For over a decade, the annual December workshop of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies (HDHS) has become an increasingly significant event in my life. HDHS is a global, transdisciplinary network of scholars, practitioners, artists, and students dedicated to advancing human dignity and reducing humiliation in our society. The two-day workshop occurs each year at Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City, attracting dozens of people from across the country and around the world. I have written about this workshop regularly on this blog, and for good reason: It is one of the most welcomed gatherings of the year for me.
Last week, the workshop beckoned again, and I hopped on an Amtrak train from Boston to New York. My participation would begin with a Wednesday board of directors meeting. In recent years, I have become more deeply involved with HDHS. Service on the board is now one manifestation of that closer engagement. The board meeting also serves as a nice lead-in to the workshop.
In a marvelous little book titled Rituals For Beginners (2016), author Richard Webster defines a ritual as “an action, or series of actions, performed in a prearranged, prescribed manner.” He adds that rituals help us to appreciate life. Most of them “involve an element of gratitude” for experiences that we might otherwise take for granted.
Well, last Thursday morning, as I exited the subway stop at Columbia’s campus and walked up Broadway toward Teachers College for a Day 1 of the workshop, I had an epiphany: This is no longer “just” an annual event for me. Rather, it has become a meaningful ritual, a renewing, educational, and connective experience with friends old and new. While each year’s workshop provides plenty of variety, its essential format and timing provide a reassuring continuity, in the company of a pretty amazing group of people.
Here’s a brief rundown of my experience of the workshop:
With a breakfast sandwich and coffee from a nearby food truck in hand, I walk over to venerable Teachers College, whose International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution graciously hosts this gathering. Founded in 1887, Teachers College was the nation’s first full-fledged graduate school of education. It has since branched out into offerings on health, psychology, and conflict resolution. Its buildings aren’t shiny new digs, but rather older, unpretentious structures that speak of tradition and history. Those surroundings add to the ritual element of the experience.
Our workshop opens with a warm welcome from two individuals who are at the center of HDHS, Linda Hartling (director) and Evelin Lindner (founder and president). Evelin is a social scientist and writer, trained in both medicine and psychology. She travels the world doing workshops, giving lectures, and supporting the work of other change agents. Linda is a clinical psychologist and authority on relational-cultural theory. I frequently cite her brilliant paper, co-authored with Elizabeth Sparks (link here), describing organizational cultures in a relational context.
The closest things we have to formal panel discussions are “pre-planned dignilogues,” which allow speakers to briskly (as in seven minutes each!) describe a project, publication, or initiative they’re working on, followed by Q&A. Pictured above, criminal justice professor Tony Gaskew (U. of Pittsburgh) is describing his “Life Support” project for individuals in Pennsylvania who have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles.
I used my dignilogue talk to describe a new course that I’ll be teaching at Suffolk University Law School next semester, a “Law and Psychology Lab” that offers students opportunities to do practical projects applying psychological insights to law and public policy.
Our workshop also features “co-created dignilogues,” i.e., extended group discussions and presentations on topics developed each day by workshop participants. In the photo above, Beth Boynton, a nurse and medical improv instructor, is helping to facilitate a co-created dignilogue performance on improvisation and movement.
One of our Thursday evening traditions has been a musical performance by students from P.S. 10 in Brooklyn, led by their devoted music director, Fred Ellis, who happens to be a notable singer, musician, and song writer in his own right. Here are the kids doing one of their numbers, with Fred on the guitar.
In addition to organizing the annual NYC workshop, every year HDHS holds a conference outside of the United States, typically in a country facing compelling social and political issues. This year’s conference was in Brazil, and it turned into something of a roving caravan in the Amazon. In the photo above, Gabriela Saab, a human rights and international law scholar and the newest member of the HDHS board, is sharing stories of her Amazon experience. (Go here for more.)
Psychologist Michael Britton is the presenter of the annual Donald Klein Memorial Lecture. Each year, Michael delivers a masterful, wise, and deeply humane talk about the state of the world, using an integrated perspective. This year, he focused on global warming and climate change and our roles in responding to it. It was the most cogent, holistic assessment of the topic that I’ve heard yet. (To watch the 43-minute lecture, go here. It will be time well spent.)
Every year, HDHS presents a member of this community with its lifetime achievement award. This year’s deserving awardee was Claudia Cohen, a longtime HDHS workshop contributor. Claudia recently retired from a distinguished career at Teachers College, where she focused on organizational cultures and conflict resolution, and she is now doing anti-racism work in her home state of New Jersey.
On occasion, we are blessed with cameo appearances by noteworthy people. This year’s surprise guest was Bill Baird, often touted as the father of the reproductive rights movement. His pioneering advocacy work includes three victories before the U.S. Supreme Court. He’s pictured above with Evelin Lindner.
The workshop serves as a reunion for old friends and an opportunity to make new friends for everyone. Pictured above, Linda Hartling and Bhante Chipamong Chowdhury, a Buddhist activist/monk and HDHS board member, share a moment. These impromptu conversations occur throughout the workshop and fuel both fellowship and future collaborations.
I am grateful for the many treasured connections I have made through this workshop over the years. For those who are regular participants, these ties build and strengthen. We may also keep in touch through emails, social media, and occasional face-to-face get togethers during the rest of the year, but it’s this December workshop that brings us together in the most meaningful way.
In recent years, we’ve been closing the workshop with music as well. Above, I’m helping to lead our group in singing “What a Wonderful World,” which has become something of a tradition. Infusing the workshop with more music and singing helps to counterbalance the difficult subjects that are often the focus of our discussions.
In both direct and indirect ways, the HDHS workshop supports the work I do on workplace bullying and mobbing. Overall, the event reaffirms the critical importance of advancing human dignity in our society. It is deeply instructive and inspiring to hear others talk about their work in addressing abuse, mistreatment, and injustice in so many other settings. In addition, I have frequently discussed my workplace anti-bullying initiatives and found that topic to be very well received. It is validating to me that folks who are doing such important work in their own realms understand the significance of workplace abuse. On occasion, I’m able to share more of my work with fellow participants who are experiencing difficult work situations in their own lives.
And if you’ll excuse a personal indulgence, we’re now adding some art to the mix as well! Anna Strout, our devoted photographer and a gifted educator, activist, and artist, masterminded a project of trace drawings from photographs she took during the workshop. Here I am posing with her drawing of me!
So, this is a snapshot of what this workshop has come to mean for me. Such is the good power of this gathering that each year, I return to Boston reinvigorated for the work that I get to do. Rituals delivering that kind of energetic renewal are very special indeed.