Melania Guerra, Ph.D., faces 500 people at EARTH University’s Global Dignity Day celebration. An oceanographer known as La Tica Polar (The Polar Costa Rican), she delivers the keynote address at the event on October 2.
Everyone listens attentively – to hear her and the people who, throughout the day, share the microphone to tell stories about dignity; to sing about empathy, social struggles and collective memory; or to make others smile.
This is the third consecutive year in which the EARTH community has come together to celebrate dignity’s indispensability in human life. Together with the students, faculty and staff of EARTH, young pupils from nearby schools participate in each of the activities.
Guerra uses stories to explain the five principles on which the organization Global Dignity was founded 13 years ago. She tells us about her childhood, growing up at a time when astronauts were doing spacewalks and scientists were exploring the wildest, hidden corners of the planet. Desiring to satisfy her curiosity and discover the world through science, Guerra studied mechanical engineering at the University of Costa Rica. In her graduating class, there were 350 men and four women. She was stunned to realize that all her childhood heroes – those who had rocketed to space, walked on the moon, summited Everest or dived to the ocean’s depths – were men.
The first principle of dignity says that people have the right to pursue their purpose and meaning in life, and to reach their full potential. To fulfill this principle, Guerra had to bridge a gender gap that could have kept her from achieving her goals. By doing so, she was able to work at NASA, alongside Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang-Díaz – which led her to the Arctic and Antarctica during different scientific missions.
Lucía Descarpontriez (’19, Bolivia), an EARTH fourth year and class leader, assumes the stage. She relates how, as a preschooler, she grew bored of tracing circles and squares as the teachers would instruct. Although small, she already had a strong desire to learn new things – important things – about the world. She was sent to the principal’s office, where she communicated her frustration. Instead of returning her to her classroom, he invited Lucía to attend history classes. Through that gesture, she understood that dignity is not a privilege. Rather, it is something we are all entitled to, a birthright. It is a tool that drives us to become the best version of ourselves.
The second principle says that every person deserves to live in societies that provide human access to education, health, income and security. Guerra says that whenever someone has those, they have the full freedom to make decisions and leave their comfort zone. “Jump into the water, Guerra says, even though it is frigid”. We often fear the decision more than the challenge itself. So, take the leap and immerse yourself. “We must learn to intentionally take risks in order to get closer to the dreams we want to reach,” Guerra adds.
Once, in 2015, while Guerra was aboard a ship called Atlantis, the captain received an emergency call from the Canadian Coast Guard. A boat with nine fisherfolk had lost contact, and rescuers couldn’t locate an emergency raft due to stormy sea conditions. Guerra tells of a maritime rule: Any ship within 100 miles has the option to engage in a rescue effort or not. Atlantis, the one she was on, answered the call, straying from its route for 10 hours by wading into the treacherous conditions in which the fishing boat had found itself. Upon arrival, Guerra was floored by what she saw – a multitude of boats in the Arctic Circle, all having charged into action for nine strangers. It looked like a floating city! Thanks to their collective action, the fisherfolk were found and safely returned to mainland Canada that same day.
The third principle says that dignity should be the guideline for all our actions. The captains and crews of these ships are a clear example of how to enforce this principle. Guerra asks, “When was the last time we abandoned our routine to help someone – to support, protect and safeguard the dignity of others? How often do we do that?”
When the first plenary session is over, all participants are divided into groups to share stories of dignity. The 19 facilitators relocate their groups to tranquil areas to create safe spaces where everyone feels comfortable sharing their experiences.
The fourth principle says that everyone has the responsibility to create the conditions for others to fulfill their potential, acting to strengthen the dignity of others, building a foundation of freedom, justice and peace – for this and future generations. In each circle of trust formed during the day, that principle is fulfilled. Every time a person shares a story, they forge an empathic bond with others and their dignity is strengthened. We all can take action to boost the potential of others – like Lucía’s principal who invited her to history class even though she was young. Or like Diego Vargas, a member of Magicians Without Borders, who at the beginning of the day drew smiles on everyone’s faces because, as he says, that is what he can do from his position to dignify the lives of others.
The fifth principle says that dignity in action means standing up against injustice, intolerance and inequality. When we feel threatened, we make ourselves tiny and isolated – like separate islands. Guerra says that the true revolution of our time is to understand that we are not islands. We are crew members of the same ship. We have to collectively solve problems in order to uphold the dignity of all. In short, we are all on the same boat.
During the second plenary, Celeste Ureña (’19, Costa Rica) reminds us that dignifying our lives means exiting toxic relationships for self-love. Genesis Romero (’22, Costa Rica) tells us her personal story – inviting us to love ourselves as we are, no matter what the world around us says. Roly William Choque (’21, Bolivia) reminds us that we are not alone, that seeking others’ help when we need it is also an act of dignity and self-respect.
It is often said that a rising tide lifts all boats. Dignity is that tide that embraces us and elevates us. It enables us to be at the same height, to see into the eyes of others, and to recognize the humanity in one another.