Marymount sociology class campaigns for Paralympics to win Nobel Peace Prize

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Inspired by those words, Marymount professor Dr. Leszek Sibilski has taken them to heart in his Sociology 131 class. The 59 students enrolled in the course, who come from all walks of life, have become active participants in their own education by working throughout the Fall 2019 semester to nominate the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“When you look at what it means to win the Nobel Peace Prize, you realize it’s an individual or an organization that promotes social change and breaks down barriers between nations while bringing everyone together in peace,” said junior Mariana Reyes of Peru. “The International Paralympic Committee is a perfect example of what the Prize represents.”

Dr. Sibilski has been a longtime supporter of the Paralympics and how they transform the lives of those involved. His Ph.D. dissertation focused on the social aspects of disability, and he later covered disabled athletes as a sports reporter and also served as a disability adviser for the Polish government. He says he has not missed any Paralympic Games since 1996, and was formerly a member of the Education Committee on the IPC.

His goal for the class project was to educate and raise awareness about what the Paralympic movement is all about, while teaching students how to create social action for a just, inclusive and accessible society.

“It’s been empowering for me. Even though we come from a small school, or even if you’re in a small group or you picture yourself as not having a lot of social power, you can still make a change,” said freshman Grayson Andrews, a native of the U.S. “It doesn’t really matter how big you are or how influential you think you are. If you want to change something, you can definitely make it happen.”

One method that Dr. Sibilski emphasized was for students to promote the cause online through social media campaigns, using the hashtag #Paralympics4NobelPeacePrize. However, their efforts didn’t stop there.

“Social media is only one of the instruments in how we want to achieve our goal of gaining support and spreading the message about the Paralympics,” Dr. Sibilski said. “I am also asking my students to advocate for our cause by engaging in face-to-face, traditional footwork-oriented campaigns with their families, friends and social networks. We seek to gain support for our project from all levels of the community, not only students but also faculty members and administrative staff. I would also like to engage with more schools as well in the near future.”

This active project is incorporated into the course through an instructional unit on “Collective Action, Social Movements and Social Change.” Dr. Sibilski explains that the campaign fits “perfectly” into applied sociology from a global perspective, with more than one billion people estimated to experience some form of disability worldwide, according to the United Nations. In the United States, he says that number is close to 49 million.

Even with such a high proportion of the population identifying as disabled, many Marymount students involved in the project said they were relatively unfamiliar with the Paralympics before taking this class, and that it has opened their eyes to an important issue.

“I didn’t even know they had those types of programs for people with disabilities, which goes to show that they’ve been so shunned out from the world for such a long time,” said freshman Israa Al Mashhadani, who hails from Iraq. “Then you start to think why is that the case compared to the normal Olympics, where it’s a huge thing every four years? The goals, behavior and actions of the International Paralympic Committee were just so genuine. We saw actual impact being made as we did our research on it.”

In order to motivate his students to get involved, Dr. Sibilski presented two documentaries to his class. He describes the first, “Murderball,” as a “classic” in terms of understanding the makeup of the Paralympic movement. Set in 2004, it shows the lives of U.S. rugby team members who are preparing for the Paralympic Games in Athens that year. The second introduced the students to Natalia Partyka, a Polish table tennis player who is not only a five-time Paralympic gold medalist but also a three-time Olympian, and someone who has demonstrated success in competing against able-bodied athletes.

“They’re changing the world through their achievements and their persistence,” said freshman Karim El Mehri of Tunisia, describing Paralympic athletes he has seen thanks to Sociology 131. “I have friends and relatives who are disabled, and when I talk to them, a small part of them seems negative because of their disability. But after seeing those disabled athletes in the Paralympics, they inspired me and the disabled community as well.”

“It showed me that like everyone else, disabled people can find their destiny in life,” added junior Veronica Olivera, originally from Bolivia. “That’s very powerful.”

Immediate action on the project will conclude with the sending of a letter of nomination to the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway. The deadline for nomination submissions is January 31, and the winner will be announced on December 10, 2020 in Oslo’s City Hall.

Dr. Sibilski would like to thank the President of Marymount University, Dr. Irma Becerra, the Dean of Marymount’s School of Sciences, Mathematics and Education, Dr. Catherine Wehlburg, and the Chair of the Sociology Department, Dr. Matthew Bakker, for their support, respect and admiration towards their efforts to nominate the International Paralympic Committee for the Nobel Peace Prize!