A challenge to make a a difference

It takes courage to stand up and say something when you see inequality, injustice or others in need. Young people seem be less inhibited to speak their mind and they actually have a lot to teach us, if we’re willing to listen.

Take, for example, sixth grader Eli Suggs. Eli is a typical 12-year-old boy who likes drawing, video games and Legos. He’s a Boy Scout, attends school dances and doesn’t like to read. Doesn’t that sound like lots of boys his age? What isn’t typical is that Eli has autism. Throughout his young life he has struggled to communicate, to interact socially, to make friends and to be seen as “normal”. When he was selected to speak at his sixth grade graduation ceremony, it was a big accomplishment.

He used his speech to issue a challenge to his classmates:

“We are all different. Not less, just different. We all have things we’re good at, things we need to work on and things we need help with. Whenever you see someone else who is different, instead of judging them or being a bully, I challenge you to offer help and treat that person with the kindness you have shown me these last six years. Remember, YOU — all of you — can make a difference in someone’s life. You’ve already made a difference in mine.”

Eli’s example reminds us of the power in each of us to make a difference in the lives around us, no matter how large the issues or how small we may feel.

Throwing One Starfish at a Time

Then there’s the story of the boy standing on the beach throwing one starfish after another back into the ocean. A man approached and asks why he’s doing this and the boy replies if he didn’t, they would die. The man points out there are starfish washed ashore as far as they could see and he can’t possibly make a difference. In response, the boy leans down, picks up another starfish and throws it gently back into the ocean and says “I made a difference for that one.” What a powerful story about making a difference one person (or starfish) at a time.

Changing the World

Here’s an example of another “starfish thrower”. Malala Yousafzai was a young girl, eager to go to school and learn as much as possible about the world around her. Unfortunately, she lived in a country where girls were banned from attending school so she had to go in secret, hiding from the Taliban. Then one day, Taliban gunmen stopped her school van and shot her at close range, in the head and neck. Fortunately, she survived and celebrated her 16th birthday with a passionate speech at the United Nations that emphasized that education is the only way to change lives. Imagine this tiny, soft-spoken girl, wrapped in a white shawl and pink headscarf, standing to speak in front of over 500 youth and leaders from around the world.

“We call upon all communities to be tolerant — to reject prejudice based on cast, creed, sect, religion or gender. To ensure freedom and equality for women so that they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back….

So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world….”

Learning to Speak Up

It’s not always easy or comfortable to stand up for what is right, but Eli and Malala have set an example we can learn from. Here are some tips to help you get started:

1. Be sincere — You have important thoughts and ideas to share and if you don’t speak up, who will? Avoid the temptation to talk just to hear your own voice — make sure you’re coming from a place of truly wanting to make a difference, not for selfish reasons, personal gain or to please others. People can spot insincerity quickly, so be sure you have no hidden agendas and simply share your message clearly and passionately.

2. Choose your words carefully — Words are important and they have the power to hurt, to inflame and to cause destruction as much as they have the power to heal, to inspire and to be constructive. Both Eli and Malala focused on our higher ideals for what is good and right and then chose words intended to build up, not tear down.

3. Look beyond the immediate situation — Malala could have focused only on her personal situation but instead chose to look at the bigger picture. Many people probably told her to be quiet and not to attract attention. They probably warned her of the dangers and told her that her goals were impossible. Yet she looked beyond all of the dangers and dared to dream big. She doesn’t see her dream of education for everyone as too large, too unrealistic or impossible. She sees it as right.

4. Inspire others to action — It’s not enough to point out the problem, you need to take action and ask others to do the same; and do it in a way that helps people believe they can do more than they think they can. Sometimes we need to be reminded we’ve admired the problem long enough and it’s time to DO SOMETHING. You will inspire others by the consistency they see and hear between your actions and words.

Malala and Eli may be young, but they had the courage to speak up and challenge us to make a difference. Sometimes it’s an unexpected voice that allows the rest of us to see the world and ourselves a little more clearly.

Originally published at medium.com