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Everything you like is Team Jedi, and everything else is Sith. That's not OK.

We're making the same mistakes they made a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Everything you like is Team Jedi, and everything else is Sith. That's not OK.

There once was an orphan who lived in the desert.

Raised on a farm by his aunt and uncle, the only opportunity he could see to free himself from a life of poverty was to join the military. But then tragedy struck: Government soldiers destroyed his family, home, and livelihood — all because of some questionable intelligence.

A devout old veteran soon befriended the boy, filling his head with fantasies of glory, strength, and war. At the man's behest, the boy joined a radical guerrilla force and within days had bombed the most expensive piece of government property ever created, murdering hundreds of people in the process.


Obviously I'm referring to Luke Skywalker. Who else?

To be clear: I don't actually think that Luke Skywalker is a terrorist. I mean, we're talking about a fictional character here.


Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

But framing the story that way wasn't difficult to do. After all, that's the entire point of fiction: to understand the world (or galaxy as the case may be) through someone else's eyes. And nowhere is this experience more powerful than in those timeless, grandiose mythologies like "Star Wars."

That's why Luke Skywalker is the Democrat raging against police states and corruption.

And he's the Tea Partier trying to return the nation to the freedom and religious values of yore.

He's the Libertarian crusading against government oversight, wishing for a world where even Wookies thrive on meritocracy.

Or, ya know, a radical religious terrorist. Your space-mileage may vary.


An entire Jedi fan-family! Photo by GabboT/Flickr.

It's so easy for us to put ourselves into the hero's shoes, and that's exactly why these stories resonate with so many people.

But at the same time, it's easy for all of us to make "the other guy" seem like the villain, regardless of their actual beliefs. We all want to be the one who fires that proton torpedo and destroys the Death Star, defeating The Enemy and making the galaxy safe for The Good Thing We Believe In.

If we are all Luke Skywalker, orphaned son-turned-aspiring Jedi knight, then anyone who disagrees is a mustache-twirling, Force-lightning-crackling Sith lord, no questions asked.

Except that's ... not how the world works, is it?

Nothing is purely good or evil. Reality is messy, ugly, and hard. We get so bogged down in the Jedi stuff ('cause let's face it, that stuff's awesome), that we don't think about the Stormtroopers, for example. Are they stand-ins for the Nazis who were just following orders? Or are they the same as American soldiers, fighting for their righteous beliefs in a free market economy that allows the Hutts and other hard-working entrepreneurs to thrive? Maybe they actually are trying to protect the people from the random, scrappy actions of those religious extremists in the Rebel Alliance.

Or maybe all those assumptions can co-exist. Maybe our empathy shouldn't stop with the protagonist.


Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

Empathy is one of the major themes of "Star Wars." That's why we still love it, still talk about it, and still need it.

Let me tell you about another young orphan boy from the desert, one who was also born into economic struggle. This boy was also seduced by religion, and committed himself to a life of righteousness rather than acknowledging his own human flaws.

He, too, loses everyone he loves. As a quadriplegic man, he overcomes adversity by committing himself to the opposite extreme, rising through the ranks of the military to become a renowned leader and warrior.

And yet he struggles to connect with people — specifically, with the family that he never knew he had. Every attempt he makes just perpetuates that same endless cycle of poverty and abuse that he grew up with. Until one day, he learns to find the balance between the polarized extremes of his light and the dark sides.

But everything changes when, with his last mortal breath, Anakin Skywalker absolves his estranged son and frees him from that same unending cycle.


Image by doctorwonder/Flickr.

That's the most important lesson we can learn from "Star Wars": real life doesn't have a Dark Side and a Light Side.

I'm not saying that we should all be rushing to throw any emperors down Death Star shafts. But what happens at the end of "Return of the Jedi" is powerful because it breaks the cycle, freeing the galaxy from the overly-simplistic binary of the Light Side and the Dark Side. Vader embraces both sides of the Force — seeking goodness while accepting his flaws and finding a better way through the center.

That's what it means when they talk about bringing balance to the Force. It's not about the eternal struggle of good versus evil — it's about going beyond those oversimplified extremes and embracing empathy as well as ambiguity.


Note: By "ambiguity" I don't mean "amoral mercenary feared throughout the galaxy." Photo by Josh Hallett/Flickr.

