It would have been so easy for my Dad to say to my Mom, “It’s not my problem. I’m off-duty,” but he couldn’t do that. He wouldn’t do that. He understood that his role as a San Francisco firefighter meant that he was on-duty whenever and wherever his services were needed.
Such was the case on Labor Day weekend in 1964 when my parents had just finished a nice dinner at a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf in The City. At that time in his career, my Dad was assigned to Rescue 2 on California Street. When he and my Mom exited the restaurant and saw that fire was engulfing the nearby A. Sabella’s Restaurant, at the corner of Taylor and Jefferson Streets, he knew what he had to do. Dad spent the next couple of hours assisting a rookie firefighter refilling Scott Air Packs outside the burning structure. It was the right thing to do.
A few years later, while dining with my Mom at Westlake Joe’s Restaurant in Daly City, my Dad again jumped into action when another customer in the Cascade Room was choking on a piece of meat. I don’t recall all the details of this incident, but I do know that my Dad, and one other off-duty firefighter, received a meritorious conduct award from the City of Daly City for saving the life of the victim.
Taking action, even when the easiest or most acceptable course is to do nothing -- this is what it means to be an upstander. Most people are well-aware of the term bystander. It is often used to refer to those who witness an event or action, yet fail to get involved in any way. The term upstander, however, is not even in the dictionary. Yet.
It is often understandable that individuals, perhaps fearing for their own safety, choose not to get involved in a particular incident. This is true for people of all ages. Imagine, however, if members of our community embraced the concept of upstanding -- of stepping outside their comfort zone and taking action when they witness a person in distress, an act of bullying, or some other type of injustice happening around them.
Project Cornerstone, an initiative of the Silicon Valley YMCA, is introducing the concept of upstanding to elementary, middle school, and high school students throughout Santa Clara County. Students are being challenged to act on behalf of the vulnerable when they witness bullying in their schools. And now, Starbucks Coffee has embraced the term, launching an online series called Upstanders (click to see trailer). As I mentioned, the term may not yet be in the dictionary, but it will be soon.
I am grateful for this emphasis on getting involved. To take action, even when the easiest or most expected response is to do nothing -- this is the challenge set before all of us today. No longer can we simply sit back and say, “Wow... that’s really sad.” We have a responsibility to step up, stand up, and get involved.