Interview with Donna Hicks, Author of Dignity: It's Essential Role in Resolving Conflict

How did you get involved with teaching the fundamentals of dignity to students and educators?

Most of my work is in the field of international conflict. After my book came out, it surprised me that it touched a nerve with so many different types of organizations. I got asked to adapt my ideas about dignity for the corporate world, for the healthcare environment, and for education. As an educator myself, I believe in the power of education to help transform our thinking from crude to advanced ethical behaviors. Dignity and understanding are crucial concepts to have in schools - even for little kids. I’ve been doing a lot of work in schools, but my favorite projects have been in independent schools. Teaching students how to treat each other is so important and should be an integral part of the curriculum. It’s my goal to teach students how to be in relationships with one another that honor their peers' dignity and bring out the best in each other.
Some of the best work that I’ve done in terms of preventing dignity violations has been in schools. Recently, I was approached about running an anti-bullying workshop at a school in Boston. I pointed out to them that if they only target school-bullies, they miss a opportunity to educate all students about healthy relationships. 

What’s an important first step to putting a program like this in place?

I'm really clear about this because I’ve made some mistakes. Unless the leadership in these schools is 100% behind creating a culture of dignity, the dignity model will not be effective. One of my first interventions addressed a problem with bullying. In trying to help, I realized I couldn’t go in and work on one problem. This has to be a system-wide approach. I pointed out to them that if they only target school-bullies, they miss a opportunity to educate all students about healthy relationships. The whole school has to model this behavior for students in order for it to make a difference.
Today, I start by educating the leadership team who are making major decisions. Then I help teachers understand what dignity means in the classroom, and how it can be integrated into the curriculum. Most recently in California, I helped educate parents about how they can use the dignity model that their students learn in school to better communicate at home. 
My model lays out ten ways to honor dignity and ten temptations to violate your own dignity, based on my research. Most people feel that they treat people with dignity, but what does that look like in practice? Research shows that when people feel acknowledged, it brings out the best in them. Kids who feel like their dignity is honored don’t have to worry about feeling unsafe. 
The framework presents guidelines for relationships among equals or between bosses and employees, teachers and students, doctors and patients, etc. I’ve been lucky because I’ve received almost unanimous leadership support for this framework. When there is pushback, it’s on the practicalities of using teacher time for additional training. I rarely - if ever - run into philosophical opposition. 

What does this look like in practice?

One of the teachers that I’ve worked closely with developed a dignity curriculum that her third graders could embrace. First, she asked them what it would mean if everyone mattered. The responses she got were astounding. Seven year olds were able to internalize and articulate what dignity meant to them through pictures and group conversations. Next, she adapted the ten elements of dignity to kid-friendly language using their feedback. She had them keep a dignity journal, where they recorded whenever their dignities were honored or hurt. Each week they were required to teach someone close to them about dignity. At the end of the year, she held a graduation ceremony where all of the third graders became ‘dignity agents’. This is an incredibly important step for their own pride, and for their development as global citizens. One little guy told me that he was going to store his dignity pin in his mothers jewelry safe, because it was so important to him. 
I’ve seen schools develop curriculum for elementary schoolers, middle schoolers, and high schoolers. At every level, students absorb the teaching and gain a dignity language, so that when they get into conflict they can follow a conflict resolution process. Each student needs to be able to talk from his or her point of view. Both students should acknowledge the hurt that’s been created. Receiving dignity training makes students more able to apologize, which is essential to understanding why it’s important not to do it again. 

What do you want people to take away from your presentation at SAIS this year?

We have to pay attention to the inner world of children. The most important thing that young people need to know is that they are worthy no matter what. Dignity is something they are born with. Even though it can be wounded, it never betrays us. It’s part of our DNA. It is equal parts value and vulnerability. Educators need to be a strong voice for our children that they matter.

Donna Hicks

Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She facilitated dialogues in numerous unofficial diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Colombia, Cuba, Libya and Syria. She was a consultant to the BBC in Northern Ireland where she co-facilitated a television series, Facing the Truth, with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. She has taught courses in conflict resolution at Harvard, Clark, and Columbia Universities and conducts trainings seminars in the US and abroad on the role dignity plays in conflict. She consults to corporations, schools, churches, and non-governmental organizations. Her book, Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, was published by Yale University Press in 2011.