January is National Mentoring Month and provides a powerful opportunity to reflect on the impact we have on others, and they on us.

I have always believed the work I and our nonprofit board and program teams do with the Foundation for Community Driven Innovation, particularly our youth Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math/Manufacturing (STEM) programs, serve a higher purpose than personal enrichment and empowerment. Those things are key to that higher goal: knowledge and empowerment pave the way to critical thinking and reasoned action.

I truly believe the opportunities we work so hard to create for people, especially youth, and the safe space we have created with AMRoC Fab Lab to provide those opportunities, lay the foundations for a more just and equitable society of freethinkers fortified with character and integrity.

If we’ve learned anything from this past year and especially from the heart wrenching scenes at our nation’s Capitol this week, I hope it’s the value of strength of character and integrity. I’ve thought hard about how to speak to our youth about what we’ve seen this week – and I do believe we must speak to them, not around them – without politicizing the issues. I think the best way to do that is to speak to the heart of what it is to be a citizen, a responsible and contributing member of society. And I can’t think of anyone who’s ever done that better than the Mentor of Mentors, the late Dr. Woodie Flowers .

I had the distinct and delightful honor of knowing Dr. Flowers from my time as Regional Director of FIRST youth robotics in Florida for several years. He provided some guidance and helped us connect with resources while we were developing AMRoC Fab Lab, for which we will always be grateful. Dr. Flowers was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a cofounder of FIRST.

He was one of the kindest and gentlest people I’ve ever met, a great thinker who believed we have a responsibility to employ knowledge in collectively making the world better. He coined the term Gracious Professionalism to describe a core ethos of the FIRST robotics program, the ability to learn everything you can and experience helping others as often as you can.

In 2016, in the MIT Faculty Newsletter, Dr. Flowers said, “… we have a responsibility to help students become thoughtful citizens. Rational thought blended with empathy seems too rare everywhere.

“…I offer Gracious Professionalism as a convenient label. It blends rigorous adherence to the laws of the universe with the human qualities we hope to see as those laws are applied by our alumni. Giving back with conscience. Blending hard knowledge with soft feelings. Facts, feeling, and fairness.”

In his short video, Utopia, shown below, he calls on youth to work hard to advance their own lives without pushing others back and down. Life, he liked to say, is not a zero sum game – at least not a life well lived that creates the most possibilities for the most people. Learn to compete like crazy, he would counsel students, and at the same time treat your competitors with empathy and respect.

In a memorial statement entered into the Congressional Record in December 2019 , it was noted that Dr. Flowers’ concern that technology was outpacing our human capacity to keep up with it, had led him to “emphasize the importance of teaching critical thinking and an allegiance to objective truth”  the antidote, he felt, to the “tribalism and binary thinking afflicting our society.”

He believed that “our ability as human beings to solve problems and transcend our most basic tribal instincts, informed by science and grace” was a uniquely American quality that we should elevate and celebrate.

We believe that, too, and as well believe that we have an obligation to help our youth understand the difference between winning – an effervescent experience, not all that different, in that respect, than failure – and succeeding, the long game goal of a life of purpose, well lived, and empathetically experienced.

Since Dr. Flower’s passing in 2019, FIRST students around the world have used the phrase #WalkLikeWoodie to remind one another to be gracious professionals, to think critically and act accordingly, and to strive to make our world a better place by giving back with conscience.

Now would be a really good time for all of us to Walk like Woodie.

Terri Willingham, Executive Director, FCDI/Program Director, AMRoC Fab Lab