By John Hope Bryant

Co-founder, Global Dignity

Founder, Operation HOPE

Written Saturday, March 29, 2008

"When faced with challenges, we must decide whether we are going to curse the darkness or light a candle. The youth of First Vienna Bilingual Middle School we visited this week chose to light a candle for themselves and the world over."

As I strolled through the streets of Vienna, Austria last Thursday, it became clear to me that this was one of those famous and storied cities with a romantic past, yet an intoxicating presence too. Like Venice, Italy, or Paris, France, or London, England, you get the impression almost instantly upon arriving that it has its own unique personality, and flavor, and an edge. And much like these other great European cities, Vienna was alive and making history more than 100 years ago. In fact, Vienna has been filling the history books since the 11th century, when Rome dominated, and approximately 100 years ago Vienna was literally one of the leading cities in the world, on the level of a Paris or a London.

History confirms that Vienna is the place where most all the great classical musical composers came from, and it was for a time a true international city, in the deepest sense of the phrase; teaming with vitality and diversity, and vision. It had an open hand during its best of times, not a closed fist.

And so, while Vienna is still an amazingly beautiful city today, and remains to this day one of the world’s capitols for classical music, and may in fact be on the verge of a comeback of sorts as an international Mecca, what happened 50 or so years ago is less clear to the naked eye.

Why did Vienna retreat for a time from the world stage, and why was it important for Global Dignity to undertake Dignity Day, Vienna on Friday, March 28th, 2008? Well, there is literally world history embedded in the question, and wisdom, possibility and a vision for the future, for Vienna and the world over too, embedded in the answer.

100 years ago Vienna was literally bursting with creative vitality, energy, and surprisingly, an enormous amount of diversity.

By the 1930’s Vienna had become a magnet for people with a vision for themselves, but who might have been persecuted, isolated or held back somewhere else; whether from neighboring Hungary, Poland, one of the eastern bloc countries, or be they Jewish.

In fact, before World War II, 50% of the students in specialized schools in Vienna were Jewish, even though the total Jewish population in Vienna numbered less than 5% of the total population. They were the doctors, the lawyers, the artists, the merchant class; a substantial population of the professions. Enter, Adolf Hitler.

Hitler quickly proved to be a man with a twisted vision for his native Austria, for Germany and the world. A personal vision, or perversion, that would change us all forever, and not for the good. His was a vision not rooted in dignity, and I have to believe that the world paid a deep, painful price basically because Hitler had a miserable childhood.

Feeding off the insecurity of a country that had suffered financially, Austria and soon Germany, Hitler, a man once jailed as a crackpot, rose to power with a deadly and horrific vision; convince the world that Jews, homosexuals, minorities, and others somehow "different," that they were the world’s only problem. If they could only get rid of them, to somehow remove this "stone from our eye," then all would be fine in the world again.

Good people said nothing, and Hitler rose (a new friend in Austria, Thomas Oliva, told me during my visit that "to sin is not to do bad, as all men will from time to time do bad, but to fail to do the good thing." I quiet agree).

The result was World War II, and a insidious campaign that started with a subtle but purposed mass isolation of the Jew, and others, many of which I might add literally helped to make Vienna what it had come to symbolize all around the world — a success. Ultimately this subtleness devolved into a very harsh and hate filled, wholly rationalized campaign to exterminate them all (the Jews). To "remove that stone from the eye."

Unfortunately for us, a simple reading of the history books confirms the worst; 6 million Jews were murdered by this small-minded and sad man named Adolf Hitler. Worst of all, people of good will said nothing. They did nothing.

This is why we came to Vienna this week; because good people must do something, whether in times of comfort, or when times are not so comfortable.

As one of the leading scientist in Vienna told me while I was there, "as a result of this sick campaign to remove those different, Vienna retreated from the world stage, for a time became a cultural backwater, and it has taken more than four decades to rebuild the cultural significance, and the diversity that made Vienna great – 100 years ago." 50% of all Nobel laureates came from neighboring Germany before World War II, and now 50% of Nobel Laureates come from the United States. It is not that America somehow got smarter. The reality is that these Nobel winners were, and remain Jewish, and they simply did not feel at home in Germany anymore. The U.S. benefited. Rainbows, after storms.

The problem today is that while Vienna is once again attracting immigrants from surrounding countries, and maybe even repressive countries in the eastern bloc, and the currency is now the Euro, bringing Vienna closer into connection with the broader vision for what some may say is mainstream Europe, there are also problems once again. The Austrian economy is sputtering, people are struggling financially, and there is once again a movement in Vienna and elsewhere to exclude those who are different. 14% of the vote in today’s Vienna amounts to a not so subtle campaign of immigrant exclusion; to "remove the stone from the eye," so to speak.

The problem here is that this approach is just plain wrong.

It was wrong in 1930 and 1940, and it is wrong today. It will lead to nothing more than a false, temporary, even momentary suspension of economic pain, as those who supposedly "took our jobs" go back home, leaving by the way the local job that no one wanted to you. But ultimately it will lead to long-term failure of the economy, because an economy in retreat cannot grow or thrive. And in the end it will mean, once again, a historic retreat for beautiful Vienna, and Austria, as a leading city and country on the world stage.

