The subtle power of respect

I live in NY, second only to Paris when it comes to the dangers of stepping in dog poo. Residents of my quaint West Village neighborhood try valiantly to dissuade dog owners from letting their dogs defile their carefully manicured gardens. These gardens, I should say, are typically 1′ X 3′ miniature oases that rest at the feet of the trees that make this city livable. The residents put up signs that say “curb your dog” and “stay off” and show pictures (for the illiterate?) of dogs with a big red cross hatch. Not very dog-friendly, or dog-owner friendly for that matter. Then I saw a sign that said “Please respect this tree.” That was different. That was cool. How can we use respect as a driver of change, instead of guilt and admonishments?

Respect is one of the values we hold dearest at Acumen Fund, where I work – with a focus on respecting even those who have been marginalized to the degree that their dignity is threatened, not to mention their lives. So we love the idea of respect as a driver of change. But it’s so easy to get it wrong – blowing off a meeting, underestimating a colleague, gossiping, ignoring deadlines. And that too is an opportunity to show respect. In some ways, respect is most powerful when it is toughest to feel.

Respect also requires the giver to have some degree of self-respect or esteem. So, to foster respect, how do we create institutions and organizational cultures that strengthen self-esteem rather than destroy it. The people I have met who’ve amazed me with their resilience, dignity and strength despite huge challenges have taught me the most about self respect and respect for others. They are literally with me every day. What drives them probably varies, but I think of a grandmother in Rajasthan who lived in a mud-walled compound near Jodhpur with her husband, two children (the third was working in the city) and 5 or 6 grandchildren. She was the embodiment of pride, bragging about her grandchildren’s performance in school, and the fact that all the children went, even the girls. In her home, we saw a solar panel to give them lighting at night, and a cheap detergent they used to keep their simple home immaculate. She sat and spoke with me and a team of IDEO designers about the challenges of getting safe water, and I swear a queen couldn’t have sat in a more regal way, with more confidence and pride. I don’t know how she gets it, but perhaps it is all of our birthright, and the key is not to let anything or anyone take it away. (I was there for the Ripple Effect project)

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