Here are some of our favorite social justice leaders, past and present, from the international community.
As we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., educators are among the first to understand the importance of helping students make sense of history as they move forward to shape our future.
World language teachers in particular also know that it’s important to remember how small our global community is. Learning about civil rights leaders from France to Pakistan can impact students’ knowledge of themselves and their place in the world, and this can encourage them to spark change. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
So, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as well as year-round, consider opening your students’ eyes to the contributions of these seven past and present activists from around the world, who have worked hard to make our world a fairer, more just, and more peaceful place.
If you’re an elementary school teacher, imagine one of your students standing up to advocate for a policy change on the national stage. Sophie Cruz did just that.
One of the youngest activists in the world, Sophie worried that her parents, who were undocumented immigrants, would be deported. In 2015, when she was just five years old, she broke through security to hand the pope a letter urging him to support the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program, which would keep families together despite immigration status.
The following year, Sophie was invited to speak at the Washington Women’s March, and, soon after, she took her message of migrants' rights to the White House and to Supreme Court hearings. Although currently only a seventh grader, Sophie has become one of the driving forces behind DAPA and continues to ask lawmakers to protect undocumented parents and families.
Your students might already refer to education activist Malala Yousafezai on a first name basis! Malala gave her first public protest speech at age 11, and, throughout her teenage years, this Pakistani activist spoke out publicly against a ban on the education of girls that was imposed by the Taliban.
She gained global attention when she survived an assassination attempt when she was only 15. In 2014, Yousafzai was one of two recipients of the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of her efforts on behalf of children’s and women’s rights. To this day, she continues to advocate for every person’s right to a quality education.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs was a nineteenth-century German lawyer, author, and gay rights activist. Ulrichs was the first person on record to demand not just the decriminalization of homosexuality but also complete legal equality. He came out publicly in 1867, something that was unheard of at the time, and devoted his life to advocating for the humanity and rights of gay people.
At the center of Ulrichs’ argument for equality was that, because of the natural, innate quality of sexuality, it was pointless and unjust to punish it. He compared the persecution of queer folks to that of witches in earlier centuries, and was confident that evolving social attitudes would ultimately lead to justice for his future peers.
Talking about Ulrichs’ life with your students would be a great way to highlight how social attitudes about homosexuality have changed over time in many parts of the world.
Josephine Baker was an American-born French dancer, singer, and civil rights activist. Baker began touring with a dance troupe from Philadelphia when she was 16 and worked her way up to dancing on Broadway and then in Paris, where she became hugely popular. She became a French citizen in 1937, performed continuously, and made several films before World War II derailed her career.
During the German occupation of France, Baker worked with the Red Cross and the Résistance. As a member of the Free French forces, she entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East. She also traveled to the United States to participate in civil rights demonstrations, and, while there, refused to perform for segregated audiences. On November 30, 2021, Baker became the first black woman to be honored in the Panthéon, a secular temple honoring France’s most revered citizens.
Introducing Josephine Baker to your students is a great way to compare civil rights movements in different countries and also to think about the connections between racism, slavery, and colonization.
Javier de Nicoló
Italy and Colombia
Javier de Nicoló was an Italian-born teacher and priest who provided education, as well as lodging and training, to more than 80,000 homeless children and teenagers in Colombia. He established The Children’s Republic, a large boarding school where children could live comfortably, elect their own leaders, and make their own rules. In his 1981 book, Street Children, De Nicoló talks about the importance of treating children with respect and gaining their trust before asking them to trust you.
He received countless distinctions throughout his life, including La Orden De Boyacá (Colombia's highest government honor) as well as the "Order of the Star,” issued by the Italian government. Throughout his life, De Nicoló repeated that the "the best experience in the world is to serve humanity."
Joshua Wong is a civil rights activist from Hong Kong who was the same age as your high school students when he became politically active. Wong garnered international attention after playing an important role in the Umbrella Movement, which was part of the 2014 Hong Kong protests advocating for democratic governance, universal suffrage, and more transparent elections.
More than 10,000 protesters—including Wong—have been arrested over Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, many on questionable charges of rioting and unauthorized assembly that have not held up in court. Wong is currently serving jail time for organizing unauthorized demonstrations.
Despite this setback, Wong has remained outspoken during his court cases, saying: “I am persuaded that neither prison bars, nor election bans, nor any other arbitrary powers can stop us.”
Berta Cáceres was an advocate for Indigenous rights, environmental justice, and women’s equality. When she was a teenager, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and helped local communities defend their land from industrial developers.
In 2013, Cáceres led the Indigenous Lenca people in a peaceful blockade to stop construction vehicles from building a dam that would cut off access to the Gualcarque River, which the Lenca people consider sacred and need to sustain their daily lives. The blockade lasted for more than a year and resulted in cancellation of the project.
In March of 2016, Cáceres was assassinated. Investigations have been minimal, but her family continues her work as a tireless human rights activist. You could introduce your students to Cáceres to talk about the intersections between Indigenous rights and environmental justice.
Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Who would you add to this list?
However you choose to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we hope your day off is reflective, relaxing, and restorative.
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Learning about civil rights leaders from France to Pakistan can impact students’ knowledge of themselves and their place in the world, and this can encourage them to spark change.