By Deanna Parrish
As long as we are on earth, the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones. Even saints cannot live with saints on this earth without some anguish, without some pain at the differences that come between them.
-Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation, ch. 4 (pp. 71-74)
This semester I had the unique opportunity to facilitate a small group of students in conversations on personal identity and the 1L experience. These “Real Talk” sessions were part of an experiment in dialogue-building at Harvard Law School: the students I worked with constituted one of four facilitated groups, each endeavoring to create a low-risk space for participants to process their experiences, and build understanding across lines of difference.
Our conversations ranged in tone, theme, and topic. The stiffness of the introductory sessions wore off over time, and soon my participants dove into dialogue, asking each other, what is the purpose of conversing with folks who aren’t of the same mind as you? What does productive conversation look like? How is it different from debate? Does Harvard Law School adequately prompt these kinds of conversations? Should it be doing so?
In our final few sessions, our conversations took on a new urgency. As movements and voices soared on college campuses across the nation, we asked ourselves, what is justice? What does it mean to be an activist? What does it mean to be an activist at HLS? Over time, statements became more specific, more personal. The texture of voices changed—the room felt softer and louder, all at once more vulnerable, and more confused.
I do what I do because I’m broken too.
– Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
I am drawn to facilitation work because of the amazing things I’ve seen come from human connection. Conflicts resolved and avoided. Emotional breakthroughs. Brainstorming and organizing. Against the backdrop of a legal system that suppresses too many voices, facilitation is the revolutionary work of helping people hear themselves, and hear each other. To do this, third parties—facilitators—are used to bring neutrality and structure to conversations.
Practicing neutrality means letting go of your ego, and your personal stake in the conversation’s outcome—having no preference as to the conversation’s result. However, as our Real Talk sessions increasingly examined student activism and our roles in institutional change, I wondered if I was capable of upholding this central tenet of facilitation. I am not agnostic as to the experiences of Harvard’s community of color. I do have preferences regarding the future of legal education. What is my duty to name these biases, or voice my opinions in the course of facilitation? More importantly, where do my responsibilities as a facilitator end, and my responsibilities as an ally to Harvard’s community of color begin? Some Dispute Resolution thinkers contend that if as a facilitator, you are not entirely neutral, you are guilty of manipulating your participants. As I became increasingly involved in activism in my life outside of Real Talk, I wondered, to what extent was this true of me?
Facilitators are also supposed to own the structure—often referred to as “process”—of meetings. Process can include setting an agenda, developing group norms, and managing any logistical considerations—like an hourglass for grains of sand, process provides form and function to substance. It is process that allows ideas to be articulated and absorbed by the group. While it is not the goal of process to alter substance, it can be a side effect. Different processes can lead to wildly different outcomes. As weeks passed, I questioned if I was shirking my responsibilities as an ally to HLS’s community of color by focusing on, and sticking to, process. Should I operate free of an agenda, and let the group determine where the conversation goes? Am I providing enough space for righteous indignation? For dissent? Are my group members leaving feeling silenced? Are they feeling more broken than whole?
[O]ur brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
– Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
In the days following our final Real Talk meeting, I read notes of reflection penned by my group’s members. In each note, I saw expressions of pain and passion. Notes in hand, the words of Bryan Stevenson had particular salience: You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
Grappling with our brokenness is a life-long endeavor for those of us committed to working towards justice. We are hurt by what we see, and we see it everywhere. Fractures in our systems, in our laws, in our leaders, in ourselves. It is this brokenness that inspires me to do facilitation work.
There are infinite tools for working towards systemic justice. Dialogue is one. For me, it is both a means to an end and an end in of itself. It can be used for brainstorming, action-planning, organizing. But dialogue is also a space for self-exploration and reflection, whose benefits stand alone. As an institution, we owe it to our students to invest in projects that build dialogue among them. In facilitated dialogue, students are, for a moment, not adversaries, but peers. Not just students, but teachers to each other. Not feeling alone in their brokenness, but in good company.
Dean Martha Minow begins each year by telling incoming students how far and wide Harvard Law School has searched to find the talent present in the student body. You were selected out of thousands of hopefuls, she says. But it is not enough to get a diversity of experience in the door. Once here, we owe our students the opportunity to grow outside of the classroom. Student connection—through dialogue and other means—should be pursued with the same fervor as their recruitment. This radical exercise in listening and learning from others might not only normalize the brokenness in each of us, but also help put us on a collective path towards healing.