Editor’s Note: This week’s post is by Greg Cantori, a friend from our nonprofit work in Baltimore. He raises a great question about whom we decide are our heroes and why.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”― Fred Rogers
911 responders, feeding and housing those who are homeless, an exhausted nurse during COVID, a Safe Streets worker talking others out of using a gun…. What do these extraordinary people have in common? They are our heroes helping, or pushing through indifference, inaction, panic, or a crisis.
Over the years as a non-profit housing, foundation, and association leader it began to dawn on me that the heroes I admired, or was lucky to associate with, are often the poignant canary in the coalmine of systemic failures.
Heroes make “quick saves” while our society tolerates long-term failures.
The hero’s actions become necessary because our existing systems are either incapable or unwilling to address the root causes of the problem.
Those systems have failed to address fundamental safety or rights issues. We have a system that instead relies on exceptional individuals to make the quick fix. We love those heroic stories. We appear unable or unwilling to delve deeper into WHY the hero was needed in the first place.
Heroes are often extraordinary individuals who rise above adversity and challenge inertia to bring about positive change – pulling a victim from a car or a burning building, and sacrificing their own safety and well-being to fight for the lives or rights of others. I believe all of us have potential heroism deep inside us, ready to jump in under the right circumstances.
We admire incredible heroes such as Harriet Tubman rescuing enslaved people, Martin Luther King Jr. risking his life while leading nonviolent protests.
We also love reading about our local heroes; A ‘disadvantaged’ minority youth overcoming his circumstances and becoming successful. Those heroes’ stories have been used to help us feel good and reaffirm our national mythology that we are an equal-opportunity country where anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough or overcome any injustice. Our heroes become emblems of hope, distracting us from the underlying problems that remain unaddressed, perpetuating a cycle of systemic failure.
I’ve wondered if we love our heroes so much that we are unwilling to create or fix the systems where they are no longer needed. What would a world without a protagonist’s or hero’s journey look like? Would the absence of heroes be a tragedy or a victory for all?
Here is an example of a hero that shone a light on a broken system. Consider Ninia Baehr; -she and Genora Dancel applied to be married in Hawaii in 1990. The clerk of the court had to refuse and so Ninia and Genora sued the State of Hawaii for the right to marry. They asked for help from long-established rights groups. Not only were they rejected, but they were also told their lawsuit was jeopardizing the greater rights movement as the movement hoped to get partnership rights. It felt the country wasn’t ready for full marriage equality. Ninia and Gernora eventually won their suit in 1993 and then Congress reacted by passing the Defense of Marriage Act to prevent any other attempts at same-sex marriages. They both moved to Baltimore to escape the hostility and threats. I was lucky enough to hire this extraordinary person, Ninia, as our first development director for our fast-growing housing nonprofit. I was also lucky to both witness and support their equal rights efforts.
Undeterred, their lives in upheaval, Ninia and Genora continued to press on with appearances on Oprah and testifying locally and nationally for the right to marry.
After an exhausting hero’s journey of nearly 30 years, they won and equal marriage is now an equal right!
As heroes, they challenged our deeply anchored status quo and demonstrated that justice delayed is justice denied. The system was horribly flawed, not Ninia nor Genora.
They remain my friends and my heroes to this day. So when something isn’t working as it should, look for the heroes. They are telling us something needs to change.
I would love to hear about your heroes. What injustice or systemic failures
are they highlighting? What might they be telling you? Tell us!