By: Maya Cade-Special to ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning
My first introduction to the concept of paying it forward was watching the 2000 feature film “Pay it Forward” in grade school. The film, starring Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment, centers on a young boy’s plan to “pay it forward” — the act of giving without receiving to create a “branching tree” of kindness that inspires a ripple effect of giving in the community.
Today, I think back on the film fondly because it registers as one of the first times I understood that we stand on the shoulders of giants who paid it forward.
My education — as an underserved learner — is possible because extraordinary people fought for my right to the American Dream before they knew I existed. Today, on Pay it Forward Day, and everyday, it seems fitting to honor some of the many education giants on whose shoulders we all stand.
Little Rock Nine
Despite great opposition, nine students enrolled in Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to become some of the first African-Americans to integrate an American public high school. The Little Rock Nine — Minnijean Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Patillo, Gloria Ray, Terrence Roberts, Jefferson Thomas and Carlotta Walls — provided the pathway that makes racial equity in the classroom possible.
When Patsy Mink, an Asian American, was denied entry to every medical school she applied to because she was a woman, she turned a roadblock into a story of triumph. She decided to earn her law degree and became a lifelong politician with a mission to fight for equality. Mink paid it forward for all genders when she changed gender equity in education with Title IX.
Carter G. Woodson
Often called the “Father of Black History”, Carter G. Woodson understood the importance of elevating African-American history to the masses. Woodson’s celebration of black history by lobbying for schools across the country to celebrate “Black History Week” created the pathway for “Black History Month.” Woodson paid it forward by showing that black history was American history.
In 1990, Jennings founded the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The organization’s aim is to create safe and equitable schools for all regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. In 1994, Jennings published “One Teacher in Ten,” which chronicled the triumphs and challenges of being a LGBT educator. Jennings continues to pay it forward by being an advocate for educators and students in the ever-changing discourse around LGBT issues.
Sylvia Mendez played an instrumental role in 1946’s Mendez v. Westminster segregation case that pre-dated Brown v. Board of Education. The case centered around Mendez’s guardians’ attempt to enroll her in her local grade school. The principal informed her family that only lighter skin students were allowed and that darker skin students would have to go to the “Mexican school” of a lesser quality. The Mendez court case paved the way for integration in California and across the country.
Who are your education heroes that have empowered you to “pay it forward”? Join the conversation with us on Twitter @ACTEquity with the hashtag #PayItForward.