I have good friends who work with refugees, teen moms, ex-convicts, gangs, at-risk youth, people with no homes, and all kinds of other amazing human beings on the fringes of society, trying to fight their way back in. I hear a common thread from all the people working with these people to improve their lives: those on the fringes need jobs.
But, they don’t really mean that they just need jobs - we already employ enough human beings on the fringes of society. Sometimes that employment takes advantage of their placement on the fringe. What my friends mean is that these people need to believe they are worth something and that they matter. Jobs often tell them that, tangibly, for the first time. Jobs give them some hope that they can actually do this.
There is another common thread to refugees, teen moms, ex-convicts, gang members, at-risk youth, people with no homes, and all kinds of other amazing human begins on the fringes of society trying to fight their way back in. They’ve been told they suck. Over and over in conscious and sub-conscious ways, in intentional and accidental ways, in individual and societal ways. They’ve heard the message loud and clear, repeatedly from a variety of sources: you are not worth a damn. You’re worthless and a piece of shit.
This, of course, has all kinds of implications for all kinds of issues, including, but not limited to prison systems.
Bastoy prison in Norway made the news for its treatment of its prisoners. At Bastoy, prisoners live on an island with no guards, no fences, and no cells. They are given houses, allowances, and told, in a wide variety of ways, they are worth something. (Ironic that all of this happens in a “secular” nation.)
The governor of the prison has said: “If we treat people like animals when they are in prison they are likely to behave like animals. Here we pay attention to you as human beings… They look at themselves in the mirror, and they think, ‘I am shit. I don’t care. I am nothing,’…This prison, gives them a chance to see they have worth, to discover, ‘I’m not such a bad guy.’”
Norway the country has one of the lowest re-offense rates in the world and Bastoy, as a prison, even lower.
All of this comes to empowerment. It’s a sexy topic and for good reason: people need to be empowered. They need to get the job, to be treated as a human being, they need to believe that they are not a piece of shit. In fact, they are quite the opposite: pieces of humanity that are precious and whose worth can not be measured.
But much of our “empowerment” is more like treating humans like animals, and sub-consciously telling them they are still worthless. Here’s your treat. Here’s you food. Here’s your shoes. I will take care of you because you can’t.
Empowerment movements can be tricky. We need to be careful of the traps of easy empowerment: the kind of empowerment that doesn’t empower anyone except the person already in power because they helped someone who couldn’t help themselves.
True empowerment requires seeing the world differently. It requires seeing human beings as equal to myself. It requires our time, our effort, our money, our investment, our everything… to assure them that they matter. Way more than they think. They matter as much as ourselves.
It’s risky and revolutionary and it requires us to die to our egos… it’s painful. But the only way to truly tell someone they have power, is to give up a bit of my own, which might be why I find myself drawn to easy empowerment and nervous of the true.
Talking about equality is easy but living it is pretty hard, because I still don’t think most of us believe...
I am enough.