“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
It has been 50 years since Robert Kennedy uttered those words at Cape Town University in South Africa, courageously speaking out against apartheid from within its very heart. Half a century has not dulled their power, nor the importance of their message. In the face of mighty challenges, the actions of one individual may seem inconsequential. Yet one action, no matter how small, begets another, and another, until they all merge into a unified force that changes the world.
Yet, for all that his words inspired, it was not Robert Kennedy who ended apartheid. It was not politicians or governments. It was the youth of South Africa, who stood up and protested, even at the risk of their own lives. It was the youth of the world, who raised global awareness and pressured their leaders into imposing sanctions on that racist regime.
Youth have always been the catalysts of change. Speaking at WE Days, stadium-sized youth empowerment events held across America, I look out across those tens of thousands of young people and I see in them the same fire and spirit that brought down apartheid.
There’s an old Hebrew proverb: “He that hath offspring giveth up hostages to the future.” Youth own the future, not us. Sadly, our older generations have left them some pretty big messes like climate change. Much of the burden of cleaning up our mess will fall on them.
Our job now is to help the next generation learn from our mistakes, to support them, to encourage them to keep doing what they’re doing. That’s why I speak at WE Days: to offer my experience to aid the next generation on the road that lies before them.
I want them to know that:
Standing up for what you believe in will come at a cost. You will have to sacrifice, but it will be worth it. There is an Irish parable about a man who arrives at the gates of heaven. Saint Peter says to him, ‘Of course you may come in. Just show us your scars.’ The man says, ‘But I have no scars.’ To which Saint Peter replies ‘What a pity. Was there nothing worth fighting for?’
Be joyous, and don’t take yourself too seriously. So much of our debate today involves screaming and yelling. I remember participating in a protest against nuclear weapons testing at a military base in 1987. I watched a line of women do the hokey pokey, dancing up to the very edge of the base property line, wiggling their feet over it while singing, “Put your left foot in!” That was such a lesson for me. Protest with lightness, not anger, in your heart.
You are not alone. Find comfort in community and know that you can make a deeper impact when you join a collective of others who also want to make change. Use the incredible opportunities presented by new technology to connect with others. See that there are thousands upon thousands of other young people who believe in a better world and are willing to stand up for it, just like you.
Finally, realize that change doesn’t always come in big steps. Don’t focus on changing the world; focus instead on making small changes that matter to you. Get involved. Make a commitment. Serve, and suddenly you will find the world has changed. As Robert Kennedy prophesied all those years ago, your tiny ripple of hope will have joined with all the others to become an unstoppable current.
Martin Sheen is an ambassador for WE Day and has spoken at more than 15 WE Day events since 2010. He will make an appearance on the WE Day broadcast special, a commercial-free television program airing August 28, 7 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. CT on ABC.