Disappointed with the role models (errr…lack of role models) in today’s news cycle? Us too. That’s why we’ve come up with a list of inspirational leaders who are powerful role models for the next generation of presidents, scientists, artists and innovators. Read on to learn more about these seven pioneers who led with integrity and class.

photo: Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain

1. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Divisive times call for smart, strategic and compassionate leaders. And, few leaders typify these characteristics more than Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK was instrumental in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in April 1964. Why wait until MLK Day in January to learn more about this iconic hero? Now’s an appropriate time to teach your kids about the Civil Rights movement and how MLK changed the face of history. Click here to learn more about MLK.

photo: Wikimedia Commons

2. Rachel Carson

If your kid is obsessed with Nemo and Dory, or if her life goal is to swim with the fishes, she can thank Rachel Carson for bringing the marine conservation movement to the global stage. Ms. Caron began her career as a marine biologist and became a full-fledged writer in the 1950’s. And while her bestseller, The Sea Around Us, garnered her national critical acclaim, it was Silent Spring, her published studies about the effect pesticides were having on the ocean that grabbed the attention of the American public. Even though Rachel ran into a wall of opposition (aka corporate chemical companies), she fought and helped to win a reversal in national pesticide policies, which then led to the ban on DDT and other harmful chemicals.
Her hard work and dedication also jump-started a grassroots campaign that eventually led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Her presence in the global fight for the environment continues to this day, via the Rachel Carson Prize, which is awarded to women working in the field of environmental protection.

photo: Lynn Gilbert via Wikimedia Commons

3. Billie Jean King

A former World No. 1 tennis player, Billy can count 39 World Grand Slams and three years as captain of the United States tennis team at the Federation Cup among her numerous ground-breaking accomplishments. Known as a long time advocate for gender equality and social justice, at the age of 29 Ms. King fought and beat Bobby Griggs (he was 55 at the time) in a legendary tennis match—Battle of the Sexes. Her 1973 win brought on more acceptance for women’s tennis and has inspired new and exciting players such as Chris Evert and Serena Williams. Considered to be one of the best tennis players of all time, Ms. King was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990.

photo: Wikimedia Commons

4. Marie Curie

We love leaders who were trailblazers and ahead of their time, which is why Marie Curie rounds out our list. A physicist and chemist who was not only the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie was also the first person and only woman to win it twice, once for Chemistry and once for Physics. Her pioneering work includes the theory of radioactivity and the discovery of not one, but two elements (radium and polonium). For kids (especially girls) who are enamored with the sciences, teach them about Marie Curie and her many impressive accomplishments. Bonus: Click here for even more women scientists to teach your kids about.

photo: Library of Congress, public domain

5. Harriet Tubman

Find major inspiration for doing the right thing, even when the wrong thing is the norm, by teaching your kiddos about the incredible, unflappable Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in 1822, she emancipated herself at the age of 27 and went on to be instrumental in helping dozens of other slaves find freedom using the Underground Railroad—the system of secret safehouse and waystations from the south to the north. Tubman was an armed scout and spy during the Civil War, an early suffragist (advocate for women’s rights) and a humanitarian. She established a home for elderly African-Americans, where she later resided. Today, you can visit Harriet Tubman National Historical Park which includes her home, a visitor’s center, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, and the church she raised funds to build. Her burial site is nearby. 

photo: David Watts, Jr. 

6. Bobbi Gibb 

In 1966 Bobbi Gibb wanted to run the Boston Marathon but when she was denied entry for being a woman she did what all, self-respecting women at the time did. She defied authority and ran anyway! Gibb waited until the race started, a few yards from the starting point, pulled a black hoodie over her head so no one would recognize her, and after several hundred runners began the race she jumped in! And not only did Bobbi run the race, she finished it in 3 hours and 20 minutes, unofficially. That’s just one hour behind the winner and ahead of half the male runners. She made headlines and history that day. Today Gibb is an athlete and runner as well as an author, attorney, speaker, mother, scientist and artist. Check out this cool picture book based on Gibb’s Boston Marathon story.

photo: Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons

7. Sherman Alexie

An award-winning, short story writer, poet, novelist and film maker, Joseph Alexie Jr. is a Spokane Indian and one of the best-known, contemporary Indigenous American authors. He has won the American Book Award more than once, including in 2007 for his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie also wrote a children’s picture book last year, Thunder Boy Jr. His works are semi-autobiographical about his life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and mix his unique experiences with the struggles of youth, adolescence, and adulthood. In addition to using writing and film to challenge the common stereotypes about Native Americans, Alexie works with Native American youth programs that support cultural expression and social empowerment. His most recent book, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir, was released in June of 2017. Alexie is an inspiration for kids from all walks of life and teaches the value of telling your own truth through the art of story.

Clearly, this list is just a start—we’d love to hear who inspires you and your family in the comment section below.

— Amber Guetebier, Gabby Cullen and Erin Lem