“Accidental Courtesy” – Noah Schrenk’s Coming of Age Graduation Address

Recently I saw a documentary about a man named Daryl Davis. He is a musician who plays the piano. But more than that, he’s a man who reaches out to members of the Ku Klux Klan, who makes friends with them, and changes their minds. It started when he talked with someone from the Southern Poverty Law Center who told him that you can’t change peoples’ minds. His story is captured in a documentary called “Accidental Courtesy.”

Daryl Davis is Black. It surprised me that KKK members they would ever talk to a black guy, much less listen to him. That seems contradictory to me.

Davis heard about a KKK member who was in jail. He had a wife and child. Daryl Davis took the wife and daughter to see him in prison. Afterwards, wife and daughter began to rethink their thoughts about the Klan.  They began to see that their beliefs could harm people, as well as the effects of what their husband and dad believed and what happened to him as a result.

Daryl Davis actually came to Ferguson to talk with people here.

Learning about Daryl Davis made me wonder if we should just give up on people who we disagree with.

I don’t think people change their minds simply as the result of one interaction, but Davis is someone who invested his whole life in trying to change peoples’ minds, one person at a time.

He acted ethically – he tried to change people’s beliefs, while not harassing them about it. He didn’t call them names – he talked to them as people, not as racist monsters. Which they may have been. But he found that hardened name calling – and yelling – may not be the best or the only way to change peoples’ minds.

For more than 25 years, Davis has been sitting down and talking with KKK members and having a lot of success. Many of them have given him their KKK robes and hoods when they decide to leave the KKK. He targeted the high-level members of the KKK, wanting his message to filter down the ranks. He has so far converted about 25 people away from hate groups.

Davis saw a problem and took responsibility for having these conversations completely out of his own volition. He felt a responsibility to try to stop racism and racial polarization. He could have been selfish and just tried to help his own family. But he acted in the most unselfish way. He took complete responsibility and acted on ethical beliefs.

In my own life I take ethical responsibility at a very different level. I’m only 13. It is a much smaller thing than changing someone’s polarized view. I take care of my dog Sasha. I feed him, I take him out for walks, I play with him. I give him medicine if he needs it. I feel a responsibility to Sasha and am learning how to care for another living thing. It would feel unethical to me not to feed him, let him out, and giving him meds if he needs them. Yes, sometimes it’s a pain. But even if I get pissed off, I still do it. I don’t forget about it.

Sasha is a rescue dog, rescued from dog hoarders who had too many dogs and did not take care of them, and they were taken away. Sasha latched on to me, and I reciprocate.

So, one aspect of my ethical life is to do my part for Sasha. Other things include going to school, doing homework, and sometimes helping around the house.

My sense of responsibility extends to friends who need help. I feel an obligation to help people who need it, and I know that everyone gets something out of real friendships.

One of our ethical values is to realize we are part of the earth and cherish it and all the life upon it. Another is that every person deserves to be treated fairly and kindly. So, taking responsibility for Sasha is an ethical value to me.

I don’t yet know what I want to do when I’m an adult. I do want to get good grades in high school and figure out what I want to do in college. I do know that when I’m older I don’t want to work for a company that treats employees badly or has bias on issues like gender and race and things like that. I’m not sure exactly what I want to do yet, but I don’t want to work for someone who does things unethically or is cruel to anyone.

Daryl Davis inspires me to think about how you talk to people who disagree with you. I think it is better to talk with people than scream at them. It’s more effective. They won’t listen to you if you just scream at them. But if you talk with them, they will think you are rational, debate not a screaming argument.

When someone screams at me, I think they are idiots, and I don’t want to listen to them. It’s better to sit and talk to resolve differences. If you understand someone – you might not convert them to your side – you learn from them.

In my life I know I will be in many situations in which people will disagree with me. Later in life I am bound to meet people who don’t agree with me. The only person who agrees with you 100% is you, so we all have to compromise. And if Daryl Davis can get Klan members to change their views surely I can try to understand others, if not change them to my side.

Daryl Davis felt a personal responsibility to make change, one person at a time.

I think that’s a responsibility we should all share.

Thank you.

Noah’s Parental Introduction and Slideshow
NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.