Skip to content
The Joy of Belonging

Explore the incredible gifts of service and belonging with Tim Shriver, board chairman of the Special Olympics, on this episode of The Joy of Belonging. From growing up in the revered Kennedy family to his transformative experiences in education and the profound impact of the Special Olympics, Shriver shares insights on the importance of belonging, the influence of figures like James Comer, and the launch of UNITE—a platform that aims to ease divisions, prevent violence, and solve global challenges through the lens of dignity.

Subscribe to or follow The Joy of Belonging podcast on Spotify, YouTube, or YouTube Music.


00:00 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Welcome to The Joy of Belonging. I’m your host, Mary Ann Villarreal, and our guest today is Tim Shriver, the chairman of the Special Olympics, co-founder and chair of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning known as CASEL, the leading school reform organization for social and emotional learning, and a University of Utah Impact Scholar. Shriver is a husband, father, educator, bestselling author of the enormously popular memoir, “Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most” and a filmmaker. He is also, of course, a member of perhaps the country’s most well-known political family, the Kennedy’s.

Beginning in 1996 as the head of the Special Olympics, Shriver has led the largest expansion of the organization, growing the movement from 1 million athletes to over 6 million across more than 200 countries around the world. He’s also the co-founder and chair of the organization Unite, whose aim is to promote national unity and solidarity across political, cultural, and geographical differences. They’re tackling some of the world’s most difficult issues by building the Dignity Initiative, a movement to ease division, prevent violence, and solve problems by reducing the rancor in our political and public discourse, and promoting the dignified treatment of every person. Welcome to The Joy of Belonging, Tim.

Well, I’m gonna jump right in with a question about your work with the Special Olympics, and you’ve been the chairman of the organization for many years. Your history of working among those with intellectual disabilities and intellectual abilities, in that, goes back much further to Camp Shriver and Aunt Rosemary and the example set for you by your parents, especially your mother. Can you tell us a bit about those experiences and what you have found most rewarding in this work?

02:06 | Timothy Shriver

Well, I mean, it’s hard to overestimate the power of the Special Olympics movement in my life, but I’m gonna be bold and say that for almost every volunteer, almost every family member, and for many, many, the vast majority of athletes, participation in Special Olympics is a life-changing event. And I often ask myself why? It seems like we’re just playing soccer, we’re just running a hundred meter race, or we’re just swimming the length of the pool. What changes us so deeply about it? And I think, you know, there are many dimensions of what changes a human being, but one dimension is when we find ourselves in the presence of a dignity bigger, more powerful, more beautiful than we could have dared imagine. And when we find ourselves humbled by our misperceptions, I thought it was this, and it turns out to be something so much bigger. It’s kind of like a religious experience. Awe, wonder, oh, you know, I never saw that coming. I never saw it that way.

So the Special Olympics, you know, movement began in my backyard. My mom started a camp for children with intellectual challenges when I was three years old, four years old. My backyard turned into a carnival of activity, kickball games, swimming races, pony rides, ropes courses. In some ways it was just a playground for a young child that was unimaginably fun. But in another way, that simplicity changed me because it wasn’t about a cause. It wasn’t about a issue, it wasn’t about a policy. It wasn’t about an organization, it was just about play. We were just playing together. And sometimes, you know, it is in play that we, the labels recede and the fear recedes and the assumptions and the judgment recedes. And that’s how I grew up. I grew up, it’s a great gift from my parents to me without judgment first. Judgment came later, seven, 10, wait a second. Is this child different, this child speaks differently. This child doesn’t seem to walk the same way I do. But that was later, I’d already in some ways been imprinted by the primary message, which is that we’re playing together, we’re friends, we’re having fun. And then, you know, once you play together and you’re friends and you have fun, you know, a lot of other things can be handled. You can navigate a lot of the differences.

My Aunt Rosemary was born with an intellectual disability in the early part of the 20th century, when most parents would’ve given up on their children. Many children were allowed to die if they were born with an intellectual disability, in those days, there was a eugenics movement that wanted to purge the country of difference in those days. Thank God my Aunt Rosemary survived that and was able to teach her siblings, her sister, my mom, her brothers who were political leaders, but also all of us, that everybody has a gift. And that respecting and seeing and valuing that gift is the great mission in life.

