We can be heroes: not just for one day

Last year, we were lucky to hear New York City’s first female fire fighter, later captain; and now artist, 9/11 museum tour guide and humanitarian, Brenda Berkman, speak at our kids’ school. We wrote about the event at the time; but wanted to update our piece as the discussion about heroes, especially women, is again topical in the Trump era. Much of the riviting testimony during recent impeachment hearings has come from women. And they have given up a lot to stand tall.

Brenda talked about how the media covers women as heroes. And this led to a moment where a student said that he understood the role of first responders during 9/11 and local hurricanes but didn’t know that women were amongst those that saved lives. And that’s part of the rub – there is a certain amount of bias against the ideas of women as heroes.

First nyc fire captain brenda berkman speaking at a school
Brenda Berkman gives children a history of women in the NYC fire department.

Being a hero often means going against institutions and norms. It can mean fighting an unpopular battle; and even putting your personal safety at risk. In Brenda’s case, she was forced to sue the New York Fire Department (twice) over inequality. To say it was a hard fought battle is an understatment. The PBS documentary ‘Taking the Heat’ shows her strength. See Part 1 below (and within the link there is access to parts 2 & 3):

Taking the Heat

Brenda Berkman in ‘Taking the Heat’

Combined with the seemingly endless news cycle focused on lies, hate, greed and moral vapidity, we thought about how important it is to show our children where to find the stories of heroism, optimism and strength. So here are a few ideas about how to make sure our kids don’t lose sight of what’s right in the world:

Encourage a wider view of the news

As a longtime veteran of the New York fire department, Brenda Berkman expected to see stories of heroic women in 9/11 coverage. But instead she realized that most of the coverage of women were as widows, nurses and volunteers. The omission of female first-responders; and the utility and construction workers at Ground Zero in the later years has been something Berkman has sought to correct. So, when we see news of an emergency or world event, help your child see past just the perfunctory news clips to the larger story of sacrifice that is likely more diverse than we think. And the absence of women is more common than you think.

Read biographies

The number of biographic tomes for kids has been growing of late. From the ‘Who Is, What Was and Where Was’ series to great books like ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’. Work as hard as you can to ensure your girls and boys read about people past and present who are extraordinary. It sounds obvious but is often overlooked.

In every generation there have been men and women working together to lead and overcome strife. We need to give both boys and girls a wider range of extraordinary – gender and racially equal – stories to learn from.

Find everyday heroes

Engage your children in conversations about everyday cool people. We’ve engaged our children in talk about our elementary school teacher who was an accomplished pastry chef and our neighbor who emigrated from a war-torn nation. Try to show your children that there are people with amazing stories of inspiration everywhere. When we were younger these stories came in the form of local media stories, People magazine profiles and even Oprah Winfrey show topics. Today it seems harder to find hero tales but we know they are all around us.

But there is also a great opportunity to pull from the news these days something good and teachable. The women who have been lauded as heroes during the impeachment hearings have all worked in foreign service roles. The rich heritage of women in foreign service is a great opportunity to connect current events with history.

Go on a hero hunt

There is a game you can play that goes something like ‘has anyone done x’ and then you go and find out. Encourage kids to think big. For instance, ask: ‘has someone discovered x’ to ‘do you know anyone that has travelled to y or invented z’. It’s a great way to stretch a child’s imagination beyond what is possible.

The key ultimately is not to let our diillusionment cloud the possibility that exists within the imagination and belief of our little heroes of tomorrow.