February 15, 2023 by Dunn Franco

The South African expression, “ubuntu,” is a saying that reminds people of the importance of seeing themselves in all other human beings.  Just think about that.  You say “ubuntu” and, immediately, every encounter becomes an empathetic one because “ubuntu” compels each person to share in the joy and pain of all other human beings.  I tell my students regularly, “When you cry, I cry. When you have success, I have success. Every emotion of yours is my emotion, too. I care about you and you don’t have to look like me for me to care about you.”  I challenge them to think about how we are so wired to care only about those with whom we share the same identity (e.g., race, class, religion, etc.).  Those who do not look like us require much more work. This is where “ubuntu” comes in.  It is so pervasive in South Africa and it’s very transferable to our working relations with colleagues, students, and parents. 

“Ubuntu” reminds me daily to include empathetic strands in every single unit of instruction. “Ubuntu” demands that I tell my students “You are supposed to care about these people because they are human.  That’s why you should be vested in this.”   “Ubuntu” reminds me that my colleagues’ struggles are my struggles too.  “Ubuntu” demands that I ask, “Do you need any help?”   “Ubuntu” reminds me that it does take a village and that village is a crazy patch quilt of humanity and some of those villagers may have pitchforks. But you know what?  That’s okay. “Ubuntu demands that I look at them with soft, kind eyes and say, “I am here for your child–and you.” 

If you know about the history of South Africa, then you know about the horrors of the apartheid and how many diverse South Africans worked together to bring its end.  I interviewed some of those stakeholders of the new South Africa and the two words I kept hearing over and over were “ubuntu” and “reconciliation.” Not only do you have to see yourself in others, but also you have to ask forgiveness and own up to your mistakes, for this is the path to reconciliation.  I apologize weekly to students, colleagues, and parents.  “Ubuntu” does not shield me from mistakes; it just serves as a powerful reminder of the need for me to always try to “do good.”

There is a song “No Man is an Island,” based on the work of poet John Donne.  We are all in this “situation” (in this case, education) together and our interconnectedness where the pillars of transparency and empathy are foundational. My favorite line of the song is “Each man’s joy is joy to me, each man’s grief is my own. We need one another. . .”

Bruce “Dunn” Franco is a native of Charleston, SC. He has been in education for 25 years. His history class is very arts-centric and you will find his students regularly singing, dancing, acting, and working with puppets.

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