exposing their children to such big, uncomfortable issues like discrimination, but those questions we wish we could shield our children from are inevitable. And sadly, our children are likely to confront these issues in real life. If there's a cause you care deeply about, sharing it with your child can open the doors to future social activism. Even a single event can make a huge impact.
Image: kid hands and the earth globe via Shutterstock by robertlamphoto