Friday, January 16, 2015

Isn’t Activism Supposed to Give Me a Voice?

Ariel EckbladI was in the midst of protest and had never felt more disempowered. Wasn’t activism supposed to give me a voice? In that moment, it did not. I left the march feeling silenced and small. I felt as though my impact, my work, and my aspirations were meaningless in the context of “real struggle.” And still, in the course of protest I found a bit of hope. A young man read the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and gave me an alternative lens. Even as the crowd moved on, and I began to chant “no justice, no peace,” the quote echoed in my mind, brought tears to my eyes, and muffled my own voice.

“You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth?  Isn’t negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation.  Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

As I stood in the protest chanting, crying, hoping that we somehow mattered, I kept wondering—is there a place for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) even when choosing “dialogue” feels like a shameful act of acquiescence? Is it more “righteous,” more “active,” more “powerful,” more “progressive” to be angry and adversarial? In the face of injustice, is the righteous decision one that paints the “other” as wrong and the “we” as unquestionably right? My fear, in this moment of history, is that ADR is simply another way for me remain a privileged outsider—to “partake” in the struggle but remain comfortable. The question, are ADR and activism antithetical?

In the aftermath of the Garner and Brown grand jury decisions, I watched as some became enraged and others settled into apathy. And still, none of those responses fully resonated with me. I was not angry, apathetic, or comfortably ignorant. I was exhausted. Navigating American society, I often feel that I am living in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. Yes, I am impacted. Without question, I am struck by the structural inequality the plagues American society. I, no doubt, fall square in the middle of the web where race, class, and gender intersect to form an indecipherable matrix of oppression and embedded privilege. And still, I cannot help but feel the privilege of being a woman (read: “not as threatening as men”), middle class (read: privileged by classism), fair-skinned (read: benefiting from colorism). And in the aftermath of the non-indictment, I felt battered. Notably, I was just as battered by my guilt and privilege as by the racism and classism and sexism and heteronormativity that comprise the fabric of our societal identity.

To date, I have shaped my life around the belief that conflict can, and should, be peaceably resolved. It is this same conviction that led me to a career in ADR. However, in the days after the non-indictments were announced, I came to wonder whether this “belief” was simply a mask for cowardice. The question lingered, are ADR and activism antithetical? At this present moment, I might be so bold as to suggest that the answer is no. This may be an attempt to rationalize my own personal and professional choices. It might also be the product of my unyielding optimism: my inherent tendency to hold on to hope. Regardless, I choose to claim the alternative lens embedded in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe that the “very purpose” of direct action is to create such a “tension” so as to necessitate the work of ADR. As such, activists and ADR professionals can be dialectical partners. One is poised to give individuals a voice, and the other can help others hear it.

This dynamic does not necessarily lead to consensus or peace. In fact, the work of ADR professionals almost invariably surfaces some disagreement or tension. However, ADR might best be viewed as reaching the conflict as opposed to finding comfort. Perhaps, then, I can be “quite right in calling” for ADR in this moment. Just as others are quite right in calling for “direct action” and the “tension” it creates. ADR and tension are not dissonant. ADR and activism are not antithetical.

Ariel Eckblad ’16 is a 2L at Harvard Law School. She has served as a Teaching Assistant in both the Negotiation Workshop and the Advanced Multiparty Negotiation workshop. In addition, she has taken the Negotiation & Mediation Clinic (HNMCP) and The Lawywer as Facilitator workshop.