Human Rights Show Up in Every Meeting – Are You Honoring Them?


IMG_4799I want to talk to you about a very special place I visited when I was in Winnipeg, Canada last week. See the bottom of this blog for more information about this museum.  This place touched my heart so deeply as I think human rights is at the forefront of our work as facilitators, mediators and anyone working for social justice and social change. Human rights show up every day in our lives – in our meetings, in our discussions with our families, on the TV and Internet as we hear and watch about politics and news stories.  Are we paying enough attention? No – most of us aren’t!  Can you start to bring this topic to the forefront of your practice?  Yes – I hope so. This profound place in the heart of my birth country is finally giving me the courage to write about a topic so important to me.  I know I will mess up.  I have always been keen to blog about it but have been too scared.  I can’t remain silent anymore.

In this blog, I will tell a brief story of where I have noticed injustice or power imbalance and was not sure what to do about it.  Also, I will share small things I do to hopefully ensure a little more equity and power in every event I facilitate or class I train.

If nothing else is done by us as facilitators, creating equity in every group we operate in will be the most important work of our life. It is the work of MY lifetime.

And, if you think that you live in a country or work in an organization where there is no power imbalance, think again and read on please… for three easy tips to start this shift in our lives, and in our meeting rooms.

IMG_4790This is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg – yes, it was raining in this photo I took.

If you get a chance to visit any human rights, peace or war museum anywhere in the world, I urge you to do so. I especially think it is important to visit a human rights museum or exhibit in your own country.  Mostly this will wake you up to stop thinking, “There have been no human rights issues in my own country.”  For example, you would think Canada of all places has a pretty good record. Nope!  Sorry, we have an abysmal history of treating Aboriginal peoples, Jews, Japanese, and many others in frightening, harsh and genocidal ways. So it’s time to wake up from our complacency folks.

Visiting a museum of this topic will likely be heartbreaking, hard, emotional work but it will change the way you think about every individual in your group.  It will likely help you open your heart to seeing the oppression and power imbalances in your groups, interrupt it, and begin to create real equity in the room.  Be sure to go with someone and talk about it afterwards.  Even crying is good.

First Tip

It is relatively easy to do this and yet, do we do it?  Do you notice the differences in the people you are facilitating?  If you are saying to yourself, “We are all really the same – we are all equal”, in some ways, this is an absolutely true statement.  Unfortunately, our behaviors, words and actions do not make this to be true. Just begin to observe the way someone who might be a little different from the rest of the group is treated. Often their words are interrupted by others. They do not voice their ideas. Or, there are the subtle or not-so-subtle put downs of their ideas.  Begin to observe this and you will be appalled.  A simple example, I went down to lunch after an event with a colleague who is dark skinned. I noticed the waiter spoke to me, the white person, and pretty much ignored this other person.  The waiter was not aware of his behavior.  I kept redirecting his attention to my colleague.  And yet he simply kept turning his body towards me and asking me what “we” wanted.  I really didn’t know what else to do.  This kind of behavior happens all the time for people who look different than the dominant culture.

Application in a meeting.  So now, if I notice three people who have a different skin color than the rest of the group, or appear to have or had openly shared that they were of a different sexual orientation, have generational differences, have different power levels in the company, or a stated different religion or obvious physical disability, I think to myself, “Oh great! A little diversity! I’ll make sure everyone benefits from this diversity.”  So I separate each of these people into three small groups.  Now I think, everyone will benefit from this amazing diversity in the room.  Wrong!  I’ve noticed that suddenly these three people who could be a stronger voice together, are separated and no longer feel safe enough to speak out in a group of people who by virtue of their numbers or power privilege in that culture or workplace, have more power than them.  Now,  if you put three of them in the same small group, they may feel safe enough to contribute their ideas.  So, bottom line, do not always separate out the people who are different. Each situation is unique and there is no one rule.  But, they need at least to be offered the opportunity to be together so they can support each other and feel powerful.

IMG_4928How do you do this and not make them feel singled out?  Here are two ways that I have done it. 1) I approach them at some point in the event, and I say if you had preference, would you like to be sure to have some opportunities today to sit with some of your fellow constituency group? That way they can decide.  2) Sometimes I deliberately set up my counting off of small groups so that I know that e.g., the two people that have less power in the room end up with the same number and therefore are in the same group. This seems a little sneaky, so I’d love to hear some feedback from those who have experienced oppression.  I think the most appropriate way is when in doubt, ask the affected people how you can ensure their voices are heard.

