Ubuntu: I am because we are.

By Mia Zera, OTN Spring Intern 2019

This word—ubuntu—has held significant meaning in my life. It is faintly stamped on the necklace I wear every day serving as a constant reminder of the kind of life I want to live, how I aspire to move through the world, and the foundational value in my relationships. It’s a South African philosophy that recognizes the common humanity in one another; that my pain, suffering, joy and celebration is bound up in yours. It is a principle that drove Nelson Mandela’s democratic movement following apartheid in South Africa and that fueled Desmond Tutu’s restorative justice movement known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I also believe it is at the heart of the work Open Table Nashville is doing on a daily basis.

Being an intern, I’ve had the privilege of seeing ubuntu embodied in the many different facets of OTN. That said, I’ve spent the majority of my time doing outreach work. The outreach workers on staff recognize the dignity and worth inherent in each friend they meet experiencing homelessness by meeting them where they are at—literally. Physically, their body language is open and at an equal level, offering space for mutuality, commonality, and reflecting the humanity and dignity in one another. Self-determination is employed, recognizing our friends as experts of their stories and agents of change in their lives—when they are ready for change. Though challenging, this is how trusting relationships develop and flourish. It’s an empathic approach that says We are with you. We are frustrated with you at the lack of shelters available to keep friends warm on cold winter nights. We hurt and grieve with you when the city does not ask but tells you that you are no longer able to live in the place you call home, destroying the few precious belongings you have to your name should you fail to act fast enough. We are outraged with you at the fact that even though you might have served our country or literally helped build our city, there is still a lack of affordable places for you to live.

Once I began to take on these emotions—frustration, hurt, grief and outrage—I realized there was no turning back or unseeing the pain and suffering that is too often shrouded by the ever-growing attraction of Music City. That is why the work of OTN is so important—and urgent. This is a group of activists and advocates using their positions to amplify the voices of our friends on the streets. Our stories, our common humanity and our experiences of freedom are tethered to one another.

As my internship comes to a close, I can confidently say that never in my life have I been able to witness, experience and engage in the kind of radical inclusion, compassion and justice work OTN is doing. I think this work—and the philosophy of ubuntu—is so perfectly encapsulated in the following quote by Lilla Watson, an Australian activist, “If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Let us work together. OTN has helped me learn that working together also requires me to work within myself: staying in check with my privilege and biases and maintaining an ever-evolving posture of curiosity and positive regard for others. Working together also means that we (as our famous sign says) take care of each other, extending grace, patience and compassion where needed. The work I’ve been a part of through OTN as well as within myself this past semester have enhanced the meaning of ubuntu in a way I never anticipated, and I will forever be grateful.