Systemic Justice Project

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2017 Systemic Justice Conference

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Reflections on Real Talk: An Introduction

Real Talk LogoIn fall 2015 the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), in collaboration with the Systemic Justice Project (SJP), launched a joint initiative for Harvard Law School (HLS) students called Real Talk – a series of small group facilitated dialogues and curated events on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The initiative developed from a shared interest of HNMCP and SJP to promote dialogue among HLS students on how legal education can, at times, unwittingly silence student voices and experiences, especially as these experiences relate to identity and personal narrative.

Real Talk is an initial effort to provide a forum for HLS students to learn with and from each other— encouraging genuine conversation around challenging issues, emotions, and narratives that relate to the law, legal systems, and legal education; a forum that promotes an inclusivity and openness that can often become stymied in traditional law school classrooms; and a forum that promotes respect, understanding, curiosity about the other, and a willingness to be “raggedy” even in our deepest moments of difference and dissent. For HNMCP, Real Talk represents the first manifestation of what we hope will be a new, larger dialogue and facilitation initiative.  For SJP, Real Talk is part of a general commitment to encouraging conversations about diversity and inclusion in legal education and, more generally, about systemic problems in society.

The pilot program brought together a small number of HLS student participants, trained student facilitators, and faculty advisors in an innovative experiment of facilitated dialogue and open engagement. We were fortunate to recruit four student facilitators who have extensive facilitation training and experience, each having taken the HLS Lawyer as Facilitator and the HLS Negotiation Workshop. These facilitators led small groups of six participants (composed of first and third year law students) in four dialogue sessions throughout the fall semester. These dialogues were bolstered by several events – Fighting Debtor’s Prison in Ferguson,[1] After Ferguson, Baltimore, New York: Strategies for Systemic Change,[2] and On the Battlefield of Merit: the History of Harvard Law School[3] – that served as the basis for two of the dialogue sessions.

The first round of Real Talk was met with decisive gratitude. Participant feedback indicated that the program provided a much-needed environment to express their experiences and perspectives, listen to the stories and views of others, and to share and receive a sense of empathetic understanding. In talking with students throughout the initiative, we developed an even deeper appreciation for how important spaces for authenticity, reflection, vulnerability, and conflictedness are in higher education and legal training.

We also were reminded that creating those fora is typically fraught and complex. Our preparation and review sessions with facilitators highlighted many challenges to creating open dialogue. What is the role of neutrality in facilitating dialogue on equity and inclusion? What might be the role of power and privilege in dialogue facilitation? What impact does the facilitator’s identity have on discussion and how does a facilitator manage them? How does participant composition across identity, background, and status affect the dialogue experience and what are the implications (if any) for convening such groups? We gathered that there is great value in deeper and more nuanced facilitation training at HLS, as well as a great need for HLS students to receive training on engaging in dialogue as a participant. And, as with most worthy experiences, we were pleased to have left with as many questions as “answers.”

Now, we have invited the facilitators from Real Talk – Ariel Eckblad ‘16, Deanna Parrish ’16, Carson Wheet ‘16, and Lindsey Whyte ‘16 – to share their reflections through a series of blog posts. We will publish one blog post from a different facilitator each week. Their posts touch on the themes mentioned above, as well as others, providing an inside look into their experiences, lessons, and questions from Real Talk. We hope that you enjoy these pieces, and that you will join us as we seek to dig more deeply into this important work.

By Robert C. Bordone, Jon Hanson, Jacob Lipton, and Sam W. Straus

[1] A panel discussion with Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders and Alec Karakatsanis ’08, Co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law.
[2] A panel discussion with Thomas Harvey, Executive Director of ArchCity Defenders, Chiraag Bains ’08: Dept. of Justice Civil Rights Division, Marbre Stahly-Butts: Center for Popular Democracy, and Alec Karakatsanis’08, Co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law.
[3] A lecture and discussion with Dan Coquillette, Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History, Harvard Law School.


#HLSUntaped @ The Record


From Harvard Law Record, a collection of recent editorials and essays about race and racism:

Dan Coquillette on the History of HLS


The Systemic Justice Project is thrilled to be co-sponsoring Dan Coquillette’s talk tomorrow (Tuesday):

Based on his extensive research (and just-published and forthcoming books) on the history of Harvard Law School, Professor Coquillette will provide a candid discussion of the historic strengths and liabilities of Harvard Law School, focusing particularly on shifting definitions of “merit” and exclusion.

Non-non-pizza lunch provided. Tuesday, October 27, 2015, at 12pm in WCC 2004.

This event is co-sponsored by