Everyday Heroism

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project

In popular media, protagonists are usually richer, stronger, and more beautiful (or handsome) than "ordinary" people. "Ordinary" people, even if they have names, are turned into stock characters. Many of the situations, moreover, in which the protagonists find themselves are extraordinary (e.g. horror, action, thriller, fantasy just to name a few genres). This approach has the effect of making people feel that their own lives are boring and unimportant. Indeed, many people feel that "escaping" into a mediated reality, whether it's television, video games or movies, is the only way to "live." This approach also distracts people from actually addressing real problems by directing their imaginations on to situations that are totally irrelevant to their own lives.


This pattern blends fact and fiction. It addresses the stories of people and settings in fiction and non-fiction and in "real life" as well.


There are no reasons why stories involving "ordinary" people in more-or-less everyday life can't be genuinely beautiful, moving and inspirational.

The Everyday Heroism pattern was inspired by this passage: "Lispector (1925-1977) is best known for short stories and novels that are structured around small, epiphanic moments in the lives of Brazilian middle-class women" (Sadlier, 1999).

Jean François Millet's evocative painting of The Gleaners (1857) shows the simple heroism of simply staying alive. Toiling under the social stigma of gleaning for their food, these three women scoured the fields after the harvest for the leftovers to which they were entitled under French law. The film "To Be and To Have" provides another inspiring example. Through a simple and unhurried portrait of a school teacher in a small French village, the viewer understands his concerns for the children in the one-room school house, his hobbies and his connections with the entire village. No matter what the movies tell us, most real heroes don't fight intergalactic evil or psychopathic killers. The real struggles are at the "human level."

Beverly Cleary, a Portland, Oregon author captures a great deal of the ordinary "dangers" that everybody must face with her wonderful about Ramona. In Ramona the Brave, when Ramona was just six, "She was tempted to try going to school a new way, by another street, but decided she wasn't that brave yet." In that same year Ramona enters a new classroom with a teacher that doesn't seem to understand her or her imaginative ways of seeing things.

Although there is no evidence that Ramona became an activist, she probably would have respected the tough position it can put people in. One takes an unpopular stand and insists that changes for the good can be made. Clearly there would be no social change without heroism — including the "everyday" kind. A small but significant piece of wisdom offers encouragement to those of us who hesitate when faced with this challenge: Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.

The Giraffe Project promotes "ordinary heroism" (or, rather, heroism by people who might otherwise appear to be "ordinary") realizing that no movement is due to a single "leader." The Giraffe project celebrates people who "stick their nose out" and has named nearly 1,000 "Giraffes" thus far who have a vision of a better world. These people have all taken personal risks to initiate an ameliorative project on a grand a scale such as replanting a country's trees or on a "small" scale such as building bridges between two hostile groups in a community.

The original introductory photograph was of Reverend Maurice McCrackin, who was still active in his 90's, is from the Giraffe Heroes Project. In 1945 Reverend McCrackin built the first interracial Presbyterian congregation in the United States. The second introductory photograph was of a young Russian man demonstrating for fair elections. The current introductory photograph is of Greta Thunberg who was just nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her critical work on climate activism. The summary graphic is of The Gleaners, now in the public domain.


Produce — and consider — more popular media that involves "ordinary" people and "everyday" lives. Celebrate the heroes among us and strive to be one yourself. Even an "ordinary" one.

Community Action
Social Movement
Case Studies
Verbiage for pattern card: 

In the media, heroes are usually richer, stronger, and better looking than ordinary people. And the situations in which the heroes find themselves are not ordinary. This makes people feel that their own lives are unimportant. No matter what the movies tell us, however, most real heroes are ordinary. We need media that involves ordinary people and everyday lives. Celebrate the heroes among us and strive to be one. Remember: Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.

Pattern status: 
Information about summary graphic: 

Gleaners, Millet. Public Domain