A Roadmap to Social Courage

A Roadmap to Social Courage

A Roadmap to Social Courage

By Laura Diamond and Lance Wallace February 16, 2017

As the former president and first lady prepare to receive the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage, their grandson shares lessons from their powerful partnership.

For more than four decades Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have dedicated their lives to improving human rights and alleviating suffering around the world.

Together they’ve traveled to more than 100 countries to observe elections as part of The Carter Center’s mission to enhance freedom and democracy. The nonpartisan, nonprofit center they founded is close to eradicating Guinea worm disease from the planet.

As the 39th president of the United States, he promoted peace in the Middle East through the Camp David Accords; increased the number of women serving in the federal judiciary; and nearly doubled the amount of land protected by the National Park Service. Her groundbreaking advocacy on mental health lessened the stigma associated with mental illness and forced doctors to treat it on par with physical health.

Their humble beginnings in the 1920s in tiny Plains, Georgia gave little indication they would accomplish all this and more. But that is exactly what makes their life so inspiring, said Jason Carter, their grandson and chairman of The Carter Center.

photo - Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter on their wedding day, July 7, 1946. Credit: PBS/Columbus Ledger Enquirer Collection/Carter Center archives

“There is no reason for anyone to believe that some kid from Plains could ever become president of the United States. But he did,” Jason Carter said. “The opportunity for a single individual to make a huge difference in the world is real.”

Carter spoke with Georgia Tech about his grandparents as the Institute prepares to award the couple with the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage on Friday. Jimmy Carter attended Georgia Tech for one year and received an honorary degree from the Institute in 1979 — the first in Tech’s history.

The couple recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, a testament to their love, respect for one another and the power of their partnership.

“The thing about the partnership is if you don’t doubt your ability as a human being to make a huge impact in the world, finding a partner to do it with who is going to be there for 70 years and who is going to be as committed and as excited about making those changes really gives you the ability to change the world,” Jason Carter said.

photo - Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter waving from the stairs of Air Force One
Former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter wave from the top of the aircraft steps as they depart Andrews Air Force Base at the conclusion of President Ronald Reagan's inauguration ceremony on January 20, 1981. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain image.

In some respects, the Carters are just like other grandparents.

Jason Carter jokingly described them as rednecks from South Georgia who sometimes struggle with their cell phones. They’re dedicated to their family of four children, 12 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. They serve their beloved Maranatha Baptist Church.

“A lot of their drive comes from their faith and from their belief in trying to live their lives like Jesus,” Carter said. “In many circles, that comes off these days as trite … But the way my grandparents live, that faith is to do every single thing they can with the opportunities that they have been given to make a difference in other people’s lives.”

The Carter Center exemplifies that attitude because it is founded on respect for people, he said. They don’t go to remote villages and tell people what to do. They go and listen and then teach people how to change their own lives, he explained.

photo - Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter on the grounds of The Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia, 1993. Credit: The Carter Center

A challenge some face when wanting to help others is deciding where to focus their efforts. While the Carters have doggedly focused on certain issues – such as Rosalynn Carter’s mental health advocacy spanning 60 years – they remain flexible and take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

Neglected tropical diseases, such as Guinea worm disease, were not on their radar until someone presented the issue to The Carter Center, Jason Carter said. Once they decided they could make an impact and realized no one else was willing to travel to these countries to address the health problems, they tackled it.

And they’ve succeeded. In the mid-1980s Guinea worm disease afflicted about 3.5 million people annually in 21 countries in Asia and Africa. Today there are only 25 cases in Chad, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The last disease eradicated from the planet was smallpox in 1980.

photo - Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
Former President Jimmy Carter and former First Lady Rosalynn Carter wear traditional Ghanaian attire, a gift from the chief of Tingoli village in northern Ghana on Feb. 8, 2007. Credit: The Carter Center

“There will be no more Guinea worm disease by the time they’re finished,” Jason Carter said. “They have achieved things in their lives that they would have never thought possible. I think that example is real and all of us can do that.”

Their lives offer a roadmap for those who want to make a difference, he said.

