I recently watched a story on 60 Minutes that spoke eloquently and forcefully of the power that respect has to transform a person and a community.
Cateura, Paraguay is a deeply impoverished community that is built on and around a garbage heap. Most of its residents scrape out a meager living picking through the garbage, looking for items that can be sold for recycling. But a visitor had a vision of starting a music school for the kids to "lift their lives out of trash". The problem was that there were no instruments in Cateura. Amazingly, one of the residents has learned how to make musical instruments from items he found in the garbage. He made violins from oven trays, cellos from oil drums, and clarinets from drain pipes and house keys. Soon, there was an entire orchestra of children making beautiful music. In fact, the world has begun to notice and the orchestra is now playing outside of Cateura.
This story of creativity and determination is fascinating in and of itself. But for me the story within the story is the transformative impact of respect on the persons involved. Being a part of this orchestra raised the kids’ self-respect as it uncovered talents and value that lay hidden within them. It increased their respect for others as they embraced their responsibility to live cooperatively and interdependently with other orchestra members. Kids involved in the music program were swayed from bad choices as they chose the values of the orchestra over the negative values of the pervasive gangs.
Even parents and community members benefited. The grandmother of the lead violinist said that while people once humiliated them and derisively called them "trash pickers", now, they are "more civilized" and call us "recyclers". She goes on to say that "I feel that this is a reward from God that our children who come from this place, can play beautiful music in this way."
I conduct teacher, student, and parent forums in schools on the role that respect plays in personal and academic success. I teach that self-respect is the foundation on which stands all other forms of respect. It is impossible to want better for yourself if you don’t think you are worth better. It is impossible to appreciate and honor the value in others if you don’t honor and appreciate your own value.
Much of the anti-social, disrespectful behavior we see in our culture comes from people who are seeking to build themselves up by tearing other people down. But when we come to recognize and embrace our own value, we can begin to want more for ourselves and for those around us. The Cateura orchestra leader had the vision to see beyond the garbage and the hopelessness that it produced. His commitment to see value, uncover value, and give value set in motion the possibility that more people could do the same for themselves and for others.