So why do we keep telling the same stories of good versus evil over and over and over again? Because we still need them.

There are Republicans, and there are Democrats; and whichever side you're on are the righteous Jedi knights, with the opposition being unequivocally Sith.

There's patriotism, and there's terrorism; and there's no room for nuance when oil freedom is on the line.

You're a capitalist or a communist; your god is right or you're an evil heathen; you're a lazy welfare moocher or a self-made success who earned everything you have.

It was the Empire against the Rebel Alliance; now it's the First Order against the Resistance. What did Darth Vader die for if we're still stuck in that endless cycle of polar opposition?


Photo by Lucius Kwok/Flickr.

As long as there's an "us" and "them," we'll always keep on fighting.

As sad I would be to not have another "Star Wars" film — and as fun as it is to come up with absolutely ridiculous readings of my favorite stories — I'd much rather live in a world that goes beyond that same eternal struggle and where well-meaning people can exist in the grays between the Dark and the Light.

May the Force be with you, in any shade that understands the human struggle.

Photo by Josh Hallett/Flickr.

Photo courtesy of Yoplait
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When Benny Mendez asked his middle school P.E. students why they wanted to participate in STOKED—his new after school program where kids can learn to skateboard, snowboard, and surf—their answers surprised him.

I want to be able to finally see the beach, students wrote. I want to finally be able to see the snow.

Never having seen snow is understandable for Mendez's students, most who live in Inglewood, CA, just outside of Los Angeles. But never having been to the beach is surprising, since most of them only live 15-20 minutes from the ocean. Mendez discovered many of them don't even know how to swim.

"A lot of the kids shared that they just want to go on adventures," says Mendez. "They love nature, but...they just see it in pictures. They want to be out there."

Mendez is in his third year of teaching physical education at View Park K-8 school, one of seven Inner City Foundation Education schools in the Los Angeles area. While many of his students are athletically gifted, Mendez says, they often face challenges outside of school that limit their opportunities. Some of them live in neighborhoods where it's unsafe to leave their houses at certain times of day due to gang activity, and many students come to his P.E. class with no understanding of why learning about physical health is important.

"There's a lot going on at home [with my students]," says Mendez. "They're coming from either a single parent home, or foster care. There's a lot of trauma behind what's going on at home...that is out of our control."

Photo courtesy of Yoplait

What Mendez can control is what he gives his students when they're in his care, which is understanding, some structure, and the chance to try new things. Mendez wakes up at 4:00 a.m. most days and often doesn't get home until 9:00 p.m. as he works tirelessly to help kids thrive. Not only does he run after school programs, but he coaches youth soccer on the weekends as well. He also works closely with other teachers and guidance counselors at the school to build strong relationships with students, and even serves as a mentor to his former students who are now in high school.

Now Mendez is earning accolades far and wide for his efforts both in and out of the classroom, including a surprise award from Yoplait and Box Tops for Education.

Yoplait and Box Tops are partnering this school year to help students reach their fullest potential, which includes celebrating teachers and programs that support that mission. Yoplait is committed to providing experiences for kids and families to connect through play, so teaming up with Box Tops provided an opportunity to support programs like STOKED.

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Ndakasi and Virunga National Park ranger André Bauma.

Fourteen years ago, Ndakasi the mountain gorilla was found clinging to her dead mother in the Congo after bushmeat hunters wiped out her entire family. This week it was announced that she recently passed away in the arms of Virunga National Park ranger André Bauma, the man who rescued her.

Bauma served as Ndakasi's caretaker since he brought her to the park's Senkwekwe Center, where she was rehabilitated along with another orphaned gorilla named Ndeke. Unable to be safely returned to the wild, Ndakasi lived her life in Virunga, where mountain gorilla conservation is a priority.

The park shared a touching photo and announcement of Ndakasi's passing on Facebook. The gorilla had been suffering from a prolonged illness, and her condition had rapidly deteriorated. A photo shows Bauma sitting on a blanket leaning up against the wall with Ndakasi lying next to him, her head on his chest and her toes gripping his boot.

"Ndakasi took her final breath in the loving arms of her caretaker and lifelong friend, André Bauma," reads the post.

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When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!