Ameeta: Our guest today here is Ferial Pearson. As you probably know reading through her bio, Ferial is a teacher. She's a leader and a kindness innovator. At her own high school, she recently started a secret movement using the power of random acts of kindness. This project now has spread to many schools around the country from elementary schools to universities, and she's won many local and national awards for her work including being a recipient of the 2016 Kennedy Center / Stephen Sondheim Center Inspirational Teacher Award. She is now getting her doctorate in Educational Leadership from the University of Nebraska in Omaha, and she is writing her dissertation currently on the Secret Kindness Agent Project. Ferial, you know I've described just a very little bit about the inspiration for your project. Can you tell us in your own words about how your story and your journey started?
Ferial: Sure. Thank you for having me, first of all. I was very struck by the tragedy of Sandy Hook because my daughter at the time was 6 years old, the same age as the children who were murdered in that school. We had a small connection because one of the little girls who was murdered, Avielle Richman is the daughter of Jennifer Hensel who knows my mentor and my department chair. I knew a little bit about Avielle, and I learned more later that she was almost exactly like my daughter. The way she looks with her curly brown hair, and her personality, and love of animals, and people, and friendship, and kindness. That hit me really hard because I'd never really been terrified for my children's safety before. I myself had been in situations where I was worried about my own safety, but sadly, I've grown numb to that. But I've never had that feeling about my own children.
When I was talking to my kids about it, they noticed that I was really shook up. Then I was upset, and they wanted to know why somebody would murder children. Of course, I didn't have an answer. I'm sure nobody else really does. My teacher instinct always is to turn the question back on whoever asked me good questions. I just said to my kids, "Why do you think somebody would do something like that?" At that time my son was 9, and he's always been a really sensitive young man. He's given me permission to say he's nerdy. He's just really, really nerdy. He gets picked on a lot and he has a different names. His name is Ilahi which is not a common name in Nebraska. People picked on him all the time and he says, "You know when people pick on me, I feel like lashing out, or getting revenge, or hurting somebody to make that bad feeling go away when it comes with being bullied." I was just a little confused because he'd never been in trouble in school. I mean he was in sort of 4th grade by then.
Then, he said, "At the last minute, though, someone's nice to me and it makes the feeling go away enough. Not totally, but enough that I don't feel like being mean to somebody anymore." We talked about that dam that pushes away negativity; that kindness that deforms the bad feeling. That's what he was describing. My daughter was listening to what he said and said, "What if people had been kind to the shooter every day of his life? Maybe he wouldn't have gone to the school and murdered Avi and all her classmates." I needed to sort of grab on to some piece of hope because at this point it was winter break, and I was terrified to send my children back to school. I was terrified to go back to work, and just in a really bad place. I thought, "What if we can just change the community where we are? We can't change the world. We can't stop violence across the world, but maybe we could change our own community."
My children are going to school in the same district as I was teaching at the time. So I went back to my students in spring when spring semester started and just asked them, "What do you think if we do random acts of kindness around school?" At the time, I had this idea that I was self-medicating on Pinterest and I saw this picture of secret agents. I thought, "Oh, this is neat. What if I have this envelope of random acts of kindness?" I told the students, "You can pick one if you want and I'll give you some sort of reward." They were like, "Well, your idea has potential, but we talked about it." They came back and said, "It's okay but it's not quite good enough. We kind of had this philosophy of all of us needed to do it, whenever we did projects." They said, "You're supposed to be in on this with us and it's not going to be a volunteer thing. It's going to be all of us and we don't need rewards because true kindness shouldn't expect a reward or a thank you. It should just be out of the goodness of our heart."
Ameeta: Did you have any challenges in starting the project? Did you feel any hesitation from the school administrators, or the parents, or the students themselves?
Ferial: The parents and the administrators didn't know. We were totally being secretive about this. Nobody in school knows of this, but I did have some hesitations from some students. I had one student from Togo -- she was hesitant because she didn't like to bring attention to herself at the time. She was really shy. Her English wasn't very good, her accent was really strong, and she was afraid of people laughing at her. That was where her hesitation came from. I had another agent who was just a skeptic. She's always been a skeptic, and so she was like, "Well, I don't know about this. You know, not the best idea." Then one of her assignments was to write a letter to the administrators who deal with all the punishment in the school. The one who expels and suspends children. She was supposed to write a letter to this administrator about how important her job was. She wrote the letter, took 5 minutes, and I delivered it for her. The administrator's entire day was changed, maybe even her week.
She wrote a letter back to this agent which I delivered. I became a delivery system. Whatever she said to this agent changed her outlook completely. I think it was because she realized, "You know it only took me 5 minutes. I wasn't really that into it. It helped an adult with the way that she was looking at her life." That was really powerful for that person.
Ameeta: That's really touching. Once the students started this project, I would imagine it has many ripple effects for the entire school. Can you describe some of the ripple effects that you noticed with the initiation of this project?
Ferial: Yeah. I think one of the most powerful ones was my Agent Small. Her name is Cathy in real life. Agent Small, she's a really, really hard worker. She's one of the hardest working people I've ever met. She's a twin. Her twin was a cheerleader, very popular. Somebody who everybody knew. Cathy was somebody who was quiet and nobody really noticed. Her grades weren't necessarily the best, but she worked really, really hard. One day, she came in after school closed and said, "I want to give $25 to somebody and I need your help." I was kind of taken aback because our 2 rules for our act of kindness were: One, it couldn't cost any money. Two, it had to happen within the school grounds.
