Lessons for the rights movement in constructing a collective reality

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To commence the virtual session of the Legal Empowerment Lab at the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights at NYU School of Law, a voice emerged from one of the 20 squares on the screen, each of which contained human rights practitioners from around the globe. “We’d love to have each of us share about a woman that has nourished our roots,” the voice said.

This is a glimpse into the beginning of a monthly co-learning session hosted by the Bernstein Institute. It is at this participatory and immersive workshop series where we have the rare gift of accompanying 25 grassroots justice practitioners and scholars from over a dozen countries who identify as community organizers, lawyers, researchers, and professors. The particpants, who work in a range of areas from maternal mortality in India to the experiences of Syrian refugee in Iraq, to the fight for undocumented communities' rights in the US, have come together to engage in collective inquiry, action, and reflection. 

The two of us—an immigrant scholar activist in New York City and  an activist scholar in Zimbabwe—are accompanying the community as we learn to braid participatory action research processes and ethics into our work. The Lab, through monthly sessions, one-on-one accompaniment meetings with our members, and open tea times has proven to be a transformative space for co-learning. 

Throughout this process we have experienced how participants are incorporating participatory methodologies into how they evaluate their justice initiatives, as a way to learn what matters to their community and build more sustainable organizations. We have also identified broader lessons the human rights movement can draw from the Legal Empowerment Lab. 

The Lab’s approach to legal empowerment and protection of the rights of the people is based on the premise that respect for human rights should be founded on recognizing and honoring people's beliefs, convictions and aspirations, and of course, respecting everyone’s unique, nuanced and complex perspectives. 

This is one of the reasons why the Lab centers the free participation of everyone. By free participation, we mean that everyone is free not to participate as well, meaning that the right to say “no” is part of protecting rights. The participation in the Lab sessions harnesses the presence, energy, ideas, and actions of the participants during the sessions. 

One of the ways we gather is through tea time. Tea time was created so that we can move away from the traditional structure of meetings as a formal process that comes with obligations of attendance and interaction. One the contrary, tea times are monthly community spaces that are open for those who may want or need it. Its deliberate use creates a community of support at both a personal and professional level. Participants attend our sessions because they feel inspired by their engagement in the Lab to share stories of their struggles,victories, or even music that has moved them recently. 

The Lab hosts people from different cultures, beliefs, and people who carry different identities and politics. Difference and diversity is celebrated. Often, the human rights space assumes and values homogeneity, but the community that we have created appreciates the uniqueness of each person, and the need to engage with each individual differently at their convenience and on their terms. Instead of appealing to uniformity, we place value on our connectedness to each other,  our environment, and to our being. 

We also believe that knowledge construction is a collective process that happens  naturally in conversation, with the consent of all; we only share the information that activists are comfortable with sharing with others. We believe that the development of critical consciousness starts with non-formal listening. The Lab places importance on active listening with a clear idea that we are constructing our collective reality. 

In practice this looks like one of the Lab’s sessions that was structured around a collective writing project. During this session, we heard stories of when activists and organizers engaged in community-based research and were delegitimated for having worked with communities. We then invited them to reimagine certain outcomes by using Augusto Boal’s theater of the oppressed. We channeled the excitement,  anger,  laughter and hopes through the unstructured conversations and stories that were shared in a relaxed environment to learn and apply the lessons learned. We made meaning from these seemingly disparate experiences that literally spanned the globe and through this process  were able to identify shared dynamics and cultivate shared radical imaginings.

The Lab places importance on active listening with a clear idea that we are constructing our collective reality. 

Another such example is the Head and Heart Workbook that we co-created with members of the Lab for other legal empowerment practitioners, organizers and academics. The workbook offers foundational training on participatory action research and legal empowerment through a collection of self-reflection exercises, concepts, and case studies. We endeavor to find ways to make the learnings of the Lab accessible to others.

Another embodied ethic of the Lab is listening to spontaneous discussion amongst ourselves without judgment. This is one of the many ways we think human rights movements could draw from our ways of working. The way we organize, engage, and relate to each other should be centered on care. Not everything is discussed during our group gatherings, as some people may not feel as free to speak out or to raise particular issues in a group; that is the reason why we have spaces for intimate accompaniment. 

At the Lab we know that radical shifts in how we care for one another as a society are only possible if we enact our commitment to justice in the most intimate of encounters. When we opened our session by telling the story of the women we each carry within us, we were able to fully honor the whole person, with our complex histories, the swelling griefs inside of each of us, and the dreams of justice that have been passed down long before our first breath. When we are each invited fully into the shared space—and therefore able to truly embody participatory ethics—we can begin to deeply engage with critical questions about human rights and our collective liberation and carve portals from this world to the next.