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City Year Founding Story: Ubuntu

Mural by City Year London

Umuntu ngumuntu ngamantu.

I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.

– Zulu Proverb

“Ubuntu” (oo-buun-tu) is a shortened version of a Zulu proverb, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngamantu,” which means: “I am a person through other people. My humanity is tied to yours.”

The spiritual foundation of South African society, Ubuntu involves a belief in a universal bond of sharing and respect that connects all of humanity. Ubuntu is a concept formally recognized by the 1996 South African Governmental White Paper on Welfare as, “The principle of caring for each other’s well-being…and a spirit of mutual support…. Each individual’s humanity is ideally expressed through their relationship with others and theirs in turn through recognition of the individual’s humanity. Ubuntu means that people are people through other people. It also acknowledges both the rights and the responsibilities of every citizen in promoting individual and societal well-being.”

Ubuntu also conveys the idea that a person cannot be complete if others do not enjoy full humanity. The spirit of Ubuntu resonates so strongly that if one group within society is denied its humanity, then no individual in that society can fully realize their own humanity. The urgency to change this injustice becomes paramount.

We can put the spirit of Ubuntu—respect, human dignity, compassion, and community—to work in our daily lives through our interactions with others, from greeting others as we pass them in hallways or on the street, to ensuring that all segments of society are included in social welfare policies so that each person has the means to lead a life of dignity. Ubuntu has the power to help us build an inclusive, respectful, and vibrant community, nation and world.

About the Artwork: City Year London, one of City Year’s two international affiliates (the second is in Johannesburg, South Africa), created this piece during a “Social Action Day.” City Year AmeriCorps members painted their interpretation of Ubuntu in the middle of the canvas and asked “Social Action Day” volunteers to contribute. Then they brought the canvas to Piccadilly Circus where members of the public were encouraged to use whatever color, material and method they preferred to express themselves.