I said, "I can't let you do that. You're breaking one of the rules." She said, "No. This has to happen and I need your help. I want you to email the staff and ask them to send me the name of a student who works really hard, but maybe they don't get the best grades, and maybe nobody really notices them but they deserve a good future." Then one of the teachers in the building noted, "You know, she's really describing herself." She wanted to give this person whoever the staff nominated $25 of her own money. She was working really hard for that money. She was trying to save up to buy a car. She was working every day. I think close to 40 hours a week at the time. She couldn't really spare the $25.
I said, "Okay. I'll email the staff, but let me give you the $25." She said, "Nope, it has to my money. I don't care what you say," which was kind of funny because she's tiny and pretty meek usually, but she was kind of fierce in that moment. I knew she was serious. I said, "Okay. Let's give 2 gifts." The ripple was already extending. We now had 2 gifts to give to people. When I emailed the staff and I was also bragging about her on Facebook a little bit. By the end of the week, we had 9 nominations and we had 9 matching gifts. We had people from the school, teachers from the school. I had my co-workers. I had a friend in Chicago who had been laid off since and she sent $25 by mail.
Cathy was ecstatic. She said, "Love gets rippled out so far even to Chicago. Somebody wants to help with my intention here." Cathy made ... We stayed after school. We made the 9 envelopes. We had a little note in there telling the person, "You know, you may think nobody notices you but we have. You deserve something good to happen to you. Here's $25. You have to spend it on yourself," and a random Taco John's coupon because I had a roll of them for some reason. Then she wanted to watch them open the envelope. This is another thing we noticed was that doing these acts of kindness became addictive, that it became something that made us happy. It felt really good because she said, "I want my happiness spread over 9 days, so you have to make sure that each gets their envelope on a different day."
The logistics of the whole thing was kind of a nightmare because she was sticking with it and trying to figure out how to do it. In 9 different days, the security guard went and delivered a yellow slip that said the kid was in trouble. They had to come down do the walk of shame to the office of the security guards thinking they were in trouble. Then they would open the envelope right there. Cathy and I were sitting there pretending like Cathy was in trouble so that she could watch them open the envelope. It was just amazing to watch the smile on her face and how happy it made her. That was just one example of the ripple effect.
The other example would be many of the students who started doing things that were not in the envelope. They did their envelope assignment. We had 21 acts of kindness that were each in an envelope. We have this really cheesy ceremony where the students had to come up during a song that I would play about kindness, You've Got a Friend, or Stand By Me, or something. They would draw their envelope for their act of kindness, and then we would recite an oath that we had written. Then they would go about their merry way and do the act of kindness. People would do things that weren't not just in those envelopes.
Ameeta: That's great and that's really inspiring to hear. Now does something like this continue, once you've even left the school?
Ferial: Yeah. There are some teachers who are doing it. There are teachers in the middle school, Ralston Middle School who have done it as well. My own students wanted to continue the project. I created a Facebook page called the Secret Kindness Agents and everyone is welcome to come to the Facebook page and like it. You become automatically an agent. When you do that, you do need an agent name though which you pick. We post assignments there regularly. We also post stories from the schools and other people who are doing the project. I've had teachers email me, pictures of bulletin boards that they created, or sticky notes that they put on people's lockers early in the morning. They'll send me pictures of what their children are doing. Notes that they're sending to teachers, and I'll publish those on the Facebook page. We've got almost 4,000 likes on it at the moment. That continued in that way. I suppose you can think of that as the ripple effect too.
Also, I've been invited to speak with groups around this region. Even at UNO where I'm teaching, we have a UNO Secret Kindness Agents chapter. They have their own Facebook page. They created their own logo. They're constantly doing things that I see around campus which makes me really proud. It has extended. The original agents I know were doing these things in their life still. They send me stories once in a while of what they're doing. They have acts of kindness for me too. You know what? One day, my doorbell rang and there was a box of chocolates and a thank you note from agent Mac. Another one will come by and say, "Hey, can I mow your loan?" Yeah, it's definitely still happening. It's happening in many, many different places and not just schools.
They've got first grade through university doing it all over the United States and even in Alberta, Canada which they had one signed up a couple of weeks ago from Canada. Also youth groups, and book clubs, and I have rogue agents who were just single people, usually young people doing their own acts of kindness. There's one in La Jolla, California, Agent Gemini. He's 13. Actually, I think he just turned 14. He'll send me updates once in a while. "Oh, today I cleaned the carts at the grocery store which makes me really happy as well." It's in many different places. The nice thing about it is that people are taking ownership of it. I'm not dictating how they do the project. I just give them a few big fixed guidelines but then they adapt it for their own context.
The first graders, instead of coming up and getting an envelope like we did in the high schools, they will do one act of kindness as a class with their teacher a week. I love hearing those stories about how they welcomed a new classmate and wrote really sweet letters to him. Then the rogue agents will decide to do whatever they want to do. I'll get notes from people saying, "Hey, we have this issue in our community. Can the Secret Kindness Agents help? I'll send out an all call for the assignment on the Facebook page as well.
Ameeta: That's great using social media just to promote kindness, instead of the other way where sometimes a place for negativity and bringing negative to our feelings and insecurity to children.
