2017 HNLR Symposium Reflection

By Lisa Dicker ‘17 and Amrita Narine ‘17

On the surface, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and activism may appear to be in tension with each other. The former generally seeks to resolve conflicts through collaborative agreements, while the latter is often a public, vigorous campaign for one side. However, despite their apparent differences, there is significant overlap between these two fields and room for exchanging ideas.

Grande Lum
Grande Lum

The Harvard Negotiation Law Review’s 22nd annual symposium, Reflections on the Intersection of Alternative Dispute Resolution and Activism, explored opportunities for sharing and cross-fertilization between these fields. Practitioners of ADR, activists, and those who straddle both worlds came together to explore the manner in which the fields oppose each other, complement each other, and can learn from each other.

The Honorable Grande Lum ‘91 gave the symposium’s keynote address. Mr. Lum is the Director of the Divided Community Project at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio University. He spoke about his current work as well as his previous experiences as the Director of the Community Relations Service (CRS) at the United States Department of Justice. CRS focuses on community conflicts and preventing and resolving tensions that result from differences in identity, including race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and disability.

Grande Lum and Bob Mnookin - HNLR Symposium
Grande Lum, Prof. Bob Mnookin, Prof. Bob Bordone

During his keynote address, Mr. Lum emphasized three main takeaways: (1) being an active third party, rather than a passive bystander, is a critical role; (2) a conciliator is neutral and an advocate for both parties, outcome and approach; and (3) third parties can help maintain the status quo or improve the system. Mr. Lum emphasized that ADR and activism are not at odds. Activists often believe strongly that being a neutral bystander is problematic, and they might lump ADR practitioners into this category, particularly when facilitators and mediators speak about the importance of “neutrality” in their work. However, Mr. Lum made a distinction between neutral bystanders and neutral third parties: facilitators and mediators can engage in the process with activists while using different strategies and methods.

Among the featured speakers throughout the day was Black Lives Matter activist and Campaign Zero organizer DeRay Mckesson. Mr. Mckesson was a leading activist in Baton Rouge following the killing of Alton Sterling in 2016. Following his arrest in Baton Rouge, Mckesson met with President Obama along with mayors, law enforcement officials, activists and spiritual leaders at the White House for over four hours. That conversation, along with many others in Mckesson’s dynamic career as an activist and organizer, provided a window into some of the key questions facing both activists and ADR practitioners today. Professor Robert C. Bordone ‘97, the Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program, engaged Mr. Mckesson on challenging questions around what it takes to get the right people to the table and how practitioners might bring the best of ADR and the best of social activism together. You can watch that conversation here.

The symposium also featured two panel discussions: Theoretical Perspectives: Navigating questions of power and neutrality (moderated by Professor Robert C. Bordone) and Internal Dilemmas: Navigating personal convictions and the work of ADR (moderated by Rachel Viscomi ‘01, Assistant Director of HNMCP). The diverse set of panelists were: Sa’ed Atshan, Jim Tull, Lauren Abramson, Susan Podziba, Melissa Bartholomew, Jon Hanson, Deanna Parrish ‘16, and DeRay Mckesson.

HNLR Symposium 29Speakers shared personal reflections and discussed core tensions that they have faced in their work. They spoke candidly about wrestling with when and how to engage with other parties and how to navigate their own identities and beliefs in each space. Interestingly, the speakers expressed differing views on what processes are most appropriate for addressing structural and societal injustices, and under what circumstances. The concept of neutrality in ADR, along with the notion of HNLR Symposium 30coming to the table in the first place, was particularly ripe for debate. There was strong consensus, however, between each of the speakers that both ADR and activism have a place in addressing conflicts and injustice.

The symposium came at an important time for both ADR and activism. As the tides of  movements like the Black Lives Matter movement, the Standing Rock movement, and the Women’s March movement continue to rise, activists and organizers are increasingly looking for ways to transfer protest into change. And for many educators, academics, and practitioners in dispute resolution fields, there is a real yearning to reconnect with ADR’s roots in social justice and grass-roots empowerment. The 2017 HNLR symposium gave current and aspiring leaders in both fields the opportunity to reflect on key questions before going back to their work with a deeper understanding of the relationship between their fields.


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