Ferial Pearson is an instructor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the College of Education and a former teacher in the Omaha Public Schools. She is the founder of The Secret Kindness Agents project.
Ferial was a teacher at Ralston High School in Nebraska in 2012 when the news came from Newtown, Connecticut: a mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-six dead, including 20 children. As reported in a profile by the Omaha World Herald, Ferial’s thoughts went straight to her own kids, at the time ages 6 and 9. She felt a deep and personal terror. She wanted to shield her kids from danger. But then a conversation with her kids about Sandy Hook took an unexpected turn. Her son spoke about the frustration and anger of being bullied. Her daughter wondered what might have happened if there was just a little more kindness in the world, and if some of that kindness had reached the shooter before he ever picked up a gun.
Naive as it seemed, the thought led Ferial to consider the power in random acts of kindness. She wondered if a simple act of kindness could change a life. She thought of the school where she taught and the students she guided every day and wondered, what would happen if we started secretly carrying out small acts of kindness in school? Could a modest act of compassion really change the course of a life? She posed the question to her students. They didn’t have the answers but they were willing to find out and ran with the idea. They became, under Pearson’s leadership, the Secret Kindness Agents. They adopted secret agent names. Each accepted a mission to do some good within the school. They smiled at passers-by. They wrote impromptu notes of appreciation. They invited isolated students to sit with them for lunch. The only rules set by Ferial were that the acts of kindness could not cost any money, and they had to take place within the confines of the school.
The kindness became addictive. The students wanted to do more. As Ferial recounted in a powerful TEDx talk, “We became a family, we became braver, we became more loving. We fed our good wolves. The [students] couldn’t wait to come to school. They couldn’t wait to make somebody’s day just by smiling at them. And now, when someone reaches into their pocket or their backpack, I find myself waiting for something different to come out. And I no longer feel afraid to let my children out into the world. They too have become secret kindness agents.”
The idea itself spread, too. In 2014, Ferial wrote Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World, a sort of how-to book on creating a Secret Kindness chapter. Pearson estimates there are students at over 30 schools across the country, from elementary all the way up to universities, performing random acts of kindness. Some of them are rogue, anonymous operations. Others are organized movements by clubs and student groups.
Since she started the Secret Kindness Agents, Ferial has been exposed to all kinds of generosity. She’s seen how kindness can catch on. But she’s also seen her share of hate. She has been harassed as a Muslim, and she has found in the stories of other harassed Muslims new reasons to be scared. Once again, she thinks of her children and the world they’ll grow up to face. Her response is the same: “It just gives me renewed enthusiasm for the project,” she has said.
Ferial has won numerous national and local awards for her work in schools and social justice in the community. Nominated by a former student in moving submission, she is a 2016 recipient of the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Center Inspirational Teacher Award, which recognizes some of the country's most influential and inspirational teachers. In 2010, she received the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network’s Educator of the Year Respect Award. A year later she was the recipient of RESPECT’s Anti-Bullying Award. In 2015, she was named one of “Ten Outstanding Young Omahans” by the Omaha Jaycees.
Ferial was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and was the first in her immediate family to attend college, earning her bachelor’s degree in communication arts literature teaching from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. She earned her Master's degree in Urban Instruction from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She currently works as an Instructor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the Teacher Education Department, and is working on her doctorate in Educational Leadership. She lives in Ralston, Nebraska with her husband Daniel, son Ilahi, and daughter Iman.
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