October 20th Global Dignity Day was celebrated, embraced, and shared around the world in 50 countries including here in the United States. I volunteered to speak with Ms. Crawford's 8th grade class at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Atlanta, Georgia through Operation HOPE's Banking on Our Future (BOOF) program. I was there not just as a volunteer, but as a human being seeking out other human beings so that we could work together to heal our world from the plague of fear. We say that the children are our future, but we rarely go to them to see and ask how we can help them make the future bright. I was partnered that day with a wonderful woman, Mrs. Carol Quiller who has a background in accounting and works for the Internal Revenue Service. We spoke with the students about dignity, Global Dignity Day, financial literacy, and being financially responsible so that they could lead dignified lives.
Ask a child what 'dignity' means to them, and after a few prompts the answers will flow from them like a stream. You can ask the same of adults and some may ponder a moment because they are 'thinking', and formalizing their thoughts; while the child is merely feeling. A student in grades 4-12 is experiencing a flood of rapid changes on a regular basis. They have been thrust into an environment that changes faster than the seasons. As they attempt to find comfort in their own body, they also seek the approval and acceptance of their peers, and the guidance and protection of their teachers. This is an easier feat to accomplish for the student who clearly has etched out their position in the 'popular' crowd. This is not so easy for the student who blends in to the background so much so that they almost seem invisible.
There is a hunger in the eyes of the child who has grown to realize that they have considerably less than others, that they are economically 'poor', and that others know this to be truth. These children want more not only for self, but for their families. They desire to climb above their piles of poverty and the shame others try to place on their shoulders. They want to live the life of a person with dignity. They want to walk with their heads up, back straight, and shoulders tall with honor and self-respect. They want others to treat them with the respect that they deserve, or as one student in Ms. Crawford's classroom said, "I want to be treated like a human being. I bleed and have feelings just like everyone else."
Ms. Crawford's students shared not only what the principle of dignity means to them, but they acknowledged times when they were not being dignified, and ways in which they can do right by doing good. They excitedly shared the names of loved ones, teachers, mentors, and public figures who they believe walk upright in dignity. To see the 'light bulb' turn on when I shared with them various examples of how we can slowly peel away the layers of a person, leaving them without a sense of dignity- they could clearly empathize. Some even shared stories about how they felt when they were teased or picked on, as well as how they felt after teasing or bullying another student. They identified with the homeless person on the street, because some of them have experienced either first or secondhand what it is like to not have a home all your own. They could empathize with not having the latest in clothing, accessories, and gadgets. They know how it feels to be stared at, to hear the smirks and comments, and to feel alone.
When I quoted Operation HOPE's Founder, Chairman, and CEO, John Hope Bryant as saying, "Hurt people, hurt people" a few of the students admitted that they have hurt others in the past simply because they were in pain and they knew they could. Ms. Crawford's class could also identify with the qualities of an effective, positive leader, and came to grips with the fact that gossip and rumors are a surefire way of leading a life as a mere follower of fear, not a leader of hope and dignity. Their ability to synthesize their thoughts and feelings, and understand why they and others do what they do was impressive. Adults could learn a lot by sitting in a classroom for a couple of hours. They could also learn how we as role models either provide a negative example or a positive one, we are either showing these children the right path to take or the one that will lead them to prison or the grave.
This is also a class of financially literate young adults. Some have savings accounts, and most have found positive ways to ask their family for money, or earn it through babysitting, mowing the lawn, and doing chores. The majority of the class raised their hands when asked if they planned to attend a college or university. One student said that her goal was to attend UCLA. They are a very focused and goal-oriented group of 12-14 year olds, some even understanding the various financial aid options that would pay for the college education, such as grants, scholarships and student loans. They also were confident in their abilities to supplement these options with their incomes derived from working part-time and full-time jobs in college.
The entire class understood the difference between wants and needs, and quickly grasped the trappings of predatory lending. It did not take Mrs. Quiller five minutes to explain to them how to read, comprehend and calculate interest rates before they could see how much consumers were losing on high interest payments to payday loan centers, check cashing facilities, and some credit cards who market to those with poor credit. One student raised his hand and said, "I could end up paying back the payday loan place my whole paycheck when you add the interest in there, how would I pay my monthly bills?", and another student said, "I'm gonna focus on being a cash man, spending what I have, and not what I hope to have. If I don't have it then I don't need it."
I love working with children, I love to see their "a-ha" moments when something I have taught them 'clicks'. Over the years I have found myself growing an even deeper connection with children who don't fit the 'mold'. Those students of meager means, those who are labeled 'average' or 'below-average', the odd-balls, the ones who adults would rather medicate than counsel, and the ones who are highly unlikely to be voted "most popular", "most attractive", or "most likely to succeed". I grew up one of the popular girls in school, but unlike the stereotypical image we associate with a person from this crowd, I was and still am accepting of all people no matter their socio-economic background, the color of their skin, their gender, religion, or sexual orientation. To me we are all a part of a huge extended family, and we can all learn from each other. No matter how much money you earn, how you look or what you think about me, you are my brothers and sisters. I believe that this is what made me popular and so well liked, more so than my looks, intelligence and athleticism, it was that I embraced everyone.
What I noticed growing up was that those who did not 'fit in' were ostracized and cast away to sit with the other 'undesirables'. So I did the unthinkable and invited them to hang with me and my group of friends whenever they wanted. It is amazing how you can break the mold of the status quo when you choose to lead and do the right thing, even when the masses are doing something else. Ms. Crawford's students want to go against the grain, they want to shift the global paradigms that dictate to the world, and they want to do right even when doing wrong is easier. These students want to be accepting of others, because they know how it feels not to be accepted. They are willing to go the opposite way of the crowd because they want to be leaders of dignity, not followers of fear. They want all mankind to live the life they were born to live, with inalienable rights- that can never truly be taken away. These students have added one more layer of hope in my heart. They are like sheep in the pasture just waiting to be led the correct way.
I ask my peers, my fellow adults, to take one hour out of your day even if it's only once a month and go speak to a group of children in your community, at your church, or at a nearby school. You will be amazed at what you learn in that short period of time, and how great you will feel during and after that brief exchange. I want to thank Operation HOPE for providing me with the opportunity to speak about dignity, financial literacy, and shifting our global paradigm.
I would also like to send a big thank you to the co-founders of the Dignity Project we call Global Dignity Day, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, John Hope Bryant, and Professor Pekka Himanen.
One child at a time, one person at a time…dignity for all!
-Natasha L. Foreman
October 28, 2010
Natasha L. Foreman, MBA
Business & Entertainment Consultant
Certified Personal Fitness Trainer