05:08 | Mary Ann Villarreal

You talk about that scene, right? The ways in which being just as that three, 4-year-old now that 7-year-old, and then growing into a young adult, what they have taught you about ways of seeing.

Can you talk more about how that has influenced your work? Certainly you, but the work that you do.

05:30 | Timothy Shriver

Yeah, well, it’s the most complicated challenge, really, in life. How do we see clearly, almost every psychologist and even neuroscientists will tell us that the brain is sorting all the time. We don’t see the full range of experience. We see just the lens that we are capable of applying, and we’re always applying loads and loads of biases and experiences. We can’t help it, it is the only thing, I’m a certain age, you’re a certain, we’ve got these experiences, so they filter. We’re filtering reality, we’re not seeing reality. We’re filtering it. So the question we have to in some moments ask ourselves is what filter are we using? And can we consciously try to open the filter more broadly? Can we actually work on ourselves to see the bias, the distortions that we’re using? I’m distorting the field of data, just use it that way, right? It’s not emotional, I’m distorting the data because I’m afraid of this person, or because I judge that person, or because this kind of person is, you know, not attractive to me, not compelling to me, not interesting to me, not important to me. I value this person because she or he is, so we’re distorting all the time.

The question that Special Olympics asked me is, could you ever get the core filter to be dignity and love? Like, could you ever be just present to the person? Without the filter distorting the person. Oh, yeah, but she’s a Republican or oh yeah, but he’s from there. Oh yeah, but he works in this kind of profession. Oh yeah, but he’s poor, she’s rich, or whatever. It’s, could you just ever stop that? Take one breath and look and see with love the person next to you, across from you, you know, the gospel’s used, you know, Jesus was, you know, I don’t mean to go religious here, but Jesus was a master psychologist in some ways. You know, we all remember this. Remove the plank in your eye in order to see the splinter in the other person’s eye, getting that plank out of our eye, that’s hard work. It’s a lifetime’s worth of work. But man, if you just get a little bit of that plank outta you, just pull it out just a teeny bit. Sometimes the world opens up and you see, gosh, wow, beautiful human being over there.

07:54 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Well, I see you’re wearing your pin, “got dignity,” and you just talked about having dignity and love in the everyday, right? When we pull that plank out and your launch of Unite, right? Which is the platform to unite us as one. You’ve launched this Dignity Index, and the platform is ease divisions, prevent violence, solve problems. I think I hear where the core of that is emerged from. But how does Unite, right, help us. The Dignity Index, as you’ve launched this now. You’re meeting with campus leaders, you’re meeting with K through 12 leaders. How do you see the Dignity Index helping us address these problems, these divisions?

08:48 | Timothy Shriver

Well, the Dignity Index is a eight point scale that shows you, shows us different ways we can respond when we disagree with someone. That’s all it’s interested in. When you disagree, what are your options? To condemn the person, to kill the person, to listen to the person, to love the person. All these are options we have. Well, you can disagree about whether the window should be open or closed, or you can disagree about whether there should be, the taxes should be X or Y or Z. You can disagree about whether to have, you know, raise your children in such and such place. I mean, there’s a lot of things we disagree about in life, and life is full of these moments where we have to make decisions. Now, you and I do not agree, now, what do I think of you? How do I describe you, how do I listen to you?

