Jan 20, 2020

What MLK and Elementary School Students Can Teach Us About Our Shared Humanity and Building Bridges

Today, the country took pause to honor the life and work of a man who understood that progress is built upon unity, compassion, and recognition of our shared humanity. In a society that showed him much injustice, he posited: “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?’”

What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. think of the America we live in today? Many days, all I see are the deep rifts between us driven by our uncompromising determination to cling to our own belief systems or to the credos of our tribes – still not understanding that we’re all in this together.

On these occasions, I feel saddened, frustrated, and even panicked by the thought that some of humanity’s most unforgivable atrocities are not ancient history, but rather continued possibilities. I feel the urgency that Dr. King spoke to: the pressing need to extend a hand to someone – to build a bridge across humanity – not tomorrow, but today.

Empatico participated in Martin Luther King Jr. Day by building bridges of its own – between classrooms across the country. Empatico invites children and their teachers on a virtual field trip, connecting with another classroom across the country – or the world – to engage in teacher-designed curricula based on shared learning and problem-solving.

Today’s initiative originated with two second and third grade teachers, Michael Dunlea and Melissa Collins. Having connected their classrooms through Empatico previously, they saw a unique opportunity for Melissa’s class of black students based in Memphis, Tennessee, to join together with Michael’s white students in Tabernacle, New Jersey, to honor, celebrate, and learn from Dr. King – as well as from each other.

After viewing clips from some of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most historic speeches, the children shared “I Have a Dream” speeches of their own. “I have a dream for everyone to be kind; to have food and water; to spread peace; to be happy — and that black and white people will become friends,” were a few of the dreams put forth by the tiny visionaries. Inspired by Dr. King’s marches, they took to their respective hallways to lead marches of their own – ones on kindness. Up and down the halls went throngs of second and third graders (dressed up in their Sunday best), inviting students from adjoining classrooms to join them in solidarity for empathy, compassion, and understanding for all.

Watching the experience unfold on tonight’s NBC Nightly News, I felt deeply moved by the exchange between young people so untainted by the insidious myth of “us” and “them.” Melissa reflected: “This experience is life-changing for them. They have an opportunity to engage with someone who looks different than they do. I believe that when they grow up, they will remember moments like this and will know that they need to treat people with dignity and respect.”

Michael recalled how one of his students told him that she and a student from Tennessee had a lot in common, but that one of their differences was color. Assuming that she was referring to skin color, Michael prepared himself for a conversation about race … until his student matter-of-factly explained, “my favorite color is teal and hers is pink.” As adults, we are too often primed to fixate on surface-level differences, instead of putting in the time and effort to get to know a person on a human level.

As a father, I have observed value in adopting the role of “student” – approaching life with an openness to learning or being proven wrong. When it comes to recognizing our shared humanity, our children can be the most humbling teachers. And at a time when segregation in our schools is on the rise, these two classes of second and third graders reminded me once again how urgently Dr. King’s call for kindness, understanding, and unity remains. Because my words can hardly do the day justice, I encourage you to watch this magical exchange on NBC’s Nightly News.

LinkedIn Article Published January 20, 2020

Empathy          Empatico

More from Daniel

2022 High Point University Commencement Address

Today, I want to talk about a light and fluffy subject: your generation’s role in steering humanity in the right direction. No pressure, Dalton. 

But in all seriousness, Dalton, I love what you shared about “leaving everywhere you go better than you found it…and finding ways to give grace and inspiration to the people around you.”  

I want to talk today about HOW to do that as you are all simultaneously challenged and blessed with graduating as our world is re-entering a stage of dramatic consequence. 

The ship of humanity is moving in the wrong direction, and it will be upon all of you to steer it back on track. 

To illustrate this point, I want to compare the circumstances when my father’s generation came of age, to those when my generation and your generation graduated from college. 

My father was fifteen-and-a-half when he was liberated from the Dachau concentration camp by American soldiers. He was barely alive.  He never got to go to school past third grade, let alone college. Several of your grandparents were around your age when they were sent to free Europe from tyranny and darkness. 

By contrast, when I was fifteen years-old, my family immigrated to America from Mexico. I was able to attend college during a period when passionate but cordial debate was the norm. I remember observing political leaders vehemently disagree on a particular topic, while maintaining a friendship rooted in respect. Our world was far from perfect – but the arc of human progress trended in an upward direction. Freedom, open markets, human rights, civility, and the quest for knowledge were all advancing.  

It seemed almost too good to be true.  In fact, it was so good that we began to lose sight that Our Great American Experiment isn’t so much a fixed state of affairs as it is a purposeful daily affirmation – something that we opt into, live out, and vote for not once every four years, but every single day – through how we engage with one another. 

read more