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Opinion

The Power of a Single Word

Eva Harder

Just turn on the news. Check Facebook. Or scroll through Twitter. Chances are, you’ll see a headline that has you worried about the future of the country—and if you work with or for young people, worried for their future too.

From hurricanes and wild fires to the potential repeal of DACA, the last few months alone have delivered devastating blows to the physical, mental, and emotional safety of children and youth. When America’s Promise began its #Recommit2Kids campaign in early 2017—an effort to re-energize the country’s focus on young people—there was no way to predict just how urgent the call would remain nearly a year later.

But here’s what we figured was a pretty safe bet: if we looked for it, we would find people who, in the face of relentless challenge, committed themselves to relentless optimism. We see it all the time in the work of our Alliance partners, and this campaign only broadened our exposure to those who are doing the most good, making the most progress, but rarely getting the most attention.

As 2017 comes to a close, we’ve gathered a handful of the stories that capture the kind of tough but important work that people across the country do with and for young people every day. If you’re tired of bleak headlines filling your newsfeed and want examples of how to enact positive change in ways both big and small, check out a few of our favorites from the last year. 

Alejandro Gac-Artigas: Harnessing Education's Greatest Natural Resource

Before Alejandro Gac-Artigas’ was born, his father was a playwright living in Chile, who became a political prisoner after writing a piece criticizing Pinochet’s regime. He spent years living as an exile in Paris, where he met his wife. Instead of pursuing their artistic dreams of writing and acting, they decided to move to the U.S. to build a better life for their kids.

“It’s the kind of sacrifice that only a parent would make,” Gac-Artigas writes. He saw the power of a parent’s love as a child, and now in his late twenties, he’s devoted his own career to empowering parents to be advocates and participants in their children’s education—because he believes parents are education’s greatest and most underutilized natural resource. Learn more about Alejandro's work to empower parents.

Tiffany Wu: Challenging the Limits Placed on Students with Disabilities

As someone who has lived with a disability since she was 9 years old, Tiffany Yu believes that the assumptions that other people have of students with disabilities can be more limiting than the injury or physical condition itself.

“When I think about what the real issue is in the disability space, I think it’s rooted in assumptions— assumptions that kids with disabilities can’t achieve and can’t dream,” she said at our Recommit to Kids Summit in New York. “And because of that, we’re not even given the chance to succeed.”

Wu now works on rebranding what it means to have a disability through her nonprofit, Diversability. Watch her full talk.

Rasheed Newson: Living Out the Message He Sends to Young People

Screenwriter Rasheed Newson was a youth representative at the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future in 1997, and though he felt bold enough to speak to hundreds of political leaders and demand the voting age be lowered to 16, he didn’t feel brave enough to come out as gay.

Today, he’s happily married, and he and his husband have a daughter. For young people who may feel powerless in a hostile political climate, he has a message for them: “You might change laws, but the most politically radical things you do may come from how you live your life.” Read the rest of Rasheed’s story.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris: Exposing the Effects of Trauma on Child Brain Development

If you’ve seen Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk on the way childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime, then you know she’s a groundbreaking pediatrician and passionate speaker. When she spoke on a panel at our Recommit to Kids summit, she focused on the ways trauma and toxic stress manifests itself in the classroom—and the injustice of suspending or expelling kids instead of giving them the care they need.

“Every teacher in America as part of regular teacher training should be able to recognize the symptoms of toxic stress,” she said. “Every pediatrician in America should be screening for adverse childhood experiences.” Learn more about her recommendations for fighting toxic stress.

Caring Adults Everywhere: Sending #Letters2Kids

In the face of the very tangible struggles that young people face, what can a single letter—or in this case, a tweet—possibly accomplish? More than you might think.

In a book examining how words change our brains, a neuroscientist and therapist found that, “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

The authors found that positive words like “hope” and“love” can promote cognitive functioning, propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, and build resiliency. That’s a lot of power in a single word.

While the goal of #Letters2Kids was to offer words of encouragement to young people, we were surprised by the impact it had on the people sending these notes—adults who care deeply about the young people in their own lives, finding hope and new energy in the messages they themselves sent.

With another year behind us, all of these stories serve as reminders that the act of committing and recommitting to the future of young people—and the future of the country—can be as big as devoting your career, as subtle as living your life by example, and as simple as harnessing the power of a single word.

This story is part of the #Recommit2Kids campaign, marking the 20th anniversary of America’s Promise Alliance and calling the nation to recommit to action on behalf of children and youth.