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Opinion / Storytellers

Ubuntu: A person is a person through other people

grid of faces showing ubuntu in current time

There are many times in my life that I can think back to and attribute success solely to what I have done by myself, for myself, or for someone else, but accomplished just by me, alone. These are excellent moments for self-reflection and acknowledgment of individual accomplishment, and although individuals create many great things by themselves, we do not, for the most part, live as hermits, isolated from the rest of humanity. We live in families and in societies comprised of cities and towns, and even those who live by themselves, fairly isolated, at times need to interact with and rely upon other people. As a species, humans are wired to be social beings, and we are actually able to become better than we already are through other people.

While the successes we have as individuals are wonderful and can help us to feel good and can increase our own self-efficacy, what good are they if they aren’t shared with someone else? As I think about the individual successes I have had, most, if not all of them really involve other people, either directly or indirectly.

As teachers, counselors, or other facilitators of learning, it is seldom, unless you are a one-to-one tutor or instructor that we work with just one person.

We work with groups of people who arrive with their own individual experiences of successes and failure, their own perspectives about the world and about other people, their own expectations for what they, themselves will bring to the day, as well as their expectations for the rest of the group, and you. They also arrive, at times, as intact groups who have also had collective successes and failures, as well as preconceived notions about the others in their groups based on their prior experiences with these people. It is our job to frame learning opportunities that will touch upon every individual in our groups. In order to do this, we must be open to everyone’s experience and everyone’s learning styles, paying careful attention that we do not allow our biases or preferred learning styles to dominate the framework for the experiences we provide for the learnable moments possible for our groups.

One of the most important variables to consider when working with groups is creating a space that is safe and welcoming for learning. Simply stated, be hospitable. Consider yourselves stewards for learning. I believe that no matter who the group is, where they come from, or what outcomes they are hoping to achieve through working with us, that as people, we desire and need to be treated with kindness and respect, with hospitality. In short, hospitality, as referred to here, simply means treating your groups as you would guests in your home. By doing this you are creating a safe space where people feel comfortable. The more people are comfortable, initially, the more they are going to be willing to open up to the possibilities and the more they will be willing to engage in some of the more seemingly risky, or less comfortable activities as the group progresses through the stages of group development and through the programs we provide.

This concept of hospitality is not a new one, hospitality is an age-old concept for creating an environment conducive to learning and accomplishing many great tasks as groups.

There is a South African term from the Bantu language that beautifully encompasses the concepts of hospitality and how people can and should coexist called, Ubuntu. Ubuntu, simply explained, means, a person is a person through other people. Or, put even more simply, I am because we are, or even more simply, me, we. Ubuntu is a concept brilliantly described by Bishop Desmond Tutu. The following is an excerpt of a speech he gave in the spring of 2007 on the “Semester at Sea.”

“In our country we’ve got something called Ubuntu. When I want to praise you, I say this person has Ubuntu. Because in our culture there is no such thing as a solitary individual, we say a person is a person through other persons; that we belong in the bundle of life. And I want you to be all you can be; because that’s the only way I can be all I can be. I need you! I need you to be you so that I can be me. The only way we can be human is together! The only way we can be free is together! The only way we can ever be secure is together! The only way we can ever be free… is together. That is the logic of God’s creation.”

The Boston Celtics recently embraced Ubuntu as their team concept and mantra, using it to replace the age old, “One, two, three Celtics” when coming out of a huddle, and went on to win the NBA title for the first time in twenty-two years, stressing the importance of collective success over individual achievement.

The concept and idea of Ubuntu is precisely what we as teachers and group facilitators are trying to get our groups to recognize and achieve.

Think about your groups for a minute. High performing groups, those that accomplish the tasks and initiative problems we present to them efficiently and effectively, are essentially practicing Ubuntu. They have utilized one another to the best of everyone’s abilities, recognizing and utilizing the resources within the group. Everyone has been involved in some way, shape, or form, and everyone feels the same success, the same sense of accomplishment.

I have used the concept and teachings of Ubuntu with the groups and classes I run, and have had many really embrace Ubuntu, even using it as a mantra, pointing out when someone within their group is exhibiting qualities that demonstrate it by saying, “That’s Ubuntu,” followed by the rest of the group saying, “I am because we are.” These have been very powerful moments indeed. Groups remember this concept. It is simple and makes so much sense. Plus, it is just plain old fun to say, Ubuntu. If the entire world could embrace this concept and start living with Ubuntu, we could truly turn some things around. Taking these concepts, Ubuntu and hospitality, and embedding them into our programming, ultimately will enable the creation of a safe and vital learning environment.

For breakfast this morning I had a fried egg sandwich with Vermont sharp cheddar cheese on a multigrain English muffin and a big mug of french roast!

Author Profile: @justinmcglamery

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1 Comment

  1. Profile Photo

    Thank you, Justin! UBUNTU, tattooed on my wrist as a constant reminder of our interconnectedness. xo

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