It’s also really important to acknowledge people who are in the minority with a warm, loving smile and if appropriate, a look into their eyes.

Tip 2

This one is really easy.  You simply start the beginning of the conversation with every single person offering some information about themselves, i.e. a round robin. You need to offer a question that is easy. You say, “I’m going to give each person about 30 seconds to answer these questions.” If someone in the dominant culture goes for much longer than 30 seconds, you interrupt them politely by saying, “Thank you, I like to make sure that everybody has about the same amount of time.”  If someone from the less dominant culture takes a bit more than 30 seconds, you give them a little more time or at least as much time as the dominant person who took more time. Is this fair? Yes, because all of their life,  this person has had less time!

Tip 3

IMG_4953You post all of your discussion questions very boldly in all of the languages of the constituency groups in the room. That shows that even if there are only three people who speak a different language than the rest of the group, you are thinking about them and you want the rest of the group to also acknowledge the power imbalance by virtue of language ability. If you don’t know how to write out the question in their languages, you go to them in advance or at the beginning of the meeting and ask them to write the question In their language.

IMG_5422This has the impact of letting people know that not everyone speaks in the dominant language of the group.  For example, sometimes I have had those who have less experience in speaking English sit beside someone of their own language and have that person whisper translate so that they can feel fully part of the group.  I just let the group know that they will be hearing some background whispering and this is an effort to ensure that everyone can fully understand and offer their ideas.  If ideas are offered in writing, I encourage people to write in their own language and hopefully they will feel safe enough to do that and have them translated by someone of the dominant language.  Post both written responses so people get used to seeing different languages.

Make Small Differences

These are really quite small and easy ways to think about power imbalance. I don’t have all the answers. I am still thinking about this. Please review your procedures and see where you can start to make small differences ensuring that every human right is acknowledged and honored in your meeting spaces.  And now for some information about the Winnipeg National Museum of Human Rights!

About the Museum

Here are some facts about the architecture and its purpose:

  • Envisioned by a Jewish philanthropist, Israel Asper, in Winnipeg as a national and international center of learning where people from around the world can engage in discussion and commit to taking action against hate and oppression. His daughter, Gail Asier, ensured her father’s vision came to fruition.
  • Also aims to build a national hub for human rights learning and discovery and a new era of global human rights leadership. It welcomes visitors as partners on the journey to erase barriers and create meaningful, lasting change.

In the design stages, museum staff went to Canadians to ask for their ideas, both for their preferred design of the building, and what they wanted to be included in the museum.  The people responded that they wanted to talk about human rights victories in Canada and in the world, to include today’s debate about human rights and portray events that show Canada’s commitment to human rights, as well as its failures.


View of reflection pool, floor view and from above – this is designed to provide a pause right in the middle of the museum after you have done all of the heavy emotional work but before you move on to the exhibits that call you to action.

The site of the museum was a special one.  It was on Treaty 1 territory of the first Nations people in Canada not far from the place where the Métis (mixed blood- indigenous and other) leader, Louis Real led a rebellion. Under the museum, archaeologists found more than a half million objects to tell the story of the site.  These were preserved and recorded.

IMG_4833The museum is designed to start in relevant darkness at the ground floor as you work your way through the most difficult exhibits where the hardest material is shared.  Then you keep going to more and more light so that in the higher stories of the building the exhibits begin to elicit hope and action in dealing with oppression.  I think this might be a good design principle for us as facilitators.  To set a good foundation, then deal with the darkest material of the group and then slowly move them towards the light giving them hope and encouraging, positive action.

Indigenous perspectives are front and center in this museum.  Human rights for first Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples is based on the concept that everyone and everything is interrelated (see photo above).  There is a theater that plays stories of Indigenous rights and responsibilities and told you four different generations. The impact of residential schools (the schools where young native children were sent for all of their schooling and forcibly separated from their parents and treated in indescribable inhumane ways) on the original peoples of Canada is told in a brutally honest way.  The tapestry in the banner photo above honors the memory of the original inhabitants of the land in which the museum stands.  To acknowledged the depth of Indigenous history, artist Rebecca Belmore used raw earth from deep beneath the city of Winnipeg.  The “beads” made from this clay carry the hand imprints of many local children and adults who collaborated with the artist in creating this beautiful tapestry called “Trace”.

See more information at:

And for one in the United States, United States Holocaust Museum,


Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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