The Dignity Index is an invitation to see yourself making those choices. We like to call it a mirror. It’s not a judge, it’s a mirror. So you just see, oh, I’m using a lot of contempt right now when I describe this person. Okay, now here’s what happens, it exposes contempt. And contempt thrives by disguise, right? So almost always, when I treat someone with contempt, it’s disguised as principle. He deserves it, look what he’s done. I should hate him, or I should destroy him, or I should try to get his job, or I should try to just, you know, dismantle his position. He, so my contempt, though, I don’t see, I see it in disguise. I see it as principle, this Dignity Index is trying to just awaken us to the use of contempt. It doesn’t say you can’t ever use it, just says be aware, right? That you are now treating someone with contempt. And right now in our culture, we have this hidden virus. It’s hiding in plain sight, but most of us don’t see it in ourselves. We see it in others, if you talk to the average person in either Republican or Democrats, a conservative or progressive, black, white, rich, I mean, all these divisions that we have in our culture, most people will see the contempt in the other side, but not in themselves. So the Dignity Index is just an attempt to say, let’s just be honest, let’s be conscious of the contempt all the way back to being conscious of our bias. So that we can decide what to do. It doesn’t tell you what to do. Just tells you, helps you see who you are and how you’re doing it.

11:24 | Mary Ann Villarreal

You mentioned earlier in that contempt is disguised as condemnation, right? That if there’s, the cycle of violence and contempt create a cycle of violence and contempt. So is it fair to say that in the paws of the Dignity Index, that what it might create is a cycle of connection, a cycle-

11:28 | Timothy Shriver

From your lips to God’s ears. That would be something, if we tried to create an expectation, a norm where someone would walk into a room and see people with all kinds of differences of opinion, and know deep in their bones that their opinion would not be treated with contempt. They might be disagreed with, maybe should be disagreed with, but they will not be hated and treated with contempt. They will not be, I dare say, canceled, eliminated, attacked personally. Their positions might be attacked, but they will not be, they will be safe. They will have their dignity respected. That would, I think, I mean, it would do more, people talk about free speech. The reason we don’t have free speech is because everybody’s terrified. I mean, everyone, I’ve asked a room of 500 people, how many people have not said something they believe because they’re afraid of the contempt that they’ll receive. Every hand in the room goes up. All of us have this experience right now, we are on edge, not because of what we think, but because what we think will happen to us if we say what we think.

So the biggest threat to free speech right now is a culture of contempt and the biggest threat to solving problems. How do you solve a problem if you’re not telling the truth about what you think? And if your job is just to destroy the other side, guess what? You’re guaranteed, you might destroy the other side, but you won’t solve the problem that the other side is presenting. So we think there’s a lot in this question of how do we shift the culture to make contempt backfire and make respect and reverence and dignity be the norm? Again, we don’t want people to hear this and say, you’re asking me to compromise? No, we don’t want people to hear this and say, we’re asking you not to believe in your principles. Absolutely not, believe in your principles. Believe in them strongly, work for them with all your heart and soul. But add one principle, treat the person who does not agree with you with dignity. That’s it, that I think could unlock an enormous revolution of creativity and compassion. And I think we’re desperate for it.

13:54 | Timothy Shriver

Well, you know, in this idea that we can create connection, we talk a lot about belonging. And I also heard you say, right, what we trigger in somebody is when we don’t acknowledge the dignity, right? If their humanity or their idea is that what we trigger in them is the retaliation.

14:14 | Timothy Shriver

Instant desire, yeah. Instant desire for revenge and retaliation. When your dignity is threatened, you know, Donna Hicks, the Harvard scholar, dignity is the strongest longing we have. And when our dignity is violated, it invariably triggers a response of revenge and reaction and an attack on the dignity of the other. If we can dislodge that cycle and replace it with dignity, validate the dignity of the person whose position disagrees with yours, then we could potentially start a cycle where that starts to grow. And you know, I just don’t think the problems we have today are so intractable. Everybody says, oh, it’s impossible. The other side thinks, first of all, our understanding of the other side is so distorted. I mean, we have lots of polls that say, usually, if you’re a Republican, your perception of Democrats is usually 20 to 30% off. Same thing to the other way. So you’re walking into the room already, remember we talked about that lens? You’re walking in with a distorted lens, it’s not accurate. It’s not even whether it’s fair or nice or kind or compassionate or dignified. It’s inaccurate. You think the other side thinks something they often don’t think. So we’re in this cycle that leads to violence, that leads to dysfunction, that leads to unhappiness.

