Dignity. Without it we are powerless in the face of adversity. We feel that we are not worthy of the solutions that can bring us out of life's challenges. We believe that our lot in life is a justified punishment. A lack of dignity is a significant contributor to poverty, and a critical barrier to ending it.
October 12th is Global Dignity Day. Founded around the belief that "every human being has a right to lead a dignified life, and that we all have a common responsibility, and opportunity, to strengthen the dignity of others," the Global Dignity organization tries to bring dignity back to people around the world.
On October 12th the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights and End Poverty Edmonton will be hosting an event at City Hall to discuss the meaning and importance of dignity.
We spoke with Renee Vaugeois, executive director of the John Humphrey Centre, about Dignity Day, and what role dignity plays in our lives.
How do you define dignity?
Dignity to me is having pride in oneself, to express oneself, to embrace one's identity. To have freedom, to be able to feel that I can hold my head high. It's that wholeness of self and that acceptance of self both personally and within the broader community.
Global Dignity Day will be sort of the culmination of YEG Dignity. What is YEG Dignity about?
When the Mayor's Task Force on Poverty was launched, I felt that there was a lack of representation and voice of people who were experiencing or affected by poverty, particularly within the indigenous community and other groups such as the newcomer Francophone community. I was concerned and so challenged the Mayor and asked for support in bringing forward a diverse range of perspectives of young people through our Youth Action Project. The project was led by a young Indigenous man and Metis woman. I wanted to show the City other ways to engage and model a different approach. I was also encouraged to hear about the Aboriginal Round Table that was formed to ground the work in Indigenous wisdom and perspectives.
The Youth Action Project is young people, sixteen to thirty years old, made up of both privileged and very underprivileged people living in extreme poverty. They created four recommendations for End Poverty Edmonton which they presented at the Mayor's Task Force. The Mayor still says that was an "aha" moment for them. One of the biggest was around criminalization of youth - such as a couple youth who ended up in the criminal system because they were unable to pay for a bus ticket - which doesn't work towards ending poverty.
YEG Dignity came out of another of the recommendations. The youth realized that we need to break the stigma around poverty, because it traps people within it. Last year we held a small event at City Hall to start creating a YEG Dignity campaign.
Over the course of the summer and leading up to that event we did five live art mural projects throughout the City where we focussed on an issues like criminalization, exclusion, mental health, sexual exploitation and dignity. The community created five murals with us and four of them are installed on the side of the Nina Haggerty Building.
The ongoing campaign is a grassroots exploration through the arts exploring what dignity means, and how it connects to our notions about poverty and exclusion. This expanded to a lesson plan for teachers to get youth talking about dignity and expressing it through art, a list of potential speakers that can speak about their experience from the lens of poverty, and we have a crew of artists that can go into schools and facilitate discussion on dignity and art.
We're trying to compile the art that is being created through the YEG Dignity project into a 'Zine, which will happen at the Global Dignity Day at City Hall. We also have the city's artist in residence, Dawn Marie Marchand, who will be doing some live art projects.
This is an ongoing project, but we are celebrating the community as we collectively bring some of this stuff together.
What role does dignity play in ending poverty?
For people who live in poverty - particularly people of a non-white background - their dignity is encroached upon on a daily basis. For young people who go into malls, or wherever they go, they feel this heavy weight of judgment on them, a constant discrimination. That feeling of constant encroachment on dignity influences a person's long term ability to actually have confidence and come out of poverty.
We've been working with young people who are so ashamed of who they are that they can't even get past their self hatred.
The tying of dignity to poverty is so critical because we don't understand the level of oppression that can exist and how hard it can be to pull that weight off of somebody.
For example, I was at a coffee shop recently and there was a woman serving a man who was unable to read for whatever reason. He would ask, "Do you have this?" and she kept saying to him, "Just read the menu, it's right there." You could tell he could not read, and it's interactions like that, that really drive a person down, that always make people feel like they are not worthy.
We have to understand how discrimination is so heavy on people being able to come out of poverty because it influences their capacity to recognize their own power.
How can people participate in Dignity Day?
There's the involvement on a really practical level, such as coming out to hear the stories and be part of conversation on Dignity Day.
If I were to say I want everybody to do one thing on Global Dignity Day, pick one person in the day that you might normally pass by and never consider talking to, and say "Hey."
There is a quote that says, "There will be peace in the world when everybody can walk down the street and say 'Hi' to the first person they see in the morning." There's incredible power in that. We go through our day and we can isolate out who we want to engage with. But we could stop and say "I'm going to engage with this person I don't know." Have a challenging conversation that day by just asking a question or engaging with somebody of difference from their perspective, particularly in relation to poverty, or disability.
What do we need to achieve with Dignity Day?
We don't realize how everyday interactions can affect somebody who's really struggling. That's what we want to get across. The dismissiveness that we may have which we may think is very mild, really has such profound impacts on people. And it's in those relationships that we need to connect with each other.
I think that conversation around Dignity Day can seem really quite fluffy and amorphous in some ways, but I think when we start to connect to the idea of dignity, we're not just hearing the sad stories of people but we connect to their inner being. That's what we need to do. We need to be able to connect to our core humanity. That's what makes a person feel like they can live with dignity.
The Global Dignity Day event is at City Hall on October 12th from 4pm to 8pm and is open to the public. The official program with speakers will run from 4pm to 5pm, and other activities will continue until 8pm.