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The fastest path to change is through understanding

In a few days, the U.S. will celebrate the life of one of our country’s greatest leaders, Martin Luther King Jr.

Most Americans are familiar with King, even if their only point of reference is his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in August 1963. Although that speech is a beautiful piece of rhetoric, it is merely the tip of the iceberg that comprises the vast teachings and wisdom of King.

King and the American civil rights movement have had a lasting impact on the fight for civil rights for all people. This includes people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who still today fight for many of the civil rights most Americans take for granted: the right to vote, marry, have kids, earn an income, own a home and live free of the threat of involuntary confinement.

Today, almost 52 years after his death, King’s lessons about how to fight for those rights are just as pertinent and useful as they were during his lifetime. His six steps of nonviolence are not only a perfect model for advocacy, they are also potential tools for many conflicts we face.

King said our first step in fighting injustice is to gather information about the situation from a variety of sources. Then, we must share that information and educate others – friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, public officials, readers of The Durango Herald.

Next, make and maintain a commitment to the cause of justice, knowing that you will face challenges and obstacles.

Once you have knowledge and are committed to making change, begin to peacefully negotiate. This means listening to others and being respectful and honoring of those who may not fully agree with your cause.

If negotiations fail or the situation requires policy decisions on a wider scale, taking peaceful action may be an appropriate next step. Action may include peaceful demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns or petitions. Though King probably never imagined anything like social media, I am sure he would have found ways to use Twitter for peaceful action.

The final step in King’s approach to nonviolence is reconciliation. The ideal outcome for any nonviolent action is to develop allies and create relationships, not break them down. This can be the hardest part of nonviolence, especially when you are fighting for something that threatens your well-being.

Though people with intellectual disabilities in America have walked a different path than black people in America, there are significant similarities. Both groups have suffered forced segregation, economic disparities and discrimination in employment and housing. These issues persist even in 2020.

So, what can we learn from King to help end these disparities?

I would suggest that we start with the first two steps. Find ways to learn more about issues faced by people within your own community (of race, religion, ethnicity, age, gender identity, ability, sexual orientation or other subculture), as well as those faced by people in different communities. Then share what you’ve learned.

The fastest path to change is through understanding.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.