I mean, you know, we’ve talked about this. This is not just a political issue. You know, when we look at the epidemic of loneliness in this country, we look at the epidemic of anxiety, even depression. We look at our 12 and our 14 or 18 year olds, level of kind of despair about the future, despair about themselves. This is a direct outcome in my view of a culture that has normalized hatred and contempt for the other. If you’re really scared to death of other people, it’s no wonder you’re lonely. It’s no wonder you don’t see a future. It’s no wonder you don’t see any value in yourself. So this is not just a cultural or a political thing. This is a mental health and a spiritual disease as well. And the toll is unspeakably sad and requires, we think immediate, urgent, dedicated attention. Like I said, we think there’s an issue that no one’s paying attention to. The issue is not immigration, it’s not taxes, it’s not education. The issue is contempt. Let’s pay attention to that issue, try to dislodge it, and then we think a lot of other things will free up to allow us to be better problem solvers and listeners and community builders.

16:50 | Mary Ann Villarreal

And I know you, I mean, in hearing you speak that the Dignity Index would not be the first time a tool like this might be used in a K through 12 system. But where do you see the Dignity Index being integrated into opportunity for young people?

17:08 | Timothy Shriver

Well, look, we know we can teach as early as kindergarten. We can teach children how to calm down when they get elevated, when they get stressed out. We know we can teach children in very early years how to be better listeners. How to listen for understanding instead of for response, right? How to listen and mimic or repeat back to someone what they’ve said to see if you are actually paying attention. We know we can teach children in middle school how to disagree without being disagreeable. How to state your position without attacking the position of someone else. These are not just things you get in osmosis or you have to see your mother or your father or your caregiver do for you. You can actually get trained in them. The same way a lawyer learns how to analyze the law, or a doctor learns how to analyze the body, or a electrician learns how to analyze voltage. We can teach people how to be more capable of productive relationship skills and productive disagreement. It’s not rocket science, we need a commitment to it.

And we’re seeing in many of the social and emotional learning programs around the country, some of which people like, some of which people don’t like, that’s okay. But we can see where these skills are taught that kids are happier. Their test scores go up. I mean, people say, well, what does this have to do with test scores? I tell you what, the test scores go up when kids feel safe. When kids feel motivated to learn, when kids don’t feel threatened, when kids feel that their voice matters, guess what? They become better learners. So you want reading scores to go up, reduce the sense of hostility and fear in the classroom. And you’re gonna get, I mean, I’m just saying, you’re gonna have reading scores go up. It’s not rocket science, so we can do this in schools, and the Dignity Index could be a part of that where kids learn maybe in middle or high school how to frame, how to look at the range of options that they have when they respond to someone with whom they disagree.

19:03 | Mary Ann Villarreal

As Impact Scholar here at the University of Utah, one of the pieces that has I think, really grown over the last year is that you started, you know, the new group of Students for Dignity. We’re seeing that same student organization now emerge on other college campuses and greater interest. What is your ideal, your hope, your aspiration, not just for the growth of those student organizations, but what they can do together with people like myself in my offices for our campus cultures?

19:36 | Timothy Shriver

Well, look, I think, I mean, I don’t wanna speak for you, but my sense of what you’re trying to do here, which is so urgent and important, is make the campus safe and understanding of a broad range of human, cultural, social, sexual differences, right? So you’re trying to create a sense of safety on this campus that respects the distinctions we have, treats people with dignity. You don’t have to agree with that each other, but we have to treat each other with dignity. That’s what you’re trying to do. That’s what our students are trying to do, actually teach people how to do that. A lot of people would like to be able to do that, but they really don’t know how. They don’t know how to say, hey, wait a minute, I don’t agree with that position. If I don’t agree with it, that means I have to fight against you, no, it actually does not mean I have to fight against you. It means you have to listen to you. It means you have to treat you with dignity, and it means you have to stick for your position, right?

