Donna Hicks is a conflict- resolution specialist who has participated in some of the world’s most intractable conflicts such as: Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, Cambodia, US-Cuba. In one such situation in Cambodia, after hearing the painful stories of Khmer women who had been horribly violated under the countrywide genocide, she was struck by how they managed to be joyful with such painful memories from the past. Yet, they WERE joyful in the face of that past suffering, when they learned of their new rights under the new Cambodian constitution. She was profoundly moved. On reflection, she realized something that she had intuitively known for some time. That is, “ if indignity tears us apart, dignity can put us back together again.” At that point, she states, “Dignity became the lens through which I made sense of the world from that point on.”

Five minutes with Donna Hicks is all you need to realize she is “the real deal.” Yes she has five degrees, a Harvard Professorship, has worked with presidents of countries and partners on her Declare Dignity project with Desmond Tutu.  But judging her on those superficial facts would be, well, a violation of her dignity. It would not be seeing her, the engaging, flawed, brilliant, yet down to earth human being she is. And that’s what she’s trying to tell us in her book, Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict.

I had the good fortune to attend a presentation by Donna Hicks at Regis College on 10.3.13 that was part of a speaker series called, “Threads of Inclusion: Recognizing the Sacred in our Lives Through Dignity, Grace and Justice.” The series is sponsored by Sacred Threads, an interfaith ministry whose purpose is to create meaningful dialogue through spiritual conversations, circles of reflection and programs of enrichment and growth. Professor Hicks’ presentation was just that: meaningful, spiritual, and enriching.

Hicks began by stating that, “Dignity is the highest and deepest point you can reach. It taps into the spiritual needs of us all, deep within our hearts, and allows the ‘holy’ to rise up.” She explains that through her work in international conflict resolution, she learned that there was always something deeper going on in those meetings than was reflected in the conversations. Something that was “under the table” but very present and quietly influencing every negotiation. She thought if she could put words to it, they would be things like, “How dare you treat me this way? Don’t you realize I’m a human being” and “Don’t you see how unfair this situation is?” Over time, it became clear to her that what she was feeling- what THEY were feeling, was about violations of their dignity. That revelation set her on a seven-year path that resulted in her book and is now the key influence for all her work .

What is dignity, as Hicks sees it? First, it’s different than respect, although many intertwine the two. Respect is earned, but dignity is a birthright. It is our inherent value and vulnerability. It’s not something that comes and goes. It is a piece of our DNA. It’s our internal barometer that indicates how we feel about ourselves, It’s invaluable, priceless, irreplaceable; it’s what gets upset when we are treated as if we don’t matter. Dignity wounds do not heal with time; we have to get them out so we can recognize them and heal them. As Hicks says, “Bottom line, dignity is what makes relationships work.”

So what can we do to be more aware of and live with greater dignity towards ourselves and each other? Hicks has developed 10 Elements of Dignity which include accepting others without prejudice or bias, recognizing and validating others for their talents and hard work, truly listening and validating other’s concerns, creating an environment of inclusiveness, putting people at ease on a physical and psychological level, treating others with equality, encouraging others to act on their own behalf, believing what others think matters, treating people as worthy of your trust, taking accountability for your actions and saying you’re sorry when you violate others. Sounds great. We all want to do it. But it’s not easy. Hicks herself acknowledges she is a “recovering dignity violator” and in truth, aren’t we all? Who among us hasn’t made an unkind remark, judged another unfairly, held back praise or given the ideas of others short shrift because we know we are right or just too busy to listen?

Hicks knows this all to well and names ten specific “Temptations” we face that cause us to violate our own dignity and the dignity of others. She reminds us to not let other’s bad behaviors determine our own. (“You think you can yell; I can yell louder.”) Don’t lie or cover up what you’ve done- own it and take responsibility when you’ve made a mistake or hurt someone. Don’t look externally and to others for validation of your self-worth; dignity is your birthright and no one can take that away. Don’t hang on to false security in situations when your dignity is being violated; stand up for yourself and take action. Look at yourself and examine if YOU are part of the problem, and listen to feedback from others that will help you grow. Don’t “blame and shame” others to deflect your own guilt, and don’t gossip! Being critical of or sharing private information about others who are not present is harmful, and undignified.

In the forward to her book, Bishop Desmond Tutu says of Hicks, “She has the gift, perhaps it is her vocation, of opening to our sight a world where those most basic of human needs – appreciation, recognition, and the feeling of inherent worth – may be attained by all.” While that world may be an idealized one, it’s a world I want to help create and live in. Donna Hicks has put into words for me and countless others, what a world filled with dignity can look like and gives us a roadmap for how to get there.

How fitting that Sacred Threads chose Professor Hicks to kick off this powerful speaker series. As Hicks reminds us, dignity is “the glue that connects us to each other.” Through her, Sacred Threads has provided us with a powerful reminder of how important it is to strengthen the bonds that dignity builds and in so doing, helps us to realize just how connected we all are.
~Pamela Econoply Woodnick


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