The Breakthrough Fellows, along with other GCO team members, recently had the opportunity to watch and reflect on the movie Les Misérables. For those unfamiliar with the story: an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, restores value to his life after a priest accepts him into his home and gives him a second chance to live with dignity. Though Valjean is able to turn his life around, the troubles of his past come to haunt him as his law-zealous adversary, Inspector Javert, recognizes him from his former life.

I found the story of Les Misérables so moving because it perfectly depicts the power of being grounded in morals and bringing purpose to one’s life. By accepting the challenge to become a new man, Valjean is able to transition his life from one stripped of purpose to one dedicated to serving others with true compassion. And though Inspector Javert’s pursuit continually disrupts Valjean’s peaceful life, the morals instilled by the priest are never forgotten. This serves Valjean immeasurably as he overcomes the temptation to slip back into his old ways.

Just as ethics and morals are vital to living well in our personal lives, organizations too must be grounded in values. This reflection on Les Misérables came just on the heels of a larger team discussion about the core values of Georgia Center for Opportunity. Under the example of a ship’s ballast (the heavy material that steadies a vessel), GCO’s President, Randy Hicks, listed Dignity , Humility, Integrity, Excellence, and Team as the traits that guide our work. Through evidence-based policy and community-based solutions, the true foundation of what we do is serving others with these values.

Integrity, Excellence, and Team are common core values for organizations that strive to produce high quality work. What I think makes GCO’s core values unique in the world of think tanks is our inclusion of Dignity and Humility. Often what makes policy effective is not the letter of what is written but rather the principles that connect laws and programs to a higher purpose. As human beings, each of us is inherently valuable and deserving of respect. We know that many of our fellow citizens face barriers to opportunity that limits their ability to thrive, driving our work and creating a sense of urgency. This is how Dignity is made manifest in our work.

But removing barriers to opportunity is complex, and the GCO staff certainly does not have all the answers. Thus we rely on the communities we serve to teach us about their challenges and we work with expert panels and community partnerships to help us identify and implement solutions. We work hard to affect change while keeping in mind our Humility, knowing the limits of what we can achieve alone and recognizing that our greatest impact is realized through working with others.

Human dignity lives by our ability to meet neighbors as equals irrespective of life circumstances, and the ability to accept the compassion of neighbors in times of need. In Les Misérables both Humility and Dignity are not only restoring forces in Jean Valjean’s life, but  also guide his interactions with others as a new man. At GCO we recognize, as Jean Valjean did, that it is necessary to hold steadfast to one’s core values. The values that guide our personal lives and our work have the powerful ability to shape a better world around us and hold us to a higher purpose.

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