Since the U.S. presidential election, many questions have been raised about “fake news,” access to information, and opportunities for everyone to learn more about current events and freely discuss disagreements, instead of getting stuck in echo chambers that lack a diversity of viewpoints. We’ve also heard more questions about identity politics: as society begins to grapple seriously with legacies of disenfranchisement and discrimination — against minorities, immigrants, women, and others — does this very process make some white men feel that their own identity is being erased?
At ATD Fourth World, we consider the starting point for overcoming poverty to be the human dignity of each person, whatever their identity. This leads us to begin everything we do by consulting people whose dignity has long been denied. People who were born into deep poverty, in any part of the world, grew up seeing their parents humiliated time and again. In our People’s University, discussions take place among people living in poverty, and also with others who have expertise in various fields. This is a form of popular education that challenges traditional education. In most schools, the importance given to formally recognized knowledge leads people to disregard knowledge from lived experience. This results in a political life where people who lack diplomas do not feel welcomed or respected. In the People’s University, a key rule in order to create equal footing between participants living in extreme poverty and others is that no one may co-opt someone else’s experience by saying, “What her experience shows is…”. Each person (including academics and policy makers) must speak from their own personal experience. In a People’s University, the goal is not to generate rapid-fire sound bites. One participant compared it instead to the process of giving birth to a child. He said:
When a person whose life is overburdened with chaos dares to set foot in the door for the first time, the facilitator acts as a midwife. She is not there to tell the person what to think, but rather to create an atmosphere of trust and belonging that makes it possible for this person to express his experience, his thinking, his ideas, and to begin engaging in a group dialogue where points of view that might be diametrically opposed can be discussed with complete respect for each person expressing them.
In many countries around the world, public discourse sorely lacks this level of respect for human dignity. Across communities and nations, people end up fractioned into segments pitted against one another in ways that unleash hatred and make some people feel ashamed and alienated. To find our way forward, can’t we find a way for identity politics to affirm that every person has an identity worthy of respect? It is important to acknowledge the long history of oppression that has truncated the possibilities of many people and communities. But identity politics can also trap certain groups into rigid collective identities — as though when any Muslim woman speaks, she represents the experience and point of view of all Muslim women.
Our hope is to break through barriers so that we can begin learning from people who have too long had their dignity denied.