For six years of my life I lived out of a suitcase, travelling to war-torn countries, where a small group of us built an organization called Playing for Peace. The idea was to use sports to get kids from both sides of a conflict meeting each other, finding common ground and eventually becoming friends. I am a huge believer in the concept that the most powerful weapon in the world is an idea whose time has come, and the idea of using sports to promote change couldn’t have been more timely.
I have spent a lot of time on airplanes as a result of this work and inevitably would also spend a considerable amount of time talking to those sitting next to me on each flight. One of my favorite questions to ask people was: “if you could go back in time, which period would you choose to go back to?” The answers I received were always interesting and ranged across the board. Some wanted to go back to the days of the cavemen, some wanted to live as knights in the Medieval Ages, and others wanted to go back to the free flowing 60s.
On one particular long flight from London to Johannesburg I had the opportunity to speak with a teenager who seemed mature past his years. Long into our conversation I ventured to ask him the question. Without any hesitation he looked me in the eye and he responded: “I would go back to Nazi Germany.” I was stunned by his answer and asked him to explain why he would choose that dark period. Without losing eye contact he told me that he felt he would have had a chance to stop Hitler, or at least he might have been able to make a difference in the lives of those who were being persecuted.
This young man’s statement was incredibly powerful and it caused my mind to race for the rest of the flight. I had always wondered what side of a struggle I would have chosen if I had been in a position to choose. Being a white American, if I had been born in Alabama during the civil rights movement, would I have had the courage to stand out against what was happening and join the likes of Martin Luther King Junior or Malcolm X? If I had been born a white South African growing up during Apartheid, would I have had the strength to go against the grain and fight for equality? Would I have had the clarity of mind to stand for the freedom of the blacks in South Africa?
Then I saw myself 20 years from today sitting next to a young adult asking me the same question I had asked during my travels. What would I say to this eager person? Would I tell him Nazi Germany, the American Civil Rights movement, or the Apartheid time in South Africa? That is when I realize that the time is now. I today along with everyone have a responsibility that is pressing. I look around our nation and the opportunities that are present. The state of our education system as it currently stands is criminal. If we can’t fix it quickly then we will lose another entire generation of children, putting us even further behind rapidly growing nations. Global Warming and clean energy are not being taken seriously and continue to be punted to the next generation to deal with. HIV/AIDS claims over two million lives per year. Those are just to name a few. My point is that now is the time to act. Now is the time to become aware and awake, and to stand up for change. Nelson Mandela could have just waited for the next person to do something. Martin Luther King could have hoped that someone else would have started the movement.
We are all in a position to choose that what we say matters because it serves, as we speak. We are always in the thick of the fight, even though we may not know it at the time, and only the great ones have the vision and leadership to see to it and act on it. I believe that great leaders and heroes have been selected as Champions of Change and I look forward to hearing about all of the movements, companies and ideas you have created and are supporting across the country to help make our world a better place.
Thibault Manekin is a co-founder of Seawall Development, which redevelops historic city buildings as office space for non-profits and housing for teachers.