Dignity work

2012 workshop participants

December 2012 workshop participants (photo: Anna Strout)

Dignity work. In a blog about work, that’s the best way I can tag the array of projects, initiatives, and passions that drew people from around the world to the annual Workshop on Transforming Humiliation and Violent Conflict, sponsored by the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Network (HumanDHS) and hosted by Columbia University, Teachers College, in New York.  This year’s workshop ran last Thursday and Friday.

About HumanDHS

HumanDHS is a unique association. Here’s a self-description from the website:

We are a global transdisciplinary network and fellowship of concerned academics and practitioners. We wish to stimulate systemic change, globally and locally, to open space for dignity and mutual respect and esteem to take root and grow, thus ending humiliating practices and breaking cycles of humiliation throughout the world.

We suggest that a frame of cooperation and shared humility is necessary – not a mindset of humiliation – if we wish to build a better world, a world of equal dignity for all.


In other words, HumanDHS is not your typical academic assemblage. For example, in the Round Table in which I participated, we heard presentations about sojourns to the Amazon rainforest, conflict resolution on large and small scales, America’s aging population base, and the criminal justice system. Theory, research, and action all play important roles at this gathering and often come together in individual talks.

A group ethic of respectful exchange frames the event. On topics as difficult as, say, the impact of required English education on the preservation of traditional languages in Africa, emotions can run strong. It may take an effort, at times, to keep certain expressions in check and to listen to others amid earnest discussion. Nevertheless, such attempts are far preferable to imposing a cloak of superficial dialogue that dodges hard topics, or allowing exchanges to disintegrate into angry barbs tossed back and forth.

Group hug

Yes, there’s a group hug at the end, but we shouldn’t dismiss this as a standard-brand “feel good” event. Not, for example, when a participant shares a personal story of childhood sexual abuse. You see, the founders of HumanDHS included the word humiliation in the group’s name for a reason: You can’t affirm human dignity without facing what’s uncomfortable and painful.

And yet it does feel good to be a part of this group. These gatherings are life-affirming in a world where the embrace of human dignity remains too rare an event.



Evelin Linder, Linda Hartling, Tonya Hammer, and a crew of other dedicated volunteers deserve our thanks for making the workshop such a meaningful gathering.

Congratulations to friend and colleague Michael Perlin (New York Law School), who received the HumanDHS Lifetime Achievement Award at the workshop. Michael is a leading authority on mental disability law and is among a core group of law professors who extended a warm welcome to me when I became involved with the therapeutic jurisprudence movement.

For more photos of the event by the ever present (but never intrusive) camera of Anna Strout, go here and scroll down to the links.

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