Ameeta: Small acts of kindness really have the power to disarm a flow of negativity. Can you recall a particular incident where you felt a real flow of negativity and your response was kindness?
Ferial: There had been quite a few. I started to get a lot of hate mail on Facebook from strangers, friends of friends -- I guess because I'm Muslim. They'll send some pretty Islamophobic stuff. My instinct always is to lash out and say, "Oh, you're a horrible person, and how dare you?" Usually I feel the kind of things to deal would that is just to leave it alone and not say anything. I've also messaged to their friends who are friends of mine and said, "Hey, could you gently educate this person that this is not what Muslims are." There is one who sent me this awful, "There's no such thing as a moderate Muslim. They're all ISIS. You're all terrorists. If you say that you're a moderate, you're lying." They tried to use my religion against me. So I emailed one of their friends, who's a friend of mine, and said, "Hey, this person who he says he's a mutual friend of ours is sending me these things. Could you please talk to them and try to educate them over with." That's some of the ways I've tried to do that, or by avoiding that topic in particular, or talk to people about other things. I've gone into spaces to talk about the Secret Kindness Agents who I know there are people there who don't think the best of me because of my religion, or my skin color, or whatever else it might be. I go in there armed with my Secret Kindness Agents and do my best to be positive and kind to them.
Ameeta: Do you feel like this has worsened over this year in particular with the current political climate?
Ferial: Yeah, absolutely. Kids will say things in school that Muslims should be banned or that they're going to vote for Trump because now he's going to ban Muslims and he's going to make sure that there's a wall. My kids go to school with children who are undocumented or whose parents are undocumented. My own children, it really hurts them deeply to hear these things. Yeah, it's gotten a lot worse. The mail hate mail started when Trump started to say these things. Although there has been incidents before that. My first year teaching, 911 happened. I remember hoping that it wasn't Muslims who did it. Then there's people who call us. A year later I was in my classroom and asked my students, "Do you want to process this, if you're having any thoughts or feelings?" One young man raised his hand and he said, "Yeah. Did you know about this before it was happening or before it happened? We should just turn Middle Eastern people as well. We should just kill them all. Just drop a nuclear bomb."
You know it's hard for me to continue as their teacher but I have to. I ask questions like, "You know that there is probably a woman living there who looks like me and shares my name. Would you be okay bombing them knowing that she's there?" That kind of takes them aback because when you put a face on humanity, and humanize a group of people, it's much less easy to murder them, and to annihilate them, or to turn them to glasses my student said. Those are things that have happened that had been very, very painful. It hasn't happened as much at the university. I haven't noticed at least. I know that there are some who keep their thoughts to themselves. I've also had people who reached out and said, "I'm really sorry that this is happening. What can I do to support?" There's a local group here who sent cards to the local Islamic Center. Somebody put bacon on the door handle at the Islamic Center, and threw a rock through the window just a couple of months ago. This local group reached out with cards and letters of support and came to the open house, and have really responded in a positive way. I do see positive acts coming out of it, as well as the negative stuff.
Ameeta: This whole journey started with the conversation with your children. As it's progressed, how do you feel that your children have been transformed by this journey with you?
Ferial: They're definitely Secret Kindness Agents. My son's signature move is he likes to hold doors for people. Sometimes they get late going places because he's like, "Wait. I'm still holding the door." My daughter loves to send little gifts to people and write letters to them. She was really funny. She said, "I have an OMG journal. It's what things that made me think, oh my goodness. I'm a secret agent spy. When I spy acts of kindness, I write them down in my OMG journal." She reads those to me once in a while. She spends her allowance money on a bunch of those sticky hands that you throw at the wall. There's a pack just like 30 of them. She has randomly put them in student lockers with a little note from Agent Animal Hero. That's her agent name.
My son's agent name is Askari Kuku which is in Swahili means Guardian of the Chickens. He saves the chickens. They think very deeply about how to be kind. We talk about it on a daily basis. Now, what did you do that was kind today? What did you see that somebody did that was kind today? My son wrote a letter to his teacher last semester, because you know students were treating her pretty badly. He wrote her this really sweet later about how she's a really good teacher and that he appreciates her. I was kind of surprised that he had done that. He shyly showed it to me, "Mom, can you read this over and make sure it's okay." I was really touched by that. They definitely live it daily.
We talked about with my students the story of the 2 wolves. I found it online while we were looking for stories of acts of kindness that we show them with my students. They were bringing in stories and YouTube videos about acts of kindness and the ripple effect and so on. I found the story of the 2 wolves. It's a Cherokee legend on the First Nations website. It's basically a grandfather who's looking at his grandson and saying, "You know grandson, I have these 2 wolves that are fighting inside me. They're always battling. One wolf is full of anger, and jealousy, and resentment, and spite, and all these bad things. The other wolf is full of kindness, and generosity, and compassion, and all the good things." The grandson says, "Well, which wolf wins?" The grandfather says, "It's the one that I feed."
That really changed the way that we look at people in my classroom. I told the story to my own children. It changed the way my children were talking about not only other people but also themselves. They've seen this a lot with kids and even with adults where they make a series of bad decisions and then decide, "Well, I'm a bad person. I might as well continue going down the path of least resistance and keep making these bad decisions because I'm just a bad person." Sadly, there are children who get caught. They get told by teachers, "You'll amount to nothing. You're going to work at Burger King the rest of your life." Almost horrifying that the teacher would say that but I've heard it multiple times from kids.
