The WWJD bracelet became the ultimate fashion accessory at my Southern elementary school in the mid-1990s, along with butterfly hairclips and platform flip-flops. Even I had a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet, and I never went to church. But I was looking for a hero. Heroes inspire us to dream, dare, and never give up. They remind us that extraordinary things happen at the hands of ordinary people—people like us.
Whether or not you wear their name embossed on a bracelet, heroes have power. They embody our morals and dictate our behavior. Role models symbolize the qualities we would like to possess and the ambitions we yearn to satisfy. In a series of recent posts for Inc.com, leadership expert and Columbia Business School professor Hitendtra Wadhwa recommended cultivating a circle of heroes as a key part of becoming a leader.
Since they have so much power, I choose my heroes wisely. Among them is my eighth-grade history teacher. He changed the way I see the world. Mr. Colbert owned his own business for 15 years before he became a teacher. His wife, who is a lawyer, served as the primary breadwinner while Mr. Colbert’s more flexible schedule allowed him to care for their three young daughters. When Mr. Colbert described his personal life to the class one afternoon, I felt like my brain had imploded. I didn’t know that men could care for children. I didn’t know that people could completely up and change careers. Mr. Colbert redefined what I think my life can be.
Finding a hero in history class also helped me realize that I didn’t have to seek my heroes from far-away places. In fact, finding heroes in our midst has been shown to work as a form of therapy. Group therapy owes its effectiveness to group members’ sharing their personal stories of hardship and triumph. Hero stories link together strangers and inspire hope in the same way.
It’s a new year, which means we could all benefit from some new inspiration. In that spirit, I offer the stories of a few North Carolina women who definitely fit the definition of hero.
Nell Battle Lewis was a lawyer, feminist, and journalist for the Raleigh News & Observer during the first half of the 20th century. She earned the nickname “Battling Nell” for spearheading the movement to end capital punishment in North Carolina. Lewis oversaw the first-ever study and analysis of death row inmates—and was the first to conclude that racial discrimination plays a heavy role in criminal justice.
Alice Morgan Person was a professional musician, patent medicine entrepreneur, and North Carolina women’s rights advocate from 1840 until 1913. A digital music library of her compositions is on display at East Carolina University. Gertrude Weil of Goldsboro continued this activist tradition of women’s suffrage, and hosted a bi-racial women’s council in her home.
Have a hero story you’d like to share? Know of another North Carolina woman who should be on our list? Tell us about her.