Social footprints: What does it take to change the world?

We hear a lot these days about carbon footprints (your ecological impact on the environment) and digital foot prints (your virtual trail on the internet).  What about your social footprint?  How will the brotherhood of mankind be different from your having been here? How will you change the world? 

You can, you know, and you don’t have to be rich or powerful to do it.  Ordinary people sometimes do extraordinary things.  They change the world.  They help usher in the Kingdom every day.

And some of them are college students.

Recently I attended the American Library Association conference in New Orleans and was privileged to hear film maker Stanley Nelson speak about his new documentary Freedom RidersThe film is the story of six months in 1961 when more than 400 black and white Americans traveled together on buses and trains in the Deep South, deliberating breaking Jim Crow laws and, through nonviolent protest, ultimately forcing the federal government to formally end segregation in American buses and train stations.

Mr. Nelson introduced the film to us through the story of Diane Nash, the daughter of a middle-class Catholic family in Chicago.  In 1959 she became a transfer student at Fisk University in Nashville.  After witnessing the extent of segregation in Tennessee, she helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960.  When the Freedom Rider members were met with beatings, imprisonments, and deaths, she urged her group to continue:

“It was clear to me that if we allowed the Freedom Ride to stop at that point, just after so much violence had been inflicted, the message would have been sent that all you have to do to stop a nonviolent campaign is inflict massive violence.”

John Seigenthaler, assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, was interviewed in the film.  He recalled being directed to contact Diane and advise her to call off the Freedom Ride to Alabama.  He remembers that, while his own voice grew louder and more agitated, Diane Nash remained steadfast and calm: “She in a very quiet but strong way gave me a lecture.”

What she told him was that the Riders had all signed their last wills and testaments the previous night.  They would not abandon their plan, even in the face of certain violence and possible death.

As I listened to the story of this remarkable young woman and her fellow Riders I thought about how our society tends to underestimate college students.  Think for a moment about the stereotypical ways that college students and young adults are portrayed in the media!  Contrast that with the young men and women you know: those who are serving in the military, those who are committed to social justice here and abroad, and those who, like many of the rest of us, are bravely facing a very different world than any of us were counting on just a few short years ago.  There is a tremendous hunger for social justice among our young adult population and a tremendous resource for positive action.

Margaret Mead reminds us: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” 

Let us commit to being the Church on our college campuses, bringing “thoughtful, committed” students together, empowering them to work for change in the world and helping to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. 


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