The story of the 2 wolves taught us that we have both the potential for good and the potential for evil within us. It just depends on the wolf that we feed. We figured out that our Secret Kindness Agents Project was feeding our good wolf, but also the wolves of the people who were receiving our acts of kindness as we noticed them. Like my son said, if that feeling goes away enough, he doesn't feel like being mean anymore. One of the things I noticed with my students was before the project I would hear them gossiping about other people. "Oh, so and so is so ratchet," or they have all things for what they call each other or, "she's so mean and we should try and get back at her." After we heard about the 2 wolves, they would say, "Oh you know, this person I wonder what's hurting her so much at home to make her lash out at people here at school. What if we go and feed her good wolf? We should go and give her compliments every day. We should sit with her at lunch so she's not alone." They keep talking about this concept of hurt people, hurt people. It was also a really easy concept for my own children ages 6 and 9 as they're trying to understand and to internalize. Oh my God, it's really funny. She woke up one day and said, "Sometimes I wake up and both my wolves are asleep." I laughed and said, "I'm just going to start feeding the good wolf so they'll wake up." She made me breakfast that day and it was really sweet.
My children are very excited by the project. There are agents that do good every day. Once in a while, they're bad wolf will rear its head. You just have to reference the 2 wolves' story and they're right back at where they want to be again.
Ameeta: That's great. I've known you're now at University of Nebraska Omaha, and the project has spread from there. An article about you, there was another teacher at UNO, Mitzi Ritzman and she took the idea to another chapter with National Student Speech Language Hearing Association. One of her quotes was, "What I always come back to is the notion that everyone is fighting some sort of battle and we don't know it. This kindness helps deform everyone's battles." Can you talk specifically about some of the other groups other than schools that have now taken this idea and your project, and they acted it within their group?
Ferial: Yeah. There's a group called HOBY -- the Hugh O'Brian Leadership Symposium. They've had me come and talk with them quite a few times. I go just there at Hastings College last week to talk with them about Secret Kindness Agents Project. They're just a leadership seminar, kind of a camp for high school students. Out of HOBY, I've had a number of students contact me and say, "Can I do this in my own life? Can I do this with my family? Can I start an after-school club with my friends?" There's a phenomenal young lady at Benson High School. She just graduated. Her twins have started being secret agents at school. It wasn't as a part of a school group, or a class, or anything like that. It wasn't formalized but it was just them as young people.
I told you about my rogue agent in California. There are book clubs too who read the book. There was one who invited me to come speak with them after they read the book. There's a young lady who has a youth group, I think in Washington. I can't remember what state, what's her church. She's doing the project as well. They create their own acts of kindness. They don't do the same ones necessarily that we did. They create what they want to do. Once in a while I'll hear about it, and sometimes they don't for the most part. I know they're doing it, I just don't hear exactly what they're doing. There are people doing it within their families as well. Every day they'll have a different assignment, or every week they'll have a different assignment. It's really neat to see how it's ... It's a really simple idea. Literally, anybody can pick it up and run with it. That's what I've seen happened.
Ameeta: Where do you want this to go in the future? What are your aspirations?
Ferial: My dream is for it to be in every school, because I see this epidemic of bullying and I see this epidemic of cyberbullying. I see the effects of what the impact is of those negative things on children. At Ralston High School, we had a 9th grader committ suicide because of a cyberbullying incident. He happened to be the son of the superintendent. He had just left the school where my son is now. It was really painful to see. Then working with LGBTQ students as well -- I've seen identity-based bullying happening to them. I'm friends with a lot of mothers who have lost their children to suicide because of that.
I think it's urgent. It's an urgent need because we are losing children to bullying. I talked to teachers about classroom management and how it's about prevention, still of behavior. Once the behavior has happened, it's really hard to stop it. The whole point is creating a culture in your classroom where you can prevent bullying behaviors from happening. This is a preventative measure. It's a prophylactic measure that if we place in classrooms, hopefully we can prevent tragedies from happening. Not just school shootings, which yes, we want to prevent school shootings, but also suicides, also people dropping out of school and not having high enough GPAs to get scholarships, or to go to college if they want to.
My dream is to have it in every school so that children understand like my students did and my own children do. How effective kindness is, and how empowering it is, and how it's such a boost for our self-confidence, and our self-esteem, and how it really helps the culture of the whole school. That's part of the reason I'm doing it for my dissertation, so that I can gather the stories of the teachers who are doing the project to say, "Hey look, it worked at first grade. It works in the middle school. It works in the university. It works in the high school. Look how easy it is to do it and lead to the themes that are bubbling up."
I was talking with a teacher at Masters Elementary here in Omaha. She said that she had a 3rd grader, this was last year, whose mother was battling breast cancer. This young lady in the 3rd grade was very, very angry. Like Mitzi Ritzman said, "Everyone's fighting a demon of some kind." This child had a situation at home where she felt very helpless, and powerless, and lashed out because that was the only way she could gain some modicum of control in her life. My friend Dernecia Harris, a phenomenal educator, pulled this child in and said, "You're going to be a Secret Kindness Agent." I think her agent name is G Baby Believe. She said that whenever she calls this young lady by her agent name, her demeanor changed completely. She became less angry. She wanted to do nice things because it gave her the same kind of control that lashing out gave her, just in a more positive manner.
