Skip to main content

Let's Talk Human Rights

Beyond Peril and Potential: Insights from SPHR 2021 (Part 1)

By Joel Pruce

In late 2021, we gathered to tackle the question: What does human rights advocacy look like in the wake of the global pandemic? The Social Practice of Human Rights (SPHR) conference theme - "Between Peril and Potential" - responded to the multiple and overlapping crises we're experiencing with fierce urgency. At SPHR21, we asked participants to consider whether current human rights methods, strategies, and approaches are comprehensive, deep, and bold enough to meet this moment and leverage it for increased justice and dignity. This SPHR21 blog series captures discussions that occurred during the conference and reflects the innovative methods used to harness insights and promote action. 

Incorporating community-based and action-oriented advocacy methods into the SPHR conference 

On a bright and brisk December morning in Dayton, Ohio, over fifty local activists shared half of their Saturday with one another to begin a collective process. The excitement of the morning reflected the fact that, for many participants, this workshop was their first in-person gathering in months if not longer, taking place at a moment in the global pandemic when people were willing to meet together in physical space. 

As a city, Dayton is not without its problems, which range from food insecurity and maternal mortality to police surveillance and government transparency and, in a city like ours, there is a spectrum of activity long in motion to respond to these challenges. There is also a history of racial and other forms of discrimination, such as redlining in the housing and real estate business, that has substantially impacted the community today. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges and brought key dimensions to political light, such as evictions, homelessness and unequal access to financial opportunities.  

Despite how interconnected these issues are, individuals and groups put their heads down and do work, often without knowledge of what others are working on or how the issues are connected. In hosting this Saturday workshop as part of the 2021 Social Practice of Human Rights (SPHR) Conference, the UD Human Rights Center aimed to hold space for people from across our region to sit down together, learn about each other’s efforts, identify areas of overlap or gaps, and start to build a more unified way forward.

When we awoke on this particular bright and brisk morning, we had just concluded the traditional conference consisting of two-plus days of keynote addresses, plenary events, and research sessions. Building on the fourth SPHR conference, where we expanded the conference space with design workshops, we asked What would it look like if SPHR was more than a biennial conference but rather an ongoing space for critical, action-oriented collaboration around human rights issues? The local advocacy workshop was a way to move forward this idea with members of our own Dayton community in the wake of Covid19. For many of the participants, just coming together in a shared space again to interact around community issues, activism and organizing was a powerful experience. 

Our Executive Advisory Committee member, Rafael Hoetmer and colleague Alfredo Ortiz helped us design the workshop, which we called the “Dayton Human Rights Dialogue.” Through a dynamic social mapping exercise, participants shared their knowledge of our region by identifying issues, assets, and opportunities. With sharpies, highlighters, post-its, stickers, and scissors, the groups located sore spots and zones of hope on a map of the city. In the time since then, we’ve been working to aggregate all that we learned that morning and are currently creating an actual map to share with those who were in attendance and more widely as a document, a snapshot, of our city in this moment, as seen through the eyes of those who experience it, live in it, and work every day to make it a more equitable and just place.  

A summary of the workshop can be found below:

But, these kinds of gatherings have happened before and occur all the time in cities like ours. That we work in silos is not a shock to anyone. That we have enormous challenges is also not a surprise. Coming together is a critical first step but it cannot be the only step. As a Center, we are conscious of the need to support an ongoing community-based process of collective action through which these advocates and others can work together with more holistic approaches.

With that in mind, the workshop provided a space to learn about what it would mean to declare Dayton as a “human rights city.” We were fortunate to be joined in person by Jackie Smith from Pittsburgh, Rob Robinson from New York City, and Crista Noel from Chicago—all of whom in a range of powerful ways utilize the international human rights framework in local activism. They attest to the capacity to organize and mobilize communities around a global language for dignity that broadens the imagination of ordinary people and provides a vocabulary with which to formulate their experiences of discrimination or violence. But, more than just words, human rights can also create tangible mechanisms for monitoring state behavior, making claims against governments, and seeking remedies. Human rights cities around the world have built resourced institutions in their municipalities that function to provide transparent processes for community members to articulate grievances and hold their public officials accountable. It’s inspiring, of course, and we know that feeling of leaving a gathering energized to get back to do the work…and then there remains the task of actually doing the work.

Since December, the effort to build a human rights city in Dayton has begun to gain momentum and we will remain engaged in this crucial initiative. The social practice of human rights, as a concept and not just a conference, demands that we come together often to devise ways to dedicate our varied skills and knowledge to put in service of rights and dignity. We saw this working on that Saturday morning in our own city and look forward to future opportunities for community building through ideas in action.

Previous Post

Montgomery County Jail Coalition fights to redirect local justice away from incarceration

The Montgomery County Jail Coalition seeks to reduce the number of people in the Montgomery County Jail by educating and advocating. The goal is to change the current system by implementing alternatives to incarceration that promote healing and restoration. HRC intern Donya Mills reflects on her experience of working with the Coalition.
Read More
Next Post

For One Day One Dayton, students consider what they have gained by working with the HRC

Through internships, fellowships and other engagement opportunities the HRC provides many different learning opportunities to students at UD. For One Day One Dayton this year our current interns reflect on how working at the HRC has impacted their time at UD.
Read More