When we empower children, they are powerful.
I have been reflecting on this a lot lately, as I process all of the challenges in our world currently. Each day, I become more and more convinced that our society’s future depends upon our deep investment in and commitment to our children—and empowering them to lead us forward.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Birmingham, Alabama, where many critical moments during the Civil Rights movement took place. I toured the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were killed by a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan, the week after school desegregation began in Birmingham. Though I had heard the story of the church bombing many times, I had never learned that there was a fifth little girl—Sarah Collins Rudolph—who survived the bombing. Sarah is the older sister of Addie Mae Collins, who was killed.
I also got to visit the Birmingham jail, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed after organizing a nonviolent protest to end segregation in Birmingham. Dr. King was criticized by White clergy members in Birmingham for moving too fast, being too extreme. In his well-known “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King responded to the clergymen:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights.
These words from Dr. King have been an important anchor for me over the past twelve years, as we at City Garden have sought to create an institution and a community that disrupts segregation and dismantles oppression. What does it mean for us as a community, to reject the notion of “waiting,” and to create justice now?
One hundred and nineteen years ago, Dr. Maria Montessori, one of the first female physicians in Italy, felt her own pull towards justice. Dr. Montessori worked in psychiatric clinics in Rome, and, at this time, developmentally disabled people were institutionalized in bare rooms. They were not seen as full humans—at meal times, their food was thrown at them, rather than served. Dr. Montessori held radical beliefs about the brilliance and potential of all people, and as she watched the children in these institutions grasp at crumbs of food on the floor, she saw this not as starvation for food, but longing for stimulation. Dr. Montessori began to study human development and sensory stimuli, and she developed hands-on materials that she introduced to these children who were called “defectives.”
In 1901, the institutionalized children that Dr. Montessori had worked with passed state educational tests designed for “normal” children. This confirmed Dr. Montessori’s belief in their intellect and their potential, and left her wondering why on earth “typical” children were not doing better on such tests. She saw vast human potential being lost, due to the way children were treated.
Dr. Montessori thus set out to develop an educational model that was grounded in a belief that, from the earliest stages, a child learns more by action than through thought, and that, if children are empowered to take ownership of their learning and development, they will do more than adults ever thought possible. Dr. Montessori set out to create a model of education that is designed to help human beings reach their full potential. She saw this as the most critical thing we could do to create world peace and a thriving democratic society.
The founding teachers and parents of City Garden have witnessed first-hand the power of this model of education… Watching our children become brilliant, confident, thoughtful young adults, we, too, believe it is the most critical thing we can do to dismantle oppression and to create a better society.
When I was in Birmingham, I had the opportunity to go to the site of another important event that happened during the Civil Rights movement: the Children’s March.
Early in 1963, civil rights leaders in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other civil rights groups developed a plan to desegregate Birmingham, which was notorious for its discriminatory practices. The campaign was struggling to gain traction.
Young people in the city decided to get involved, and on May 2, 1963, thousands of children in Birmingham marched through the city, demanding to talk with the mayor about segregation in their city. Despite arrests and harsh treatment, children continued to participate in the demonstrations over the next few days. On May 5, young people marched to the city jail where many people were still being held, and they stayed there until local officials responded to their demands. Finally, local officials agreed to meet with them. On May 10, an agreement had been reached to begin to desegregate Birmingham.
When we empower children, they are powerful.
The world can feel like a precarious and uncertain place these days. I believe Dr. King and Dr. Montessori felt this precariousness and uncertainty, too. They poured everything they had into empowering the next generation, investing fully in their flourishing, knowing that this is the single most important thing we can do to dismantle oppression and create a better society. Let us follow their bold example, trusting in the possibility and hope that our young people embody.
When we empower our children, they are powerful.