I've heard from my kids, my students, and other people -- "It felt really good to bully people but it feels even better to be kind to people." That's sort of my hope for the children. It feels really good to do this and I can really be an agent of change in my community. One of the things we learned was you don't have to be rich, or popular, or famous, or have the nicest clothes, or a ton of social power to change somebody's day for the better. You just have to smile at somebody to make them know that you've seen them and that you love them. It takes 5 minutes to write a note. It takes a second to hold a door open for somebody. We just need our humanity to do things that will make people stay better. That's sort of my hope is that it spreads to every school at every level.
Ameeta: Do you think there's a way with our educational system where we can make a broader, or more global, change? Perhaps by introducing kindness as part of like the mandatory curriculum, just like reading, writing, and math? Is there any way to address this at a bigger school board or state level going to different states where kindness becomes part of the curriculum?
Ferial: You know, it is already a part of the curriculum for school counseling. I presented this project at the Nebraska School Counselor's Association Academy twice now. Both times, the counselors have said, "You know this, that's right in line with our curriculum." It's already there. However, that's not mandated. It's the school counselors. But it's a matter of funding as well. Can we afford to hire enough school counselors that we have time to do this? Teacher often say, "I don't have time for this. I have other curriculum to cover." I'll remind them this took me 8 minutes a week to do in my classroom. Eight minutes you know -- 3-4 minutes to listen to the song and grab our envelope; 5 minutes to do a journal, sometimes even less than that.
The journal that they did at the end of every week was to describe what happened. How they feel before it happened, and how did they feel after? We kind of look for pattern at the end of the semester. It doesn't take much time. I really do wish that it was a bigger part of our curriculum. I know that there are schools focusing on character education. That's what I'm finding when I'm doing my literature review right now for my dissertation to see if stuff on kindness education and on character education. At the high school, there's no kindness curriculum other than something called Rachel's Challenge. That's again a voluntary thing. That's something definitely to think about. I'm not sure how to get it as a mandatory piece of the curriculum, but people would be open to it.
I was invited to speak with the Secretary of Education in March at the Department of Education Building in Washington DC at a tea, and it was about Safe Schools for Children. I know that safe schools are definitely a priority for most educators and most policy makers when it comes to school. I wonder if this could be something that could be rolled into that.
Ameeta: Well, maybe it's a real start. Maybe we can through Service Space and the KindSpring community try to bring this to more schools.
Ferial: That would be phenomenal. I think young people too in particular should be writing. There's a group in Loup City, Nebraska. This is a tiny little town in Midwestern Nebraska. They had heard about the project from somebody in St. Paul, Nebraska, I had gone to speak with. There's a doctor there, Angie Brennan who asked me to come and speak to healthcare providers and educational leaders there. This youth group in Loup City, Nebraska with the Sherman County Prevention Center had been doing the project and they thought it was so great that they as young people wrote a mini-grant to pay for me to get to Loup City to talk to their entire high school and middle school. I think we shouldn't underestimate the power of the young people to have a voice and to create this change themselves.
Ameeta: That's great and your story is truly inspiring given all the negativity that you, and your children, and your family has faced as well, but yet that you continue to counter that negativity with positivity and kindness. Like you said, all we can do is just start with ourselves and our immediate local area and try to impact the people around us.
Ameeta: It's truly inspiring and hope that we can all use your example and continue to push this project forward.
Ferial: Actually my students' example, since they said, "Your idea has potential but it's not quite what we want." I think people should remember that this wasn't really my creation. It was the creation of my students who were just juniors in high school.
Bela: Thank you so much Ferial. I'm so struck by your humility especially just now when you said that it wasn't your creation. It was the creation of your students. It's really powerful, and I think that really underscores what you said about we shouldn't underestimate the power of young people to have a voice and to be able to create a change. I would actually love to learn a little bit more about kindness in your life and how it influenced you. What was your upbringing like? Was kindness something that was prevalent in your life, or was it learned, because sometimes I feel that as we've become more fast paced, and connected online, it's more of a muscle that we have to practice more -- whereas maybe it was more natural before? What are your thoughts?
Ferial: Yeah, I love the idea that there's a muscle that is practiced -- to feel like everybody has a kindness muscle. They just sometimes forget that it's there, before it becomes so weak that its kind of lays there. Definitely my upbringing was a huge -- huge piece of why I believe kindness is powerful. My parents and my grandparents were great, and my great grandparents were great examples of kindness. In particular, I used to send presents home to my grandparents when I was in college. I would go home for the summer with a gift for them. Then I would go back the following year and I would be like, "Where's the thing that I gave you?" My grandfather kept saying somebody else needed it more.
Bela: Oh wow!
Ferial: We would never leave their house without something that they would give me. My grandmother would say, "Somebody gave me this necklace, but I think it would look really great on you. You just take it home." Their house has always been open to people who needed it. It was rare that it was just us, just our family being there. There were always other people being there, eating there, spending the night there. I remember hosting people for some giant conference that was happening in Nairobi and there were women living in our house. I've seen that. I know that my grandfather was a small business owner. He never went to college or anything. He had these small businesses and I know that he employed people who need the jobs though he couldn't necessarily afford to employ them.
