"A businessman, a professor, and a prince were talking... "
It might sound like the start of a joke.
But when American entrepreneur John Hope Bryant, Finnish professor Pekka Himanen, and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway got together through the Young Global Leaders network of the World Economic Forum, the outcome was anything but a joke. It was seriously amazing.
The three friends bonded over their shared belief that human dignity is at the core of positive social change, and their shared desire to "operationalize" the concept into practical action. So in 2005, they created Global Dignity Day--a program for school-aged children to engage in candid conversations about what dignity means to them.
On October 21, 2015, such conversations will be happening in classrooms around the world. As the organizers explain, "Defining dignity in their own words and sharing stories from their own lives gives students ownership of the concept." Last year, more than 350,000 young people in 60 countries took part, sharing stories on topics from helping others to bullying to identity.
In Canada, where Dignity Day events take place from Toronto to Arviat, I've seen first-hand how the idea of dignity speaks to young people in meaningful ways. Global Dignity Day reminds them that it's okay to be different, and that they have inherent value and worth--no matter where they come from or what path they take in life. In words attributed to Aristotle, "Dignity consists not in possessing honors, but in the consciousness that we deserve them." Dignity Day is consciousness-raising on a global scale.
And we need it--not just schoolchildren, but men and women of all ages. After all, many of us are privileged to be able to take the concept of dignity for granted, rarely, if ever, pausing to consider what dignity truly means--or how life would be different without it.
Yet a life of dignity is not guaranteed to everyone. Every day, all over the world, people are overlooked by their community and abandoned by wider society. And when people are degraded and made to feel "less than"--when they are deprived of their ability to take pride in their past or to find hope in their future--the result can be social isolation that further corrodes their sense of self-worth.
On October 5, 2015, officials in Ontario, Canada, opened one of the largest inquiries in the province's history. Between 2000 and 2011, seven high school-aged First Nations students were found dead in Thunder Bay. These students, who hailed from remote northern communities, had been required to move to Thunder Bay for their schooling. The circumstances surrounding their deaths were never fully investigated--until now.
The inquest's conclusions about these seven heartbreaking deaths will no doubt be complex. But I believe a common thread is already apparent. Allowing these young people to fall through the cracks, failing to provide closure to their families, and not doing more to prevent future tragedies represents a disregard for human dignity--a disregard that has painfully tarnished too much of Canada's relationship with its indigenous peoples, and left too many First Nations youth feeling unvalued and unseen.
We must do better.
Dignity, to me, is rooted in both freedom and respect: the freedom to live as you choose based on what matters to you most, and the respect granted to your choices and your values by those around you. To live a dignified life is to be accepted by your peers and embraced by your wider community, and to have the opportunity to fulfill your true potential.
Moreover, one's own dignity is indivisible from the dignity of others. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, in describing the African concept of Ubuntu, "We belong in a bundle of life. We say, 'a person is a person through other persons.'"
In other words, dignity and belonging are inextricably intertwined, and each requires the same three pathways for support: respect, recognition, and reciprocity. By enabling dialogue, Global Dignity Day opens the gate to those crucial pathways.
So on October 21, let's all find a way to engage with our peers in this worldwide conversation about the importance of dignity. Let's think deeply about the ways we can promote it. And let's each do our part to support the dignity of all people, no matter their circumstance or condition. Let's make this not just a day of empathy, but a day of inclusion and action.
You can learn more about Global Dignity Day, and download free teaching tools, here.