It is an odd scene: thirty or so strangers gesticulating, nipping at each other, and slowly repositioning their cars along a single-lane road in exurban Missouri. We’re all here to catch our two-minute glimpse of the Great American Eclipse. Parking space is scarce, and everyone wants a spot. Still, we might, with a little creativity squeeze everyone in and preserve the view from our chosen bluff.
This shuffling draws my memory back to the first day of the “Negotiation Workshop.” During the opening plenary, the teaching team highlights how every student has extensive negotiation experience. Here in Lone Elk Park, I see exactly how.
My path to the dispute resolution community at Harvard began just forty miles from this midwestern park. As a high school teacher in north St. Louis County, I witnessed and participated in policy disputes about educational equity and racial justice that drew national attention. I came to law school to study how law shapes conflicts like those. In the “Negotiation Workshop,” I also found the opportunity to explore the human elements that ultimately define them.
Since then, opportunities provided by the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) have challenged me to take those human questions as seriously as the legal ones. My clinical team, for example, was asked to evaluate and propose revisions to a special education dispute resolution process for Washington, DC public schools. Rachel Krol, our clinical instructor, encouraged us to learn from community members in creative ways: attending a family engagement summit, examining chatter about our client on social media, and more.
Those conversations complicated our early understanding of the special education landscape. School leaders and families told stories that illustrated how problems the law construed narrowly actually had roots that spread as broadly as they ran deeply. Resolutions that turned only on students’ rights tended to be unstable. More persistent were those that incorporated both those rights and the interests of those charged with protecting and implementing them. Something as simple as moving a school bus stop might ultimately serve a student and school better than an individualized transportation plan.
Courses taught by HNMCP faculty have also provided a toolkit for nurturing that kind of mutual-gains option in roles off campus. This summer, I worked at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC)—a past HNMCP client. OSC’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Unit mediates disputes between whistleblowers in federal agencies and the departments that had allegedly retaliated against them. Tensions in our cases were often high: Employee and employer would point to the other as the sole bad actor. Often negotiating in the shadow of third-party interest, mediation participants would struggle to articulate and listen to broader framings of the conflict.
Drawing on learnings from courses like “The Lawyer as Facilitator” and “Dispute Systems Design,” as well as and my experience as a teaching assistant for the “Negotiation Workshop,” I drafted a training module that helps complainants and agencies think expansively about their situations. Our product built directly on the techniques and structures taught at Harvard Law School and was, in fact, first inspired by a recommendation made to OSC in one of their HNMCP clinical projects.
When I arrived on campus, I expected to spend three years studying the legal rules and structures that help determine what happens in this country’s schools. I hoped—and still do—to contribute to communities’ efforts to ensure that every kid has access to a strong education. The dispute resolution practitioners who mentor and teach us remind us that such vast landscapes demand a wider lens. They have given me the conviction that lasting change requires both mastery of the relevant legal doctrine and an embrace of the interests held by those an issue most affects.
Whether the stakes include a student’s education, a whistleblower’s career, or a few strangers’ aspiration to experience an eclipse, I am grateful for how HNMCP equips its students to study, approach, and address the distinctly human elements of the conflicts they encounter.