As part of our faith in Islam we give a certain percentage of our income to the needy. I saw them doing that in very creative ways, sometimes more than what was required; so making sure people has meals, taking people that needed it. Always talking to us about, "If you have something that somebody else needs more, then it should be theirs." When my grandfather passed away, we had calls from people around the world saying, "Your grandfather paid for my education. He helped me out with this. He helped me out with that." People we didn't even know had known him. They were definitely an inspiration to me, and so still are an inspiration to me about how people should be treated, about how we treat each other, and how we treat ourselves as well. That we should never think we're better than anybody else because of whatever station we have in life.
My mom grew up very, very poor and so she understood what that felt like and what it meant. I know that it hurts her to see some people hungry, or something horrible happening to somebody. I remember particularly one really funny sweet story about my dad. He was 5, I think. My grandparent had employed somebody to help around the house. He was an older gentleman and sometimes really forgetful. He wasn't the best house help most of the time. My grandmother was working every day. She had 2 little boys at home. She's working on my grandfather. She had made these patties -- I don't know what they're called in English. It's ground beef that's surrounded by mashed potato and you kind of dip it in flour, and then bread crumbs, and then fry it. Then it just looks like an oval patty.
She had made them ready to be fried for my dad's birthday or something. This gentleman has decided he was going to help her before she came home from work. He puts them all in the frying pan and kind of mashed them down to a paste. My grandmother arrived home and of course was really angry and apparently chased him around with a wooden spoon, and told him he was fired. Then locked herself in her bedroom because she was so horrified by what had happened. My 5-year-old dad knocked on the door and said, "You know if you fire him, who's going to feed his children at home?" That's something that I remember a lot because that's just my dad. I see that in him to this day and just in a lot of my family members. I definitely grow up with that as a huge inspiration to me.
Bela: I imagine that must have really helped you just growing up make the choice to feed the good wolf within you. What has been your experience in feeding the good wolf in the moment when it might be challenging? Perhaps when you feel like your identity, your faith is being attacked?
Ferial: I think my main response has always been education. I think may be as a coping mechanism for me or something that I would tell myself, "He didn't know any better." My auntie once said, "When we know better, we do better." I tried to give people the benefit of the doubt and hope that overall, that the good outweighs the bad. I just think, "They didn't know any better. What can I give them in the way of education that will teach them to know better?" One of the ways I did that at South High School which is where that happened, and where I kept hearing students the same things against the Middle East, was to bring in literature that they could read that had beautiful characters that they could empathize with, and speak commonalities with who are living in the Middle East; go through, had issues with their friends, and their dads, and my friends, and love.
One of the books I brought in was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini because the main character is a very compelling character, because there's a lot of humanization of people in that book. I thought that was really powerful in terms of education to show people that it's not us versus them. It's not us in the US are better than them over there in those countries. It's we are all a part of the human race, we're all citizens of the world. There are people over there who has feelings, and emotions, and desires, and dream, and wishes just like we did here. That was just one way. I'll be honest, there are times when I have not responded in the best way. My bad wolf would get up and either make me burst into tears and run away, or say something awful. For the most part, though, I try to take a deep breath and remember, "Okay. Maybe they just don't know any better."
Ameeta: I just wanted to re-echo one of the things that Ferial had said. I think a lot of the feelings and the questions that I see here as well in Nebraska really just comes out of ignorance. It's just that they haven't been exposed to any diverse people. Everything, a lot of their knowledge only just comes sometimes from what they hear on TV. They just take what others say, at face value, rather than by any personal experiences. The only way to cultivate compassion in them is by exposure, and then by being kind, and revealing our own commonality with them. I think that's the most powerful way we're going to really truly empathize and see the interconnectedness.
Ferial: I had an agent, Agent Biggie -- his actual name is Marlon. He's a very strong Catholic. His faith is super important to him, and because of the teachings of the church that he was going to, he believed that being gay was wrong. Then I had my other Agent Scrappy-Doo, Lance who was (and is) very openly gay. It was interesting to see the relationship grow between these two because through this project, the whole class became very close. We became kind of a family. One day, Lance was counseled on site and told that he was going to hell. Even though Marlon didn't "agree" with Lance's sexuality, he actually came up to Lance and said, "Don't let anybody talk to you that way. You're a human being and you deserve happiness just like everybody else."
It didn't change necessarily his religious belief but it really made him think about the impact of people's action and people's words. He was so hurt by the way Lance was hurt. To see him take him aside at the end of class, and counsel him, and put his arms around him and say, "Lance, I'm here for you. You're my brother and I care about you." It was really, really powerful to me.
Bela: Wow! How old are your own children now, Ferial?
Ferial: They're 10 and 13. My 13-year-old is my son, but he's 75 in his head. Then my daughter's been kind of a 20-year-old. That's an interesting dynamic in our house.
Ameeta: They are getting into the more difficult ages now where this will become a real test for them. As you get older, the junior high and high school years, most of the kids spend their time trying to find divisions rather than commonality. It will be interesting to see. They have these next year's test all of you.
Ferial: Right. I'm interested and to see how different they are as well. You know, I pick my son up from school and he gave me this big huge hug and kiss and I said, "Aren't you embarrassed? None of your friends do that. You know your kissing mom in front of your friends." He goes, "Mom, people should be ashamed of violence not love." I was just taken aback. Here's this 12-year-old who just spit that out. I thought I wonder if that would have been different if we had not been talking about these things at home.
