This is What Small Acts of Kindness Can Do
Ferial Pearson knows what it's like to check the "other" box. She is a queer, Muslim, Indian-African immigrant who moved to the U.S. from Kenya at 19. She is also an award-winning high school teacher and college instructor, a community activist, a speaker, a writer, and the founder of Secret Kindness Agents—a program with a mission to create a safer, more inclusive world, one anonymous act of goodwill at a time. Interview with Robin Pfeifer.
RP What inspired you to bring kindness into your classroom?
FP I was teaching at Ralston High School, in a suburb of Omaha, when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred in 2012. I felt a deep sense of terror—for my own children and for myself. I now needed to worry about what a student could bring into my classroom. When I talked to my children that night, they expressed frustration about bullying they'd experienced. This led me to wonder, what if the shooter had been shown some kindness? Would he have picked up the gun? I didn't have the answer.
RP So you turned the conversation over to your students.
FP Exactly. I was working with a group of kids enrolled in a special program designed to help them learn by overcoming personal obstacles. I asked, "What would happen if we started secretly delivering small acts of kindness to other students? Could it change someone's life?" They took the idea and ran with it. They gave themselves code names, including mine, Agent Mama Beast. They designed the rules: The acts can't cost any money, and they have to happen on the campus.
RP How did they react to the program?
FP Kindness became addictive. They felt self-conscious at first. Picking up trash on campus was a little embarrassing. Smiling at another student didn't come naturally. After fighting through that initial discomfort, they wanted to keep doing more. Their acts got braver. Passing notes to someone who needed encouragement. Sitting with a student in the cafeteria who was eating alone. They couldn't wait to come to school and make someone's day, which made their day. We became a family by feeding our good wolves.
RP You've turned Secret Kindness Agents into two books, a TEDx Talk and your doctoral dissertation. How else has it affected you?
FP I'm no longer afraid of what's in the pockets of my students. My children are free to explore the world. And it's shown me the importance and power of quietly doing what needs to be done to make other people's lives better. True kindness is doing something without want of reward.
RP Now that you've added 'secret agent' to your skill set, what's next?
FP I've accidentally become TikTok famous for my sourdough loaf designs this year. My child started taking videos of us cooking together during quarantine and they've become popular. It wasn't my intention, but they're a nice way to connect with people. Honestly, everything I've ever done has been someone else's idea. Someone dared me to apply for the TEDx Talk. I said no to writing the first book too. I don't have a lot of confidence in my own ideas, but my grandfather always encouraged me to learn from others and just say yes.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Buy the Book
Secret Kindness Agents: How Small Acts of Kindness Really Can Change the World is also available in a revised edition specifically for teachers (WriteLife, $15).