“The first step of that roadmap is don’t underestimate what you can do, no matter where you come from. And the second is once you’ve decided that you care about something, stick with it.”


photo - two young people posing inside a large photo cutout with the words "GT-SHPE 2016-2017 kick-off"

Matt Puchalski

Freehold, New Jersey

As a volunteer at his local Habitat for Humanity Re-store in New Jersey, Electrical Engineering major Matt Puchalski got is hands on President Jimmy Carter’s book, “Our Endangered Values” and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting.

“As corny as it sounds, the Carters are a personal inspiration to me through their lifetime of brilliant work for humanity.”

Puchalski’s passion for service has carried on at Georgia Tech through his involvement with a mentoring program in the Georgia Tech chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. His took on this role even though he didn’t speak Spanish. Soon he was engaging with students to learn their strengths and match them up with the ideal professional experience.

“I feel that it is important to give back because that's how I was raised. Growing up, I learned that if you have the ability to help others, you should not stand idly by but to take action, and in doing so you make the world a better place.”

photo - young woman hammering on the side of a house under construction

Ivey Fidelibus

Lookout Mountain, Georgia

A public policy student at Georgia Tech, Ivey Fidelibus has moved from student to teacher by volunteering with JumpStart, an education enhancement program for low-income pre-school students around Atlanta.

“Every human deserves the same dignity, opportunities, and loving relationships that I have been privileged with. I would have nothing without the people and systems that have cared for me, so I feel the responsibility to provide and protect others in the same way.”

She’s working to eliminate the literacy gap for low-income children by forming relationships, teaching vocabulary and practicing reading comprehension skills.

“President and Mrs. Carter inspire me with their tireless devotion to others, from their work in the White House for national conservation and equal economic opportunity to today in Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center. I am grateful for the opportunity to hear from the Carters and continue their goals of universal opportunity, sustainability, and global human rights.”

photo - young woman standing in front of a small outdoor exhibit with the title "Engineers for a Sustainable World".

Jamie Curtis

Redding, Connecticut

For Materials Science and Engineering student Jamie Curtis, hydroponics is more than an interesting project. Growing plants without soil is a passion for Curtis who gives her time to such causes as Engineers for a Sustainable World and Friends of Refugees.

“Social courage has been a theme of my time at Georgia Tech in the sense that I’ve helped develop our hydroponic team from a brand-new group really unknown on campus to a group that’s participated in and won sustainability challenges in the Atlanta community,” she said.

Through her extra-curricular involvement, Curtis has helped install hydroponics systems in schools and was able to donate some of the harvest from the Cherry Emerson rooftop greenhouse. She’s also worked with Friends of Refugees to help them set up their new, hydroponic greenhouse.

“I believe in hydroponics both as a method to grow one’s own food and as a way to build communities,” she said.

She was part of team that won a sustainability challenge at Greenovation 2015, ande she will be presenting at Aglanta on the future of Atlanta’s urban farming scene.

“My motivation to work on projects focusing on sustainability stems from an interest in the environment, but I realize that for more environmentally sustainable techniques and practices to catch on, they need to be socially and economically sustainable as well.”

photo - young man in classroom setting, very well dressed in white suit, listening intently.

Auston Kennedy

Atlanta, Georgia

Tackling the impact of environmental injustice on impoverished communities, Industrial and Systems Engineering student Auston Kennedy has found a way to help plug the African American Student Union (AASU) into the office of Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) to make a difference in West Atlanta.

“Social courage to me is working continuously toward the goal of universal human dignity,” Kennedy said. “And that work requires a willingness to be uncomfortable, to confront one's own privilege, and to empower others to do the same.”

As vice president of AASU, Kennedy is expanding his own and the organization’s service portfolio to include environmental sustainability, justice and equity. Together AASU and SLS are working to provide access to health food for the urban neighborhoods near the Tech campus and help with community development and civic engagement.

Kennedy brings to this year’s Ivan Allen Prize for Social Courage event a desire to understand how the Carters have achieved so much for the betterment of the world.

“President and Mrs. Carter bring to us decades of experience working as advocates and change agents,” he said. “I'm eager to mine their knowledge and wisdom, and to incorporate those into my understanding of the world's challenges and what my role might be in working to alleviate them.”