Ferial: He's a sweet little guy. He's a lot like my grandfather and my dad. He looks the same as them, and acts the same. He doesn't say much but when he does say something, it's either hilarious or really profound. There has been little ways where his bad wolf has reared its head, though. He recently lost it and he said, "What if I turned out to be Hitler. I mean Hitler had a good wolf too. He could be me." I said, "Well, let's talk about Hitler." He said, "The world is full of bad things and people who do things that are awful. Then what if I'm one of them?" I replied, "No, because you're aware that your good wolf exists. You just have to feed that good wolf and your Hitler wolf won't come up." He seemed to take some comfort in that. Once in a while it comes back and he was terrified because, "Am I feeding this bad wolf so badly?" It's interesting journey, for sure.
Ameeta: Your husband, who's American, how do he respond to all of this?
Ferial: He is the world's biggest ally I think. He's always been super supportive and loving, and also educational. He likes to educate people mainly through social media because he's super shy in person. He definitely jumps right in and says something. You know we have this thing about "see something, say something." I can see that it hurts him and upsets him greatly when he witnesses these acts of discrimination or bigotry happening towards us.
I was driving my son home from school a few months ago and there was a house with a giant Trump sign handmade on it. We're in bumper to bumper traffic. It was the afternoon. It was a nice day. My window was down. A man driving me opposite way, that lane was completely free. There were no cars behind or in front of him, but there were for me. He honked hard and I looked at him. He made sure he had eye contact with me first. Then he called me a wetback. Then aggressively drove away. They call me a racial slur with my son in the front seat. It's so horrible, and that too, right outside my son's school. It was awful. I just remember his face. He had a gray mustache, and blue eyes, and a red bandanna, but I don't remember the car, or the license plate, or anything. My husband, he went driving around that neighborhood trying to find him. He's like, "Where is he?" He was so upset by it. Few weeks ago, somebody vandalized our patio furniture with a box cutter and pull the stuffing out. I don't know who it was or when it happened. It is really upsetting for my husband. Sometimes he has to laugh about it because you either laugh or you cry.
He says, "You know, marrying you kind of colored my world." Before he met me even, he knew very few people of color. He grew up in Ralston, Nebraska, mostly white school. He said he'd never realized that this stuff existed until he met me. We'll go to a store together. I told him, "People follow me around the store." He says, "No, they don't." I said, "Yes, they do. Let's do an experiment. We'll go on a date and we'll go to the store. Then you can separate yourself from me and just watch, and see what happens." We've done that a few times and he's mind was blown the first few times that, "Oh my goodness, that's so true? I've never had that experience. This never happened to me."
His mom, who's really sweet as well has experienced it, where members of her church will send her the stuff how about how Muslims are evil, or invite her to this lectures by it was somebody named Dr. Mark Christian in Omaha who's opposing the Tri-Faith Initiative, because he is so against the idea that there are moderate Muslims. He does these lectures for churchgoing Christians about how they need to convert Muslims to Christianity, and that they need to reject the moderate Muslim idea. My husband has gone with his mom through these lectures and confronted Dr. Christian about it. He said, "Hey, this is not okay. You're perpetuating dangerous stereotypes about people that we care about."
Bela: We have an online comment: "You've written a book on kindness. How was that journey of publishing a book and what ripple effects have you seen from that?"
Ferial: The book was an accident. It seems like all of these things were. In my life, I feel like everything I've ever done was somebody else's idea. I was bragging about my students on Facebook and my friend Cindy Grady, who was working for WriteLife Publishing at the time, said, "You know, if you do this book as a how-to for people, we'll publish it at no cost to you." She said, "Ask your agent." I went back to my agent and they said, "Now to be sure, you're going to write most of it right?" I said, "Yes." Then he did want to do it. It took me a year to write the book. We have kindness quotes all over it because we kind of loved those quotes about kindness from everybody; from Gandalf, all the way to Mother Theresa, to Martin Luther King, and Gandhi. We have quotes all over it.
And I have stories from the different agents. I have the process of how we did the project. Then, there's a new story that came out about us that we put into the book as well. A chapter from a teacher, who taught in the same building kind of noticed what was happening and taught my agents after I left them. Then kind of language, arts, and social studies, kindness at the end. The best part about writing the book was when I was talking to my agents about it and they said, "When people buy the books, who are we going to give the money to?" They never said, "How are we going to split the money?" They always said, "Who are we going to give it to?" On the last day of school, Cindy came to school and each student brought a non-profit organization that they cared about and then we all voted. Almost everybody voted for Agent B's charity, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. He had been diagnosed just a few months earlier with Type 1 diabetes. It was really neat to see his face light up. Everybody voted for his organization.
Once published people had bought it as a how to. It's available on Kindle and on Amazon as well. We've gotten great reviews that has made me really happy from perfect strangers and from people who I know who's read the book. They used it in their classroom. It's a quick read which people have said they really like as well. The teachers are asking for a second book. I have this feeling that's what my dissertation is going to morph into.
Bela: Do you try to integrate the science of kindness into your work with kids?
Ferial: That's something that I'm researching as we speak for my dissertation because as you know, the project didn't grow out as a science thing. It was just like a knee-jerk reaction. How do we fix this? I'm learning a lot more about it now. It's type of things where instinctively I've been doing it but I didn't know that there was research and data to back it. I'm hoping that the dissertation becomes part of that data to back the science of kindness. I don't really know very much about it at the moment but I'm hoping to learn more. I have really been a fan of mindfulness in the classroom and has led my students into some of that, particularly because most of the students I taught including my original agents come to me with a history of trauma; and not just history but they're currently experiencing trauma while they're in my classroom.
