Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Inspired Us to be Courageous Upstanders

February 1 2016


  • William Grace Frost, Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters
    William Grace Frost
    Former Director of Strategic Relations, Community Matters

At 33, Martin Luther King Jr. was working diligently for civil rights alongside Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At 34, he captivated the nation with his "I Have a Dream" speech. At 35, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. While facing numerous threats of harm to he and his family, Dr. King continued to march and speak publicly regardless of how frightened he may have been. When he was assassinated at 39, he left an inspiring legacy of resoluteness and courage that continues today for us as educators, parents and school climate change agents.

Dr. King said that “we must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” Although he spoke those words a long time ago, the need for courage in the face of fear is no less prophetic today than it was in the midst of the American civil rights movement of the 60’s. And indeed, as we tackle the 21st century challenges of our public school system, the need for courage stands at the forefront of required character attributes.

We know that injustice, indifference and incivility take place in our schools every day. We also know that there are four different student “participants” involved in the dynamics -- those who are the aggressors, those who are the targets of the aggression, those who stand by watching and those who stand up and speak up to stop or de-fuse the aggression (aka bullying, cyber-bullying, teasing, hazing, harassment, etc.).

There are three primary elements that a student needs to shift from being a bystander to becoming an upstander:

  1. Courage – According to Wikipedia, courage is “the choice and willingness to confront pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation. Physical courage is bravery in the face of physical pain, while moral courage is the ability to act rightly in the face of popular opposition, discouragement or personal loss.” As was fully evident in Dr. King’s life, standing up for others in the face of intimidation can be a daunting task, a risk that many people are unwilling to take. When a student intervenes with a bully in action, he or she has to summon the fortitude to go against the grain, and perhaps most importantly, hold the belief that his or her actions have the potential of helping another human being from being victimized.
  2. Skillfulness – One of the main things that help a student find the courage to take a stand is possessing the skills that make intervening safe and effective. They also need ample and ongoing opportunities to practice and integrate their skills in non-threatening situations.
  3. Consistent Support – We all want young people to be upstanders, and in order for them to be successful we must provide ongoing support and supervision. Within a school culture, all staff members need to be trained to offer a consistent message of support to do the right thing, to be ‘hall-friendly’ adults and to make relationships their highest priority.

The evidence-based Safe School Ambassadors® Program (SSA) empowers student bystanders to speak up and intervene with their peers in bullying-related incidents. The year-long program engages the socially-influential leaders of a school’s diverse cliques. These “alpha” students participate in a two-day interactive training along with several adults who serve as program mentors. The SSA training gives student Ambassadors the motivation and skills to resolve conflicts, defuse incidents, and support isolated and excluded students. After the training, small “family group” meetings of Ambassadors and adult facilitators are held every few weeks, providing regular and consistent support so that they can confidently and competently help their schools become havens of safety and inclusion.

In the words of Dr. King, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

Learn more about waking up students’ courage to do what is right with the Safe School Ambassadors® program at http://community-matters.org/programs-and-services/safe-school-ambassadors

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