More Thoughts on Ubuntu


I recently gave a talk to a group of first year students who were mostly first-generation students of color. where I shared a little bit about myself, and my path as a first-generation student of color in hopes of making my experiences accessible.

I keep the word Ubuntu in my email signature, and in a follow-up email one of the organizers of the event wanted to know what it meant. My simple responses stay the same, but the complicated ones always change over time as I have new experiences.

As for Ubuntu, it’s an African philosophy about interconnectedness and interdependence that means that we are who we are because of other people. In one way, I think of it as meaning that I have gotten where I am today because of people and programs who supported me, as the organizer did with the students they come into contact with.

My participation in programs like the one I spoke at recently, definitely contributed to my being able to thrive on campus and graduate when I was a student, ultimately allowing me to be able to return and do the same for students who are coming behind me.

So in that sense, Ubuntu is a recognition that none of us can do it by ourselves, and that we need to rely on each other in order to thrive as a human family.

In the context of my work on campus, even the phrase at the bottom of my email signature which says “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000 to the 10th power” is a recognition that, whenever I talk to students, present before a large groups, etc, I may look as if I am up there by myself, but my ability to be there is actually the result of the work of many people whose actions served to make it so.

I’m thinking of family, friends, teachers, etc on a personal level, but on broader levels I think of civil rights, Black History, and other movements; the folks who, at times gave or lost their very lives so that at some point in the future, I would be able to inhabit the spaces on campus that I do.

The concept of Ubuntu can also be applied organizationally in realizing that each department, each member of a team is valuable and ultimately cannot function independently of one another, from the maintenance staff to the director. While this isn’t always played out in organizations, you can tell the differences in staff satisfaction and outcomes among organizations who do, and those who don’t approach their work with this mindset, regardless of if they actually use the term Ubuntu or not.

Believing that we are who we are because of others also lines up well with Dr. King’s words about an injustice anywhere being a threat to justice everywhere; that whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly; recognizing that we cannot truly be a great society when there are others who are downtrodden and oppressed (which can come from folks thinking about themselves at the expense of others, as well as from larger systems which encourage, support, and perpetuate inequity.).

In many ways, Ubuntu reminds me of the greatness that can be found in acknowledging our interconnectedness, and the challenges and responsibility that come with truly putting it into practice.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins-Jones, MSW, LLMSW

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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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1 Response

  1. March 5, 2017

    […] For me, it all comes back to Ubuntu. […]

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