Mindfulness is an important part of making sure that children feels safe and wanted, and they're mindful of the present moment when they're learning in my classroom, or they won't be any learning that happens. If you're worried about your safety in a classroom or how you're getting from your English class to your Math class, you don't care what the past participle is. You're worried about how do I get to math without being jumped in the hallway. I've definitely done a lot of that in my career as a teacher.
Bela: How can we spread this movement of kindness? How can we make it viral and make it go global? I just imagine Secret Kindness Agents with these creative names that light up this whole other side of them all over the world.
Ferial: I think it will take small pieces of the news here, and there, everywhere, to help spread it because in all the almost 40 schools that are doing it now, I didn't once go into one school and say, "Hey, you should do this." They came to me because they heard about it either from my kid talk, or from the book, or because their friends did it, or they've heard me speak somewhere. People are reaching out to me and now people I've never even met before like I said in Canada, and Albuquerque, and then all these other places. Just word of mouth and also I'm writing a children's book now. I mentioned Tiara Conyers earlier, one of the HOBY participants. She just graduated high school. She's a phenomenal artist and because I want to promote the voices, and artwork, and strength of young people, I asked her, "Hey, do you want to write this children's book with me, the children's book version of the Secret Kindness Agents?" She said yes. We're working on it this summer and hopefully the children's book will help get especially more elementary students involved in it, because and then maybe figure out how to get the high school students too. I think just as much as they hear about it from each other, their Facebook page is helping spread the news as well.
It will require a paradigm shift because at the moment, what I hear from the administrators and educators alike in the public is, "We have to deal with the bullies. If we just like handle the bullies and the bullying behaviors, then we can prevent it from happening again." I don't think that's true. I think we need to prevent the bullying behaviors from happening in the first place by working on the strengths of kids. It's definitely more of a strength-based approach. I feel like the bullying approach is more a deficit way of dealing with things. When we appeal to what's already inside children and say, "Hey, these are your strengths. You are built to be kind." You have this kindness muscle and we're just going to flex it. We're going to make it stronger, and stronger, and feed your good wolf throughout your life as opposed to, "Oh, you've been bad, here are the punishments."
We have handbooks written about, "Here's what will happen when you do all these bad things." Why don't we have handbooks that say, "Here are ways in which you can be kind and we'll reward that in some way." You tell rewards and not necessarily why we're kind. Maybe that will help it. It does require this whole different way of thinking because I even hear teachers say, "Oh, we need to deal with the bullies and protect the target." It's a 100% of your population. We're all the bullies and we're all the targets because like my son said, "When bullies are mean to us, we turn into the bully." All bullies have been bullied. That's how they learn how to do it. We don't just bully out of nowhere. It's because somebody has bullied us and taught us that this is the way we respond to difficult situation.
Ameeta: I think part of this is also a difference in Eastern and Western mentality. I mean Western mentality, western medicine, western education, we're treat the effect instead of the causes. The root cause of bullying is that they never saw kindness before. You have to treat it with kindness rather than with punishment.
Ferial: That's exactly it.
Ameeta: Just like you said, there has to be a huge paradigm shift at every level here. It's starting with organizations like Service Space. They're having an incredibly powerful reach. But it's a slow transformation, because it has to become an inner transformation -- one person at a time.
Ferial: Yeah. Absolutely. I think people want it. I think people are yearning for it. I see how these ideas go completely viral. Studies of showing about how lonely people are. Another thing is that I have students in the high school who would join gangs and I would ask them why are you joining gangs? "So I belong somewhere." This intense feeling of wanting to belong somewhere. I think that's why it was so powerful with my agents. The project was because here was a place they could belong. No matter what, whenever they met in our classroom, they belong there. They had an agent name. They're a part of the team. We had a mission. We're all in this together. That's really, really powerful for anybody when we think about why do people get addicted to sports, or why do people get addicted to gambling, or to any of those kinds of things. We're all paying games is because we get this intense feeling of belonging and we can do that through kindness I think, as opposed to people join these bullying groups or cliques. I heard this from some students, "You know I was mean to that girl because everybody else was mean to that girl. That was a way for me to belong and not have the target on my back."
Bela: Kindness can really help to build a community when there really wasn't one before.
Bela: What can Service Space, and what can we as a community do for you? How can we serve your journey?
Ferial: I think just share the story. If you have that research about kindness to throw my way for my dissertation, I won't say no. :)
Bela: Thank you so much for being with us this morning or an afternoon, wherever you are in the world. I'm so inspired by the stories that you shared, but more than that just your humility, Ferial. You know you said that this isn't something that I started. This isn't something that I did. It was all started by the kids that you're teaching, but you've really empowered them with your energy, and your belief in them that young people have the ability to change their communities, and the ripples slowly change the world around them.
Ferial: Yeah, if you really choose.
Bela: Thank you so much.
Ferial: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate this opportunity to share my students' story and the stories of so many young people around the country. Thank you.
Ameeta: Thank you too. We're really inspired.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly conference call that anyone from around the world can dial into. It is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Each call features a unique theme and an inspiring guest speaker. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.