Last year a very courageous woman died. By definition, background and education, she would never have been picked for having the profile of an American hero. However, this very ordinary woman had the courage to say no - a no that changed the landscape of American life forever. Her simple "no" ignited a human rights revolution that was long overdue.
Rosa Parks, for more than fifty years, has been a symbol of equality and justice for all. As significant as she is to our American history and the Civil Rights Movement, it is sad that so many Americans did not know who she was prior to her death.
Since her death, there has been a revival of interest in her life and what she did to change America's way of life.
Much has changed since that day when Rosa refused to give up her seat for a white man. Laws have been written and promulgated to protect the human rights of every American citizen, no matter what his or her color, gender or sexual orientation.
Clearly, there are greater opportunities for people from all backgrounds. Unfortunately, prejudice continues to subtly infect people's thinking and acting.
We continue to label people by color and ethnicity. Shortly after 9-11, there was a wide range of inappropriate incidents involving people who looked Middle Eastern. Some were harassed and bullied; some of their homes were even vandalized.
In recent times, with the growing concerns around the undocumented, an increasing number of people with Hispanic backgrounds have been harassed and provoked.
In some communities, we have seen a resurgence in cross burnings and anti-Semitic vandalism.
These behaviors are reprehensible and socially, totally unacceptable. However, there is another subtle form of prejudice that is equally as infectious and destructive.
So often, we don't realize how we fuel the various forms of prejudice by the comments we make, the humor we engage in or the behavior we support either overtly or covertly.
Most of us grew up with the dictum "don't judge a book by its' cover." How often do we judge by externals? How a person dresses, the length or style of one's hair, if he or she has body piercings or tattoos.
Some make moral and social judgments based on where someone lives, if their family is intact or if Mom and Dad have college degrees.
Many times, if someone was in prison or has been to a rehab, that is where the conversation begins and ends. There is no inquiry as to why and how come. We label people, and even worse, we judge them, often kick them to the curb and forbid our children to even be kind or respectful.
Probably, the most destructive thing we do as adults is make snap judgments, having absolute power and authority like we are experts on human behavior and life.
We immediately assume that a twenty-five year old heroin addict must be a marginal human being from a broken and dysfunctional family.
What about the sixteen year old who cannot live at home and lives in a community residence or group home? He or she must be an out of control teenager.
As adults, do we ever stop and think that maybe the teenager in question is not the problem. Maybe he or she was born into a family that was dysfunctional and maybe even lethal. The healthiest decision that the teenager made was to leave that destructive environment.
Now that teenager is living in a setting that is life giving. It is structured, maybe even strict, but this wounded teenager is learning to spread his or her wings. That young person is healing and growing.
The greatest challenge this young person faces is living in an environment with peers that seem normal, but don't always re-enforce the positive values that he or she is being raised with.
TJ is seventeen and comes from a wonderful family. He is an average student and an excellent athlete. He is very popular with his classmates.
Unbeknownst to his peers, TJ is very self-conscious. He recently expressed to a friend that he feels very inadequate. He runs with a crowd that is very socially aggressive. Experientially, they are very advanced for their age. Comparatively speaking, TJ felt like a novice. He did not feel equal with his peers at all. Instead of talking about this, he just shut down. He turned inwardly and emotionally beat himself up beyond belief.
The social pressure became so unbearable that he attempted to kill himself. As word went out, the support for TJ was extraordinary. So many people kept saying they could not believe it. They said, "He did not seem the type."
What is the type? Do you catch wounded self-esteem like a contagious disease? Must you be born into a dysfunctional home to be damaged in this way? What is the deal here?
TJ is representative of a growing number of high school students who are struggling with a fragile self-esteem. They come from every type of family, with every type of problem. They are rich. They are poor.
What they have in common is that they are fragile. They wear the plastic smile, say all the right things, do all the right things, but are like little time bombs ready to go off. Life is overwhelming and they have no outlet.
TJ is struggling to recover. He just wants to be normal, whatever that is! He does not want to live life in the fast lane. He resents the social expectation that he should be this socially aggressive teenager in order to be cool. All he wants is to be TJ, to be loved for who he really is, not for what others would like him to be.
DJ was born into a family of privilege. He is very close to both of his parents. He is the middle child who walks to the beat of a different drummer.
That walk got him into serious trouble last year. He became a coke addict. Most people did not know. He could hide it pretty well and was able to function.
Finally, he had a misstep and overdosed. He was one of the lucky ones, he did not die.
He went into rehab twice. The first time he just went through the motions. By his own admission, he got nothing out of it. After spending eighty thousand dollars, he relapsed within thirty-six hours of being discharged.
Round two shook him up. One of his buddies from rehab had relapsed, overdosed and died. He was fourteen.
Most people did not want to believe that DJ had a serious addiction problem. He did not fit the profile. There is no profile to fit. Addiction has no prejudices, it infects everyone without bias.
DJ struggles every day with recovery. He takes one day at a time. What disturbs him more than his addiction is the on-going prejudice he sees from the larger community. They judge, condemn and dismiss broken people who are trying to become whole and transform their lives!