UNESCO Symposiums

Understanding & Healing Relational & Spiritual Harm of Dehumanisation

Collective Healing, Social Justice and Global Well-Being is a UNESCO initiative aimed at addressing the legacies of dehumanisation, including the harms of transoceanic enslavement of Africans, colonialism, continued racism, and other forms of structural discrimination. An important aspect of this initiative is to investigate the plethora of harms from multiple dimensions. Partners supporting this initiative include Guerrand-Hermès Foundation, Global Humanity for Peace (GHfP) Institute at University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD), Fetzer Institute, and AfroSpectives.

Through the UNESCO Routes of Enslaved Peoples Project’s (REP) 30 years’ endeavours, there have been research, documentation, recognising the destruction of afore-mentioned legacies, especially in terms of physical, cultural, and economic harms. To these efforts, during the 2nd session of the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent 2023, delegates of African and indigenous descent added a call for more research and better understanding of the relational and spiritual dimensions of these harms, which can serve as the basis for more concerted action towards healing and systemic transformation.

Indeed, without acknowledging relational and spiritual harms, collective efforts to confront the legacies of transoceanic enslavements and continued injustices against people of African and indigenous descent may fall short. Mere materialistic repairs, such as reducing economic disparity, levelling public services, and providing equal access to health, education, housing, finance, and employment, are not enough. While economic and social justice is important, the Afro and indigenous communities directly impacted by the dehumanising legacies insist that addressing the relational and spiritual dimensions of the harms and the connected trauma are equally, if not even more, critical. The characterisation of relational and spiritual harm should help bring to light the complex layers of harm, offering a more holistic conception of dehumanising harm. This will enable us to better recognise how both those who were violently enslaved and their descendants, and those who performed inhumane acts upon the enslaved, and their descendants, suffer from a same harm that can be described as relational and spiritual.

To this end, the partners supporting the collective healing initiative, have jointly launched two processes: the first was a conceptual exploration aimed at understanding what constitutes relational and spiritual harm; and the second was a pilot programme that engaged global communities in intergenerational dialogue and inquiries (IDI) to reflect on people’s lived experiences of the dehumanising legacies and connected relational and spiritual harm. The IDIs also enabled community stakeholders to identify relational and spiritual practices and resources key to resilience and healing of collective trauma.

To further deepen our understanding of what constitutes relational and spiritual harm from an interdisciplinary perspective, and to explore what relational and spiritual approaches to healing and community regeneration are necessary in the context of global structural dehumanisation, the partners are now proposing two symposiums – one to take place in Oxford, UK, in December 2023, and one in Richmond, Virginia, USA, in January 2024.


We invite thinkers, scholars, researcher and practitioners to come together and focus our dialogue on the nature of relational and spiritual harm, and the necessary relational-centred and spiritually-inspired approaches to collective healing. Here, ‘spiritual harm’ is not solely about the wounding perpetuated or condoned by faith-based teaching, spiritual leaders and religious institutions. 

We propose the following questions for dialogue and discussion:

  1. What is the nature of dehumanising harm in the contexts of transoceanic slavery?
  2. How might the terms ‘relational’ and ‘spiritual’ shift our understanding of such harm and the connected trauma and continuing injustices? What are the processes, modalities and manifestations of these harms?
  3. How does the relational and spiritual harm differ for the enslaved and their descendants, and the enslavers and their descendants? What are the micro and macro consequences of those harms today?
  4. What forms of healing are necessary to overcome these harms? How do the healing processes differ for those who are at the receiving end of dehumanisation and those who are perpetuating or participating in the perpetuation of dehumanisation?
  5. What should be the future directions of healing work in the light of our understandings of relational and spiritual harm? How could we best integrate the relational and spiritual dimension in global transformation towards just system and well-being of all?
  6. What approaches/practices could we draw upon and learn from global communities? How might research contribute to a new political culture of respect, love and caring?

Two symposiums have been planned: one in Dec in Oxford, UK, and one in Richmond, VA, USA.