Thursday, February 19, 2015

Power, Protests, and Problem-Solving

(Photography by Chad Greene)

Lisa Dicker ’17 (Photography by Chad Greene)

As a first-year law student, I was only a few months into my training in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) when the grand jury decisions on the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Gardner were announced. I had spent the last several months with Harvard Negotiators, a student practice organization focused on ADR, learning about active listening, relationship-building, and peaceful resolution, but I suddenly found myself in the middle of protests shouting “No justice! No peace!”

I began to question whether I could simultaneously be a student of ADR and be active in these issues. I knew that the methods of ADR are effective in finding solutions to conflict, but I heard the pain and anger around me calling for disruption. Protesters marching through the streets, shutting down buildings, and stopping traffic could not seem further from the negotiation table. I felt like I had a foot barely in both worlds. I had just started my training and scholarship in ADR so I was not fully knowledgeable in that field, but also, as a white female I was certainly not fully knowledgeable of the needs and issues facing affected minority populations. Activism seeks to cause discomfort, demonstrate opposition, and highlight differences while ADR seeks to facilitate a collective approach that focuses on shared interests and goals. Were ADR and activism irreconcilable? Or could they somehow work together to solve these deep-rooted societal issues?

The struggle with what appeared to be a juxtaposition between activism and ADR was reflected in conversations I had with others and in the media. There seemed to be two opposing positions. One side called for activists and allies to raise their voices in protest; anything less was a sign of complacency with the status quo. The other side called for calm dialogue about solutions; protest was violent and counterproductive. I felt torn between the two sides. Finally, a friend of mine shared a quote from Bayard Rustin that began to resolve the tension I felt between the facets of my involvement.

“When an individual is protesting society’s refusal to acknowledge his dignity as a human being, his very act of protest confers dignity on him.”

Relative power dynamics are constantly at the forefront of any ADR student or professional’s mind. Power dynamics control how much influence and authority parties have in conversations and negotiations. Parties with relatively more power tend to have greater bargaining power, more flexibility, and better alternatives if the negotiation does not succeed. Although ADR tools have the ability to successfully resolve conflict between parties of differing power dynamics, there are certain criteria that must be met before any dispute can be resolved. Namely, the power of the parties must not be so disproportionate that one party has no voice with which to negotiate. Activism is a sign that issues that exist have been met with silence and inaction by society, and concern has grown to such a degree that in order to break the silence and give the cause a voice, activists disrupt society. Protests are rarely the first step in conflict resolution. I believe that protests are usually a sign that that there are structural barriers preventing ADR from occurring; protests are usually the last option. There must be a basic understanding that all parties are worthy stakeholders who have a right to be a part of the conversation. If their dignity is questioned or denied, then the parties often cannot and will not come to the negotiation table.

Over the last few months, I have come to believe that activism and ADR are not divergent. Activism can often serve as a necessary step, and complementary step, between conflict and ADR. Protests can confer the power to negotiate on parties, groups, and individuals whose voices have been stifled by societal barriers. While actions of activists are often said to create tension and conflict, I believe that those tensions and conflicts are preexisting, and that protests merely serve to illuminate them in a way that seeks to provide a voice, dignity, and attention to marginalized populations. Protests can challenge the structural inequalities in society that have prevented effective ADR from occurring; those inequalities, more often than not, relate to power dynamics. Conferring power to the marginalized population can lead to the resolution of conflicts using ADR because the more traditionally powerful party now must recognize the voice of the marginalized population.

As ADR students and professionals, we can facilitate community conversations, we can mediate discussions between activist leaders and local politicians and law enforcement, and we can negotiate the details of how best to stop excessive use of force by the police. But, ADR itself cannot provide a solution to the oppression or marginalization of a population. Protests are necessary. Protests confer dignity.

Lisa Dicker ’17 is a 1L at Harvard Law School and an active member of the Harvard Law School Negotiators. During her career at HLS she has served as a Teaching Assistant for the Negotiation Workshop, taken the Negotiation & Mediation Clinic (HNMCP) twice, and has taken Dispute Systems Design.

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