We Don’t Need Another Multicultural Hero. Or Do We?

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With Martin Luther King Day just around the corner in the U.S., I’ve been thinking a lot about heroes, raising global kids and cultural literacy.
As an anthropologist, the topic of cultural icons—who they are and how and why they are honored—has always fascinated me. But it was only when I married a Turkish man and had kids that I really started paying attention.
That’s because I realized that, although I could talk a blue streak about famous American civil rights activists—people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and César Chávez—I didn’t have much of a clue about comparable figures from outside the U.S., let alone from Turkey.
Growing up in the U.S., I know my kids will learn plenty about U.S. national icons, at least those who have been acknowledged by mainstream U.S. culture and enshrined in the national psyche.
And I know my husband and our Turkish relatives will get my sons up to speed on Turkish culture.
But what about visionaries from other cultures and countries?
Beyond learning about notable people in U.S. and Turkish history, I think it’s important that my children learn about other people around the world, and throughout history, who have championed human rights, tolerance and equality.
So, for the past several years, since my kids were born, I’ve been slowly putting together a list of the cultural icons who matter most to me. Not surprisingly, humanitarians, peacemakers and social activists top my list. People like the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchú and Albert Schweitzer. Each one, with the notable exception of Gandhi, is a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Last year, I added the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and the Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, to my family’s list of world changers. These three women were jointly awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”
I try to make a conscious effort to teach my children about the world’s unsung heroes, too. People like Richard and Mildred Loving, the interracial couple at the heart of the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, and the subject of a new documentary. Or the musicians and performers behind Music in Common, an international non-profit whose mission is to strengthen, empower and educate communities through the universal language of music.

Would you like to create your own pantheon of cultural heroes? Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Brainstorm your “top ten” list of important people from your own culture. Take a few minutes to travel down memory lane. Think back to your elementary and high school days. Who were the heroes, leaders and famous people you learned about? What cultural values do they embody? Are these values that you still embrace? Or have you outgrown them and need new sources of inspiration?
2. Ask your partner about important people in his/her culture. Focus not just on the “who”, but also the “why”. What did the person contribute to the country? What cultural values does s/he represent? Are these values important to you and your partner? Does your partner admire the person? Do you both think your children should learn about this person and his/her achievements?
3. Take note of the Nobel. Visit the Nobel Peace Prize website where you can learn about current and past winners and their achievements.
4. Acknowledge modern-day heroes at home and abroad. While it’s good for kids to know about cultural icons from the past, they also need to know about real-life visionaries today. Check your local paper for news items about local non-profits and people making a positive impact in your community. Or visit websites like Insight on Conflict where you can read profiles of 600 peace-building organizations around the world.

What about you? What’s your definition of a cultural hero? Who’s on your list of cultural icons? What ideas do you have for teaching your children about these influential people?

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