Source: "MEDA builds human dignity through entrepreneurship" by Evelyn Rempel Petkau for the Canadian Mennonite
More than 500 Christian business-men and women from a half-dozen countries converged at the corner of Portage and Main in Winnipeg for four days in early November. There, in the shadow of the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights, participants attending the Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA) annual convention learned about human rights and "human dignity through entrepreneurship."
While human rights have always been a core value of MEDA, "every convention sets the bar a little higher," said Allan Sauder, president, adding, "This theme hit a chord with so many people. Human rights is always a factor in choosing and shaping sustainable programs that will have meaningful impact at a personal level, often for women, youth and those disadvantaged in their societies."
Plenary speakers included Art DeFehr, chief executive officer of Palliser Furniture, and Stephanie Stobbe, who came to Canada as a refugee from Laos when she was seven years old and is now associate professor in conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College, Winnipeg. Together, they offered "a business case for human rights."
After carefully examining such questions as, "Does practising human rights lead to success in business?" and, "Are human rights consistent with biblical teachings?" they offered no black and white conclusions, but determined there is still lots of work to be done. People need to focus on issues close to home, where they can actually do something, they said.
On Nov. 7, participants were treated to a visit to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, where two exhibits were opened for them. In this setting, Ziauddin Yousafzai spoke about human dignity for children and women. The educator, human rights campaigner, social activist and father of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala, said that, although the Taliban stirred up fear and violence in Pakistan, he, at great personal risk, peacefully resisted the Taliban's efforts to shut down schools and kept his own school open. He also inspired Malala to stand up for the right of all children to an education. Following the attack in which Malala was shot in the face while riding a school bus, Yousafzai didn't chose hatred or revenge, but forgiveness, for the attackers.
He shared stories of how, in his own country where 57 million children are out of school and many work in sweatshops, entrepreneurship can be a vehicle through which the dignity of women, children and men can be restored.
His own entrepreneurship is one such story. He said he wanted to be a teacher, but was unable to get a teaching job, so "in 1994, with three students, I and my friend started our own school. Today, we have more than 1,000 students."
"In many societies, women are ignored, treated as property, abused and sometimes even killed in the name of honour. Attitudes can change through education," he said. "My five sisters could not go to school. I wanted my school to be different. I wanted to change the attitude of men to their sisters and mothers."
On Nov. 8, Laura Ling, award-winning journalist and author, told her story of being arrested and held captive in North Korea for 140 days in 2009. She was reporting on the trafficking of North Korean women at the time of her arrest. She said that this "darkest period of my life" taught her how to hold on to hope. "Seeing each day as a precious treasure, an opportunity to make a difference," she said she would treat her guards with compassion and grace. She believes this "practice of intentional gratitude" gave her the hope she needed and can also empower her to continue to be a voice for human dignity.
Jim Miller, president of JMX Brands, which is recognized as one of the top 1,000 Internet retailers in the U.S., used the story of the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume as an example of giving. "Gifts bring depth to the relationship, but the power of the gift is unleashed only if it is shared for the good of the whole community," he said, adding, "Gift giving and receiving is at the very heart of God's story. Our faith compels us to share with those around us and we are inspired to work harder for the good of others."
Trudy Dueck, a businesswoman from Arborg, Man., was grateful to attend the convention. "Often you feel there is no place for business in the church," she said. "Here it is great to be amongst like-minded people and to have the recognition that business too can be a calling."