Saturday, August 04, 2007

All Together in Dignity (and Serendipity)

I spent the morning at Museo Pambata for an orientation given by ATD Fourth World, a global NGO who work together with very poor individuals and families so they can overcome extreme poverty. Here in the Philippines, ATD stands for "All Together in Dignity" and is headed by Nina Yuson. My colleague, friend, lunch buddy and fellow Connector (in Tipping Point lingo) Bing Manlapaz introduced and invited me to ATD activities as early as last year (I had my very first storytelling of The Yellow Paperclip at one of ATD's street library projects). I hope that today marks my renewed, albeit slow, reintroduction to this wonderfully unassuming yet powerful group. Powerful enough to change mindsets and lives, both of the volunteers and the poorest of the poor.

With the little time and energy I have invested, I have already gained a lot. My perspective on "overcoming extreme poverty" has shifted significantly. If they will allow me to explain in my own little way what ATD hopes to do, I think it is about uplifting and restoring the dignity of the poor by simply celebrating being fellow human beings. Tao tayong lahat at pare-pareho ang ating mga kailangan. We live an analogous human condition and we have the same dreams and hopes for a better world. Helping the poor is not simply translated into livelihood programs or soup kitchens or building homes. While these are all important, real change happens when they see themselves in the same light as everyone else. Real change can happen when they want to step up and help themselves. Human dignity is a right all people have, regardless of race, gender, or social standing. ATD helps by seeing and treating the poor as friends, not as faceless communities that need financial assistance or saving. It's about hanging out with communities, getting to know them, hearing their concerns, playing with their children, helping them process their thoughts, enhancing their self-esteem and restoring their dignity. It's about helping them gain a voice loud and confident enough to be heard in the halls of the United Nations; yes, Bing and Aling Tita, resident of the North Cemetery community of ATD, traveled to New York in 2005 to speak with Kofi Annan himself!

The revolution starts with storytelling among children, either through street libraries (where books are literally brought to the streets) or cultural field trips to museums or performances. The poorest of the poor also need to have access to the arts and culture, just as we all do, because this is part of what makes us human. Human beings need more than just food, clothing and shelter. We have a higher need for the aesthetic and the spiritual, and the poor are no different. What amazes me is how the children of ATD are probably more cultured than most middle class kids in the sense that they have enjoyed the art at Museo Pambata, the National Museum, and in the various local and foreign books in their street libraries! After the orientation, we had storytelling, arts and crafts, including a Tapori project (also known as the art silhouette) based from an African children's story about friendship, fairness and providing the same chances to all children everywhere.
ATD recognizes that this kind of revolution is slow and very difficult to measure (ie. how can you tell if one's dignity has been restored?), yet the group treads on, slowly but surely, banking on the effort and commitment of its volunteers and friends. Today, we had Hands on Manila express their support for ATD (what great news!) and we look forward to many more volunteers. Interested to volunteer? Send an email to for more information.

Here's the part on serendipity (how can you not love that word?): after the orientation, Bing invited me to lunch with other new and long-time volunteers to discuss fundraising options for ATD's upcoming projects. From a humble lugaw event, inspired ideas from six very different women evolved into an exciting event: a book launch of three very different books, including my very own The Yellow Paperclip with Bright Purple Spots. Stay tuned for more details.

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