The rounded bricks that made up the ancient street were so treacherous that I had to pick my way extra carefully, with my head down. I didn’t even see the building until it was right in front of me.
Suddenly, there it was — sky-blue stucco, navy-blue shutters, and black decorative ironwork over the doors and windows. It was so familiar, a building I’d seen hundreds of times, but only in photographs and videos.
When I craned my neck to take in all five stories, I got goosebumps.
Almost ten years ago, Barry and I loaned the money to buy this property to a tiny non-profit. At the time, it was a derelict, and we didn’t know what it would take to renovate it. We had no idea when, or if, we would be paid back. We had no idea when we’d even see the building, located in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.
Now we had come to do something more than just see it. We had come to use the building for its intended purpose: To exchange knowledge and build community.
We were part of a group who had come from all over the USA at the invitation of Rita Conceição to help launch a new endeavor: Sou Digna. The phrase is translated as, “I Am Worthy,” which pretty much sums it up. Sou Digna’s programs give impoverished women the confidence and skills they need to achieve equality.
So, when we stepped through the door and into the building, we did so as participants, not visitors. For two weeks, we threw ourselves into a whirlwind of activity that included fixing broken furniture, painting, cleaning, and making the classrooms fresh and inviting. We sat together, creating budgets and planning documents and promotional materials. We participated in discussions every day about living with the violence created by endemic poverty.
For one week, my friend and colleague Nancy Bacon taught a class in organizational development and grantwriting, and I served as a class assistant, documenting the class and learning along with the other students. Then it was my turn to teach them how to use technology to build their international community.
At that point, I really wished I was on the painting and refurbishing crew. As I wrote to a friend at home, “Frankly, I am terrified, even though I know all my students.” As a corporate trainer, I had presented to much larger groups — 200 people, not 10. But I never had to present this much critical material, working with an interpreter. Would I have too much material? Would I have too little? Would I be able to meet their expectations?
In the end, the class went great. The students were excited to realize that they could develop their own messages, using tools that are not intimidating. They did class projects that provided them with useful materials they’ll be able to use, not just abstract assignments. They had several days of hands-on work with computers, and it was fascinating to see the range of computer skills in the room and the joy they experienced when they succeeded in doing something new.
At the end, the biggest complaint in the class evaluations is that they wanted a longer class. Whew!
It has been a few months since the class, and now that I see the work my students are doing, I am awed. They came to class and learned a lot more than new computer skills. They learned that they have things to share with the world that the world wants to hear. They learned that they have a right to speak and be heard by the world. They learned that they are worthy.
In the months since I’ve returned from Brazil, members from this dedicated group of women have launched several initiatives. One is a course in cooking and food preparation that will help women find jobs and start small businesses. Another is a technology class that incorporates basic computer skills with some of the material I shared. And every student in the Sou Digna program learns about human and legal rights, those basic rights that each of us needs to understand to know that yes, I Am Worthy.
Every time I see a photo of the activities, I recognize where it was taken, in that building. I am proud of myself for being part of the genesis of that building, for having a little plaque on the wall with my name on it. But in the end, it’s just a structure. The real pride is in the students who study and learn and grow in that building. The real pride is knowing that I have contributed to the well-being and happiness of my Sou Digna community. There are no plaques for that, but I don’t need one. I carry it around with me all the time.
For more information about Sou Digna, visit our website or “like” our Facebook page. As a friend of mine, you are already part of our community, but please consider making it official by signing up for updates! If you’d like to help us financially, mark your calendar for May 2nd, 2012, when the Give Big campaign gives you a chance to donate with up to 15% matching. It’s like finding free money to give away.
Nancy Bacon has also written an excellent blog post about our students.