People I Love: Mario Savio

People I Love: Mario Savio

Two stories shape our lives: the stories we tell about ourselves, and the master social narrative that defines our relationships and roles within society. A defining moment for people of color and women comes when they recognize they either are not included in the dominant social narrative or are belittled and disempowered by it. When people in marginalized groups offer what’s known as a “counter narrative,” they open up new worlds of possibility for themselves and others in their group. I’ve always been most inspired by those with the courage to bring forth a counter narrative that creates a new social narrative into which I could step. This series of stories features such people. I hope you find them as inspiring as I have. For more on the importance of the stories we tell—and believe—about ourselves, and the power we can claim when we re-author those stories and offer counter narratives, please see The Power of Counter Narrative.

Mario Savio


In the autumn of 1964, seemingly overnight, the Free Speech Movement sprouted at the University of California at Berkeley. Young people across America and the world took notice. At the center of the action was Mario Savio (1942-1996).

“When he shows up, it’s like he’s basically in my backyard,” Cavanaugh-Simmons recalls. “When the protests started in ’64, I was in the eighth grade. His was the first voice I ever heard that said that no matter how young you are, you have a responsibility to take on the establishment.”

He was 21 years old, a Berkeley philosophy student who had spent the previous summer as a civil rights activist in Mississippi, seeing first-hand what brave and committed souls could do to change the world.

In September of ’64, Berkeley officials cracked down on campus political activities. Students protested this infringement on their constitutional rights beginning with a small sit-in on October 1, expanding their effort over several months. Soon faculty members joined them. The movement forced a virtual shut-down of the huge school. Hundreds were arrested. At one point, Savio bit a police officer on the foot.

Savio’s signal moment came on December 2, 1964, in Sproul Plaza, a major campus gathering point, when he delivered one of the great speeches of American history, a declaration that his generation, the ’60s generation, was not going to be frightened by police or unresponsive bureaucrats or the stultifying machinery of the status quo. Among his memorable passages:

And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop!

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

The Free Speech Movement achieved its goals. And it energized a generation—millions of young people watched the proceedings on TV. They had never seen these kinds of student actions before; they became aware of their power. The youth rebellion of the ’60s was underway. The Vietnam War became the centerpiece of protest in the second half of the ’60s.

Post-’60s, Savio retreated from public life, spending many years as a student and educator. He died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 53 in Sebastopol, California. His work has influenced a great many activists over the years, including leaders of the Occupy Movement of 2011. The steps of Sproul Plaza, where he spoke on that glorious day in 1964, are known today as the Mario Savio Steps.

“People’s Park, the Occupy Movement—you can track back to him,” Cavanaugh-Simmons says. “He was a model of the importance of speaking up. He had a ferocity and a deep sense of the moment.”

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My Story is My Path

Resources for all those called to leadership who understand the power of words and stories to shape their futures from one of the nation’s preeminent narrative coaches, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons of CCS Consulting Inc.

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