Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tim Shriver talks about his path to leader of Special Olympics

From The New York Times column "The Boss", interviewing Tim Shriver:

When I was growing up, we lived on a farm in Maryland and had dogs, chickens and cattle. In 1962, my mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, started a summer camp in our backyard for children with intellectual disabilities, which was the beginning of Special Olympics.

From the time I was 3, I was exposed to recreational opportunities that included children with and without disabilities. That experience profoundly influenced me. My dad, Sargent Shriver, helped create the Peace Corps, Job Corps, Head Start and other programs. It was a time of enormous creativity and innovation in the work of social justice and peace.

I studied education at Yale and started teaching in New Haven schools when I was still an undergraduate. I ran an after-school program in which I taught teenagers problem-solving strategies. One was called S.O.C.S., for Situations, Options, Consequences and Solutions. I had the kids role-play, although they thought it was silly and made fun of me at times. The program engaged them, however, and they liked it.

It was a violent time in New Haven, and there were several shootings. One day, one of my students was shot seven times. I was devastated, although someone told me he would be all right. The next day I visited the young man in the hospital. He was covered in bandages from head to toe.

When he saw me, he said, with a big smile: “Hey, Mr. Shriver! I should have used that S.O.C.S. method.” In spite of it all, he radiated innocence and resilience.

Later in my career I took a group of high school students to Yale to serve on a conference panel about volunteerism. My students were asked to talk about what they wanted from Yale students, or what they thought of them. They answered that Yale students were arrogant, or thought they knew everything, or were all rich. Then a Yale student said it sounded as if my students didn’t want anything from those on campus. One student answered: “No, it’s not that we don’t want you. It’s that we don’t want you on your big white horse.”

That statement stayed with me. I probably started my career on a big white horse, thinking that I was a social change agent. Those kids taught me a fundamental lesson: Get off the horse. Before all else, listen. The pathway to change is through relationships, and you can’t form a relationship if you’re not at eye level.

I joined Special Olympics as C.E.O. in 1996. I’ve tried to shift the conversation here from what Special Olympics does to what it means. It’s often seen as a service organization, but I believe that it’s a civil rights movement. Volunteers might think that they’re only coaching or serving water at a track and field event, for example, but they are doing far more. My mission has been to remind them that they are serving the search for human dignity and acceptance.

My wife, Linda, and I love watching our own kids participate in a Special Olympics unified, inclusive basketball league on Saturday mornings. All five of them have been involved. Of the three still at home, one coaches a team, and two play. One daughter created an inclusive bowling league in high school. Seeing them learn from their peers with intellectual disabilities and feel the appreciation of the families and the athletes involved is about as good as it gets for me.

Recently, as I faced the loss of my mother and of my uncle, Edward M. Kennedy, I wanted to be open with my staff and colleagues about our deep sadness. What’s been affirming is that it’s allowed many of the relationships among the people I work with to deepen — not just with me, but with one another. It gave us a shared sense of vulnerability and connection.