The story behind humankind's 2017 Dignity Initiative

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By Delphine Pastiaux-Murphy

Why does dignity matter? Why make it a priority when so many other things seem to require our urgent attention and action?

By late 2016, humankind was wrapping up its first Appreciative Inquiry into what allows us and pushes us to form positive connections across boundaries (see: Appreciative Inquiry: An Effective Tool to Connect Across Boundaries). The stories shared were often pointing to a critical shift brought about by a person choosing to affirm the  dignity of others.

In December 2016, the Human Rights Day of Action had “dignity” for its theme. This gave humankind the opportunity to launch a new appreciative inquiry.

In collaboration with Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans (PANA),  humankind set up a pop-up tent in City Heights for the day and embarked on the Dignity Initiative.

Through 2017, humankind “popped up” across San Diego to ask people to share their personal experience around dignity being affirmed. Here again, questions inspired by the Appreciative Inquiry approach were used to start the conversation, asking about a time when the person was treated with respect or had their dignity affirmed and why it mattered (to learn more about this approach, check out the AI Commons website).

As we listened, we understood better why the short-lived incidents people were recalling in the stories gathered in 2015 and 2016 about breakthrough moments of connection had left such a deep trace in people’s lives and hearts: because of the transformative power of affirming dignity.

Stories were collected from people walking into humankind’s pop-up tent in December 16, then again at the Museum of Man in Balboa Park and at the Linda Vista Multicultural Festival, both in April 2017. The results of the inquiry were presented at the December 2017 Human Rights day, at the Waterfront park in downtown San Diego.

Below are a couple videos from humankind’s pop-up gatherings. They provide a small sample of the hundreds of conversations that occurred in 2016/2017.

(To watch dozens of other videos just like these, checkout out humankind's YouTube channel.)

The stories and reflections people shared show how deeply they were touched by the fact that others chose to display respect, trust, recognition towards them, or to make room for them in spite of differences, as if, for once, differences didn’t matter.

Most interviewees told us about a time when someone else saw “through the lines”, identifying something in them that had to do with their essence of being--truly seeing them for who they are. For some, it was the experience of being seen beyond the obvious surface or stereotype, that made them feel “fully human”. It was also often about others trusting something in them that they themselves couldn’t see at the time.

The trust in a shared core humanity, the affirmation that they mattered, that what they did mattered, led them to see themselves as full of this potential they didn’t know (or had forgotten) they had, empowered and inspired to move boldly forward, in their own life or working to advance their communities.

Some of the people interviewed told us of choosing to stick their neck out to defend someone else’s dignity rather than their own. Interestingly enough, their stories lead to the same emotional high point where the listener can sense how deeply transformative their experiences proved to be: recognizing someone else’s dignity and acting on it is another way to connect to our own, and affirm our shared humanity. That’s a truly empowering stance.

Another question we were asking people was to think of how they can affirm the dignity of others. At the systemic level, many people mentioned the work they do in their communities to defend or demand respect, justice and basic rights.

The other level people mentioned when reflecting on their experiences with dignity was that of everyday interpersonal encounters. Simple gestures, words of acknowledgment, recognition, love, trust, efforts to see and listen to the real person, the “fully human” individual beyond the surface: the space where people meet person to person, that is where the power of affirming each other’s dignity comes fully to life, transforming both the one affirming and the one being affirmed.

This we can do for each other, and for ourselves, anytime.

And to expand our range of opportunities to affirm dignity, as well as our capacity to show up in positive ways in these encounters, humankind’s new exploration for 2018 is "conversations that connect" –  difficult conversations, around polarizing topics, where we speak from and about our true self, our history and our personal experiences… yes, there is discomfort, but here lie openings for dignity-affirming connections that transform us and our communities.