Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Bread, Freedom, Dignity

(the first in a series)
By Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Bread. Freedom. Dignity.  The three words that should describe any effort towards making people’s lives better. And the well-known rallying cry of the inspiring Egyptian Revolution that started on January 25th, 2011 and toppled the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak. Unfortunately, to date these three demands have not been met in Egypt.

This series on my blog may touch upon the current events in Egypt every so often, but there are many astute analysts found at Jadaliyya, EgyptSource, and MEMRI already writing and talking about Egypt. I focus instead here on how the “Bread, freedom, dignity” demands can be met by people (individuals, organizations, governments) working with the poor and the oppressed everywhere.

Today I’m going to share two examples of the amazing outcomes that can come about when poor people are treated with dignity and respected as important members of their communities.

A food pantry in Ohio chose to have its clients choose their own food, rather than giving them a pre-packaged box or bag.  The outcomes: when people choose the food they want, there is less waste, and the pantries are able to then serve more people:
Far from depleting its stocks, Journey's End has seen its cost per person drop as well as a six-fold increase in users since switching to client choice in 2008. Factory closings drove up the numbers, but so did giving clients dignity, Gore said. "We made it much more comfortable for them to shop." (“Let People Shop,”

In Schenectady, New York, homeless people are paid to stand outside of businesses there—not to beg, but to work. While many urban economic revitalizations often drive out the lower-income and poor people who lived in those areas, in this case, the work of social service organization City Mission helped the economic developers realize that these residents were assets, not liabilities: 

We worked with Proctors Theater and created the Downtown Ambassadors Program. City Mission residents who have been through Getting Ahead training go out every night there’s a show and greet the guests that are coming in. They have uniforms and flashlights, and they help people across the street, direct them to parking, get them to restaurants, hold the door open—it’s really like a sidewalk concierge service. This went so well that the economic development agency offered to pay our people if they’ll continue doing this. So now Proctors has a contract with us, and other businesses nearby want ambassadors to work in front of their businesses.” (Paying the Homeless to Stand Outside Your Business: Schenectady Bridges Project Turns Poverty Upside Down,”

The outcomes: The homeless and low-income residents of Schenectady have jobs, and the patrons of the downtown businesses benefit from their much-appreciated services.

When poor people are treated with dignity, with the right to make choices, and with the understanding that they are an important part of the community, not to be driven away, you get these kinds of positive outcomes.

So I consider a nonprofit to support or volunteer with, I don’t just consider the organization’s financial health, or its overhead vs. its program expenses. I consider how it talks about and works with its program participants. Are the participants “charity cases,” or are they treated with dignity? Do they respect their participants and recognize them as contributing members of their communities?

What do you consider?