Skip to main content

Let's Talk Human Rights

Beyond Peril and Potential: Insights from SPHR 2021 (Part 3)

By Satang Nabaneh, Shelley Inglis & 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.

Toward methods that center lived experiences in human rights practice

“New times call for new methods.” Ann Hudock

This quote reminds us of the times we find ourselves in: a world where anti-rights movements, undemocratic norms, illiberalism and populist politics have gained considerable traction and exacerbated long-standing inequalities, leading to further injury of marginalized communities and regression in human rights protections. 

While an aim of SPHR is to bridge the gap between scholars and practitioners, in the 2021 convening there was a recognition of the continuing divide between the academic community and practitioners, categorization of people into expert and non-expert actors, and a continuing binary of global versus local in the human rights movement. 

During the session on Utilizing international human rights frameworks and treaties to advocate in local communities, for example, Michael Goodhart noted that the binary between global and local does not necessarily describe the real world. He stressed that the global is not “some place out there somewhere” but a set of processes that affects us wherever we are. 

In order to transcend these divides, human rights proponents need to center the concerns and worldviews of those directly impacted by human rights, wherever they are, by building relations and creating spaces that help co-produce knowledge and turn that knowledge into action collaboratively. We highlight four ways of doing so that emerged from SPHR 2021 here: 

Community-based, action-oriented research

“Any human interaction that we participate in can be a source of knowledge production, a method of research if we are willing to reflect on it.” - Padlet reflection

Collaborative research practices focus on research with communities instead of research about them. In human rights terms, the traditional split between the “researcher” and “subjects”, and the assumption of researcher “objectivity” is problematic and harmful. These conventions assume a fundamental separation reinforced by alienating research methods and reified by scholars who report on communities who hold the knowledge and expertise of which researchers see themselves as existing separate from their own lives. 

As noted by Nicholas Sherwood, in human rights research, we must “stand in solidarity with instead of conducting research on” impacted communities. Relationships of trust and mutuality are key to incorporate contextualized and participatory knowledge of impacted groups. For example, the perspectives of communities in focus can be integrated into research design and research processes and outcomes can be open to critique by those communities. 

The methods we utilize in conducting research and producing knowledge should also serve to change oppressive systems and injustice. “Research for and through action,” as Alfredo Ortiz Aragón so aptly describes it. From a social practice perspective, there are many spaces that provide opportunities for more equitable knowledge production and collaboration and collective action, including higher education, open technology, community organizing and art. 

Dialogic methods 

SPHR 2021 showed us that dialogic methods, such as convening and facilitating dialogues, can promote greater and more equal participation in knowledge generation and orient participants towards social transformation. As we experienced with the World Café, these methods expand our toolbox for reflection and action, working both through and for human rights values. By sharing experiences across diverse perspectives, those who engage in dialogue learn more about themselves and the world. 

While not traditionally used in human rights advocacy spaces, dialogic methods demand that we ask better questions and engage in active listening with humility, particularly to those who have opposing views on human rights issues. They create avenues for people to come to the practice of human rights on their own terms and based on their own experiences. These methods require an openness to communication and really listening to others, letting all people be heard to share their stories. 

In response to the practical question, how do we ensure dialogic methods during the SPHR conference? Participants proposed organizing dialogic spaces more intentionally and being more experiential by having the World Café style throughout the conference to avoid oversaturation of formal panels and to promote less “academic preaching and more pragmatism.”


“Storytelling [is] an essential approach/method […] to develop, sharpen and spread. [But] how do we promote and protect storytelling without draining or exploiting those whose stories are most needed (or at least we assume those that are most needed)?”- Padlet reflection

During the plenary Ohio, justice, and the path ahead, Shannon Isom and Wil Haygood exemplified the power of story-telling to speak truth to power and provide a personal means of justice and recognition. For example, Haygood’s award-winning book and film about White House Black butler, Eugene Allen, emerged from his own personal experience as a Black journalist and resulted in changing popular culture perceptions of whose experiences are acknowledged as important in American history.

But storytelling also raises concerns for human rights actors when it may impose emotional burdens and even exploit the storytellers. And simply telling and sharing stories may be inadequate on their own. For example, to “overcome systemic racism,” minority stories need to become part of mainstream history and shape discourse. Operationalizing stories in and through coordinated campaigns and movement building efforts can advance counter-narratives and truth-telling to weaken the discursive power of states and pernicious non-state actors, if experience and voice can be deployed intentionally and strategically; or what Alfredo Ortiz Aragón refers to as “moving from story-telling to story-doing.”

New tech & citizen science

The reduction of barriers to developing critical advocacy tools grounded in science and technology means that people can use and shape these tools and apply them to the issues that concern and impact them. At SPHR 2021, we explored examples of the innovative use of citizen science, cryptocurrencies, data analytics, search algorithms, blockchain, and geospatial technologies for advocacy across a range of issues, such as corporate accountability, forced disappearances, genocide, trafficking, refugees and protecting human rights defenders. For instance, examples of indigenous community science monitoring of pollution caused by mining or oil extraction in Peru was shared in the session, The climate crisis, sustainable development and new frontiers

While we acknowledge that these tools can be used to negatively impact human rights, the session Emergence of new human rights methods and tactics showed that the space for those impacted by human rights to shape and develop new science and technological methods for advocacy continues to grow and has become even more essential in the pandemic era. However, education to use these tools in human rights spaces is also required. As highlighted in the session, Developing a practice in remote sensing for next generation human rights researchers, there is an urgent need to expand the community of practitioners who have training in the appropriate and responsible use of geospatial technologies for human rights research and documentation. 

localadvocacyworkshop2In sum, we discovered from this SPHR that methods that center lived experiences, amplify the voices of the most impacted and democratize knowledge generation are still underutilized. We identified four ways to redefine whose knowledge, needs, and methods are reflected in our models for generating and sharing insight and engaging in the social practice of human rights.  

Previous Post

Our experience of mapping mass graves in Raqqa, Syria

What do mass graves look like from space? Take a look at what we found in our geospatial investigations of the direct impact of war in Raqqa, northeast Syria.
Read More
Next Post

Learning through Dialogues in 2022 Spring Semester

HRC Student Interns reflect on dialogues they participated in throughout this spring semester. Participating in and facilitating dialogues is a great way for HRC interns and students to engage with human rights issues and different perspectives.

Read More