As the immigrants pack up and leave they will take the money they made and spent, right there in Vienna mind you, with them. The cultural and creative innovation will stifle, the growth will stall, the prosperity will end, and things will go from bad to worse. Oddly enough, all in the name of what some call progress.

In short, diversity is not a bad thing. Diversity is a good thing, even if it causes a sort of temporary social and economic awkwardness, as the new immigrants learn the local ropes, and begin to accept the cultural norms of their new home country, and likewise as the old timers learn to accept something new (which no old timer, irrespective of country, tends to do well).

It is this same diversity, teamed with a robust democracy and a respect for the individual human spirit, which stands at the center of any truly successful world leader in world history.

America is the largest economy in the world today, but it is also the only nation in the world today where every ethnic group is within its borders.

The two largest economic engines within the United States are California and New York, and the two most ethnically diverse states within the United States are California, and New York.

California is the 5th or 6th largest economy in the world today, while the 10th largest economy in the world today is Los Angeles County. Yes, that’s right. 10th largest economy in the world. Of more than 200 nations the world over, Los Angeles County stands at number 10 in economic strength and prosperity. Why? Well, if you believe that we don’t do business with companies, or governments of countries, but people, then you begin to get it.

Los Angeles County is home to 179 different ethnic groups, with more than 40 of those ethnic groups calling Los Angeles County home to the largest population of their ethnic group outside of their home country. Or more Koreans than anywhere else outside of Korea, more than 500,000, and so on and so forth. But I did not say this is where they live, I said they call it "home." There is a difference, and it is called acceptance. On our best days, it is called celebration (of our differences).

I cite this example to make a point; that diversity and difference are not threats to a society, but rather, rightly aligned they are the very heartbeat and the future vision of a growing, prosperous, inclusive, welcoming and thriving society. And of course there is a need for balance, and there must be rules that everyone agrees to follow, and consequences when people do not, but at bottom diversity is dignity, and dignity is the vision for any place in the world that wants to continue to grow and prosper, as the world changes and evolves.

This was the message that HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Professor Pekka Himanen of Finland, Scientific genius Josef Penninger and I delivered to the kids of First Vienna Bilingual Middle School, located in a low-wealth community of Vienna this week.

And as we extended dignity to these young people, not surprisingly, we received a dose of dignity in return. Confirmation that you cannot have dignity yourself without offering it first. In other words, after a time of listening to us, and gaining strength and inner confidence from our words and our unconditional commitment to them as the future leaders of Vienna, and Austria too, they gained the confidence to communicate that which was already inside of them. They reclaimed their passion for their own hopes and dreams, and they recognized a sense of their own deep inner dignity, as something that is inherent and the natural inheritance of every individual, every community, and every country, around the world.

As we moved from the general to the specific, from the pleasant and safe to the more challenging conversation points with these young people, in time we naturally moved to a conversation about Adolf Hitler. The conversation did not last long, as the youth unconditionally rejected Adolf Hitler and his beliefs. Bravo.

And as often happens in a Dignity Day session, from India to Jordan, from Africa to the United States, the students at some point take over the class, high-jacking the agenda with their own passionate vision of what dignity means to them. The stories, examples, and questions, flow out of them nonstop, because no one has ever asked their opinion before, or as is often the case given them a voice.

The responses would shock and amaze, in their level of utter sophistication and thoughtfulness.

Question: do the insane have dignity? Answer: yes, because every individual is born with dignity, and because each us must extend dignity to them if we are to have any ourselves.

Question: what would the world be like if there were no dignity? Answer: a worldwide cemetery, because we would all kill each other and destroy this world. Destroy the delicate balance that keeps everything going, by focusing only on the me, never on the we. We would become animals, no different than those in the wild, and not the human beings with a consciousness and the ability, and responsibility, to make decisions. Human beings who understand, and act on, right and wrong.

As we prepared to leave we were inspired not so much by the vast media interest in our visit, which we appreciated greatly, but the desire by school and education officials to launch a year-round program teaching "A Course In Dignity," as we now do in some South African schools, and to initiate some sort of youth service project right there in native Austria. As we say at YGL, "you cannot call yourself a leader if you are not prepared to serve."

We were particularly inspired when a top school official announced their intent to launch a dignity initiative that linked in schools from neighboring countries. Now this is dignity in action, and a focus on "what we are for, and not simply what we are against."

This is just a sample of what came out of these kids. And this is why we have created Global Dignity, why we go around the world sharing Dignity Days and inspiring others to act, and why we believe passionately that there is hope for the future. We see it in the eyes of the youth we interact with, all over the world.

We see the change in the world, for it is in them.

A special thank you to David Aikman, director of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, Marie-France, our new coordinator from the Forum of Young Global Leaders, both of whom traveled to join us in Vienna, and also our dear friend Martina Gmur of the World Economic Forum who was part of the original inspiration for Global Dignity. A thank you to Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, for opening this door and endowing the vision called the Young Global Leaders.

A thank you to Josef Penninger, a fellow YGL, and Manfred Reichl, a volunteer advisor to YGL, for hosting us in Vienna and for planning Dignity Day, Vienna. Thank you to YGL Marcel Reichart and all the others who joined on this great day, giving life to a new and powerful vision for Vienna and this part of the world.

With HOPE,

John Hope Bryant

Pin It on Pinterest