All Of Our Dignity

It would be impossible to forget Antonio. His abandonment and isolation had been so complete, nobody even knew how old he was. We guessed about 8 or 9. He lay in a cot, lifeless and listless in a dark corner. The lack of animation was the not the outcome of his severe disability and blindness but rather caused by extreme neglect.  The institution “housed” around 150 adults and children.  It wreaked of human waste and human disregard.

My index finger gently brushed against his palm and he gripped it tightly as his face broke into semi-toothless smile.  He had lived a life cut adrift from love, attention or even basic human acknowledgment .

Antonio’s story inspired a shared effort by the government of North Macedonia and the UN to end placement of children in large scale institutions. Children like him would be provided with family-based care, connection and stimulation in community settings.

The plan was knocked off script when locals in the town of Timjanik angrily refused  a mayor’s request to accommodate some of the children . We went there with the minister to find out why. On arrival, we sustained a three hour volley of abuse and hostility from several hundred protesters.  People watching this back in the capital on livestream  were horrified. Pundits, influencers and activists began lambasting the protesters as primitive, callous and hillbilly.

We listened carefully. Their’s was a small town in decline. It could have been in Oklahoma or South Yorkshire.The townsfolk had previously been dependent on industry and agriculture. For generations their income and opportunities had been on a modest, upward trajectory. But they now feared their children would have a much more  precarious future. They had lived with years of unfulfilled promises to fix their roads, improve their schools and provide a pre-school. They longed for someone to give a voice to them, alongside the regular campaigns they heard from human rights activists for migrants, sexual minorities and people with disability.  Like Antonio, in their own way they felt abandoned.

But why did these two different forms of deprivation and abandonment compete with each other? Broadly speaking there are three catastrophic burdens in childhood  that drive lifelong inequality:

  1. Discrimination or Exclusion based on race, gender or disability  for example. It creates barriers that exclude one from opportunities, justice and often the basic safety that others take for granted.
  2. Income Poverty through  a lack of the basic means to survive, thrive and access opportunities to reach one’s potential.
  3. Emotional Poverty through the absence of the basic nurturing and protective parental relationships due to violence, neglect or other forms of dysfunctional parenting (also known as childhood adversity). This is often transmitted inter-generationally and unintentionally.

If you look at  Black Lives Matter, Hillbilly Ellergy and Good Will Hunting through the lens of identity, they seem so different to each other. When we look at them through the lens of fairness and dignity for all, they seem the same. It sometimes feels like we have forgotten a sense of ourselves as a whole, we are looking for the differences and barriers. This fragmentation polarises us into differing sides in a counter-productive culture war.

People in places like Timjanik perceive human rights champions  to be selective in the injustices they seek to address. Those living with rural and town poverty  feel both politically and economically abandoned. They are at the fag end of a painful transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy. This transition has concentrated opportunity in large cities at the expense of almost everywhere else. Those same champions scratched their heads as populists have hoovered up support in poor and abandoned communities. Despite their best intentions, they must bear part of the responsibility for the growth in populism and polarisation.

I felt this recently back home when I  took a group of young adult care leavers for lunch in London. They had each lived with all of the three catastrophic burdens described above. It is hard to think of a more deprived group in the UK.  We walked past a protest march urging us to support the rights of an oppressed minority in a far flung country. The comparatively wealthy looking protesters obviously felt that from our position of privilege we should all support this vulnerable minority oversees and that this was the most important human rights issue of the moment. But whose privilege is it? One of the young people in our group said he could not imagine the same protesters marching for kids in care. To highlight injustice, without acknowledging it is not the only injustice is itself an injustice.

Coming back to the story of Timjanik. The following day at an unrelated press conference  in the capital, we were asked by journalists about the events in the town. We were expected to join the public condemnation of the protesters behaviour. Instead we articulated the townsfolk’s grievances and their struggles and explained that we could understand them, though did not agree with them.

Within two hours our inboxes were flowing with warm messages from people in Timjanik. They had not expected that we would actually listen to them and tell their story. They had needed to be acknowledged and heard. To understand that we think they matter too. From a collective refusal to host the small group home just 24 hours prior, it was now back on.

From that moment on, we numerically balanced our public facing advocacy. We gave equal attention to the situation of the overall population and to those living with one or more of the three catastrophic burdens . If we did a public event on exclusion of Roma minority or children with disability one month, we made sure we also had an event on poverty or a  population-wide issue like education or health the next. This struck us as fair, just and effective.

