History teaches us that where the empathic instinct is cultivated and unleashed, progress follows.

Virtually every great movement forward, every great advance was driven by people who reached out to help others, who embraced an ideal of expanding the circle of compassion and justice a bit further.

As evidence of their success, consider this: today, more than half of the countries of the world are considered democratic. (According to the Nobel Peace Prize website, all countries in the world represent themselves as democracies with just four exceptions: Vatican City, Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Burma. Despite the obvious incongruity here, what is interesting is that so many countries want to be perceived as democratic. Just a few hundred years ago, democracy was considered a bold, and even foolish, experiment. Now it can be considered a norm.)

It has become a widely accepted precept that men and women can govern themselves and that every individual – across gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or disability – has value and dignity and rights.

We have a very, very long way to go before everyone’s rights are fully realized around the globe. However, this expansion of our consciousness and this recognition of human rights are most certainly, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an arc towards justice. Whatever justice we have achieved has been through the inspiration, commitment and actions of individuals working together.

I believe that if there is one singular force in American history that explains our nation’s greatness, it is the unyielding force of individuals driven by the belief that we can – and should – live up to our founding ideals.

The enduring heroes of our nation have been the citizens who called upon others to align our reality with our ideals. The abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, environmental movement and the civil rights movement have all been powered by ordinary people who banded together to create change – Frederick Douglas, Clara Barton, Dr. King and Dorothy Day. They, even more than our capitalist icons, are the enduring heroes of our country – the ones who created turning points in our history.

Our work is a part of that historical march, and today, we’re reminded that despite a culture dominated by materialism and celebrity, ours is the vital work of our time. We create the opportunity to participate in something larger than ourselves, to be a part of the historical arc of justice. What will your role be?

This blog was adapted from a speech Michelle Nunn gave entitled “Putting People at the Center of Change.”

Michelle Nunn
President and CEO of CARE USA

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