03/13/2014 05:46 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

Who Is Your Shero?

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, I've been thinking a lot about heroes. As a college student activist in the 1960s' anti-apartheid movement in the U.S., I and so many others looked to him as the epitome of what a hero is: Someone who acts out of courage for principles of justice and freedom, despite the threat and actual personal harm or injury. I am humbled, knowing it was easy to oppose apartheid at a distance of 5,000 miles -- much harder when it dictated every aspect of a discriminatory and brutal life and environment.

Thinking about heroes and last weekend's International Day of Women reminds me that we should also be looking for sheros. And there are so many everywhere.

This past year we've shared the life of a shero in Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for universal access to a quality education who risked her life by speaking out for girls' education in her country and around the world.

The film Girl Rising has identified nine sheroes and told their stories of courage and determination in their struggle to have access to education. Imagine the numbers of unknown individuals who, on a daily basis boldly confront injustice and put aside the fear and real threat of bodily harm from those whose position of comfort is threatened by calls for change. My thoughts go to the 57 million primary school-aged young people who are not in school, many of whom would prefer a classroom to the work at sites of employment or in their homes in domestic worker roles or who are imprisoned by early "marriages." Some are able to confront obstacles, often with the assistance of a family or community member, but the agony most suffer is in silence as the power of economic and social inequality keeps them from standing up and shouting the proverbial "I'm not taking it any more!"

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, is seeking heroes who will speak out for their local sheroes. She has launched the #HeforShe campaign, recognizing that girls' education needs the active support of brothers, fathers, sons and nephews.

And here in the U.S. there are the incredible champions of the right of an Education For All worldwide, like U.S. House Representative Nita Lowey from New York State who deserves public recognition for her sheroic efforts and Paola Martinez, a college student from the Dominican Republic studying in the same state, who quietly took time off from her courses and degree to engage in advocacy training for universal access to a quality education.

I think of the many and nameless elementary and high school student heroes and sheroes who joined Lawrence O'Donnell to help purchase desks and chairs for students in Malawi. Kudos to those like Buzzfeed who are giving voice to the stories of sheroes.

I'm in awe of the caring, commitment and energy of 10-year-old Vivienne Harr in Fairfax, California who "made a stand," literally a lemonade stand to combat child slavery and enable hundreds of children to attend school and get an education.

Tatyana McFadden, who is competing in Sochi in the winter Paralympics, is truly an inspirational shero. Paralyzed from the waist down due to spina bifida, she believes that sports saved her life and enabled her to get an education. After winning the Boston, London, Chicago and New York marathons in one year, Tatyana is now competing in skiing in Sochi.

A special shout out for those, like the AFT in its Teach Human Rights series and the Global Campaign for Education-U.S.' Lesson For All, that bring sheroes strugging for an education around the world to U.S. classrooms through curriculum content and lesson plans.

Who is your shero? Sheroes in the struggle for the right to an education are around us everywhere. I hope you will join me in identifying and recognizing them for their work to improve the quality of life on the planet for all its citizens. I hope you will tell me about your SHERO at: Here is my Shero! I'm eager to spread the story of their efforts.