A few weeks after the protest, the government agreed a strategy to transfer all children out of large scale institutions through family re-unification, foster care and small group homes. The government named the strategy “Timjanik” in testimony to what we had all learnt from these events.

On October 15th last year, the last remaining children were removed from large scale institutions. The situation may have improved for children in state care in North Macedonia, but there is still so much to do to prevent exclusion, poverty and adversity in the lives of children the world over. We can only do this when everyone finds their place in a shared story of justice and fairness. We need to “re-universalize” our human rights story.

And the children in the story? Antonio is out of the cot, living in a small group home with adequate care and stimulation and for the first time in his life, he is enrolled in school. Today in Timjanik, the locals visit with cakes and play with the children at the small group home.  Just ordinary people in an ordinary place with the extraordinary courage to reimagine a better tomorrow in a world that protects all of our dignity.

 

 

 

 

 

“What You Have Been and Still are for Me”

The Power of Teaching

I have a favourite teacher story and it goes like this. As a child, Albert Camus was asked by his impoverished single mother to quit school and start work. Camus’s teacher visited the family home and convinced her to let young Albert continue his education. The teacher’s name name was Louis Germain.

Decades later when he got the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus wrote to Mr Germain to say thank you in a letter entitled “What You Have Been and Still are for Me”.
He continued “Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.”

In different ways, how many of us have been touched by a teacher who made us feel like we matter? Sometimes as children we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders through poverty, trauma or conflict. In those contexts, the narrow opportunities for a child to exercise curiosity, collaboration and cultivate character can only be seized with the help of incredible teacher.

Two thirds of us have had teachers who made a difference in our lives, according to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yet the research also shows that these teachers are outliers in their own school settings. Even the university professors who produce the most impactful teachers are outliers in their faculties. We do not incentivise modern day Mr Germains at all

We have recently come to understand that children learn from teachers they love. We used to see reasoning as being the opposite to emotion, but neuroscience tells us something different. It is only through a deep network of relationships, belonging and collaboration in school and life that we can have an ecosystem for learning. To motivate and organise ourselves for learning, we have to engage the emotions. Emotions are not compartmentalised in a different part of our brain while we deploy rationality and reason to absorb facts.

In any given classroom of 25 children, at least 4 or 5 may experience multiple forms of trauma at home. Such trauma chronically activates their stress response system. This doesn’t switch off when they enter the classroom.   An attuned teacher in a trauma-informed classroom can soothe the stress response system. They can help the child to learn, trust, connect and build resilience and attachment. And here is where the healing, and therefore the ability to learn, begins. Trauma-informed schooling is potentially one of the most impactful strategies for reducing child trauma in general. 

A few years ago I listened to Dr Tony Wagner an education Professor at Harvard explaining the research on the outlier teachers who help kids recover from a broken start . It inspired me to track down a teacher who had transformed my life. At 15 I lived in state care in an inner-city area blighted by drugs and crime. I had been kicked out of three schools and had wound up in an education centre for those at the very end of the line. In every sense, my life prospects were incredibly bleak.

Jan Rapport was an idealistic teacher working in the most difficult of education settings. She gave me a chance. She became the only adult I could remember who I had a real conversation with during my entire childhood. She instilled in me a lifelong passion for learning and particularly for literature. My imagination soared and I began to see a different path forward. I now know, it was probably the calming attachment and connection, the relationship itself that made the most difference.

When I the school at 16, I lost contact with her. When I finally found Ms Rapport over 25 years later there was so much to talk about that we didn’t really know where to begin. She was now a pensioner and I was well….er…middle aged. We caught up on what we had done with our lives. Nobody expects someone from my background to have a job in the UN, though somehow she thought I would turn out okay. I needed to tell her that she saved me-that I would not be here and I wouldn’t have done all of this without her. I didn’t have any words in my vocabulary that could adequately convey how grateful I am. I was in awe to look into the eyes of this person who saw things in me that I did not see in myself and helped me beat a pathway to places I could have never imagined. A teacher. The power of a teacher.

It is often said that when you are teacher you don’t know where you legacy will end. Louis German commitment stayed with Albert Camus through his life. A part of it passed onto to others through his work, friendships and family. Imagine if we could deliver a global legacy on teaching. If we could take what inspirational, life-changing teachers have and dispense it through entire teaching workforces. Every teacher emotionally present for children. Every child made to feel like they belong and matter as an individual. Every school dedicated to learning, curiosity and trauma-informed healing. We could and we should celebrate the power of teaching and harness it to touch the lives of every child.