And if your position is A or B or C, work for it. But you don’t have to attack the other human, right. You don’t have to do that, so look, I hope that the Students for Dignity will help people learn how to navigate these very often, very toxic conditions. Number one, I think, I hope it’ll make students more likely to flourish and be happy. And I hope it’ll help build a groundswell that will change our culture. Now you could say, well, you’ve only got 20 students. You’re gonna change the whole country. And I go back to Margaret Mead who paraphrased that and never doubt that a small group of committed people will change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has. So we start here in Utah, we go to campuses in Pennsylvania or Iowa or Florida or Michigan or Georgia or California or other Washington State or other places, Nevada. We’ll go there, we’ll start with a small group of committed people and watch out. When you got a small group of committed people, don’t underestimate ’em.

What is the most surprising thing you’re hearing from people as you meet with them, as they say, we need this on our campus. Besides, you know, besides that, what are you hearing is their desire in having a student group who can lead these, lead this tool, for us to learn from?

I think people are just desperate for a rest. I think we’re so exhausted. We’re so depleted. You know, people get home at the end of the day and they’re just like, oh my God, there’s so much on my plate, and now my son is this, or now my spouse is that, or now they want me to do this at work. And now, did you see what happen, in such and such a place? And now this is changing and now that’s, I mean, people are just overwhelmed over and, oh, you just hear people, God, is there any place, any place they could just gimme a chance to rest? And I think they see this Dignity Index and they think, oh my God. Whew, I could just have a conversation with someone and not be scared and not be worried. Not worry that my daughter’s gonna yell at me if I say the wrong, not worry that my parent’s gonna yell at me, not worried that my boss is gonna catch me. I’m not worried that I’m gonna lose my job because someone found out that I wrote something last week. Oh my God, you know? So I think we’re really, we’re at a moment, precarious moment where our exhaustion and our fear are really taking its toll, taking their toll. And I think I hear from a lot of young people, goodness gracious, this is a break.

23:16 | Mary Ann Villarreal

Yeah, that is, I think, evidence in how we are seeing participation in where people are choosing to spend their time. And there is that level of exhaustion of how much do I continue to put myself into something and to what end. As we come to a close here, I’m gonna bring this back to your Aunt Rosemary. You write the route to becoming, you write the route to belonging for people like the children at Camp Shriver and my Aunt Rosemary was not easy. So I’d like to, this podcast, The Joy of Belonging. I’d like to bring back, you know, what was that sense of belonging, that importance for feeling fully alive and connected to one another for building community that continues to live at the heart of what emerged from Camp Shriver. And the joy of seeing your Aunt Rosemary be fully embraced.

24:19 | Timothy Shriver

I’ll just paraphrase the wisdom we’ve heard from so many different places. Belonging is achieved by giving it away. You give to someone else who is on the margins, a sense of participation and belonging. Guess what you get, you get it back. You know, long ago, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote that when you give yourself, when you give your cloak, when you free the oppressed and the hungry, and you clothe the naked, beautiful sections there in that book. But what he says at the end is, you shall be known as a healer of the breach. We live with so many people on the other side of a big breach. That’s what happened to Rosemary. She was on the side, on the outside of a big breach. There was a gap between her and the rest of the world that her mother and her father, and her brothers and her sisters tried to bridge. And they couldn’t, they tried and they worked and they’d sought help. And my grandmother would say, day after day, my mom would repeat this. My grandmother would say, there’s nothing for Rosemary, nothing. She was on the outside of the circle looking in. Her family was trying to find a way to heal the breach. If you’re on the inside, cross over, you will find the belonging you’re looking for by giving it to someone else.

25:45 | Mary Ann Villarreal

That’s beautiful, thank you. Thank you so much for your time today.

25:48 | Timothy Shriver

Thank you, thanks for having me.

In This Episode

Mary Ann Villarreal smiles in a button-up shirt and blazer with a Progress Pride Flag Block U lapel pin

Mary Ann Villarreal, Ph.D.

Vice President for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion
The University of Utah
Timothy Shriver smiles in a suit and tie with a short haircut

Timothy Shriver, Ph.D.

Chairman of the Board
Special Olympics International Board of Directors

Episode Notes

The Joy of Belonging is created by the University of Utah division for Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion marketing and communications team. Episodes are produced by David Hawkins-Jacinto and Jasen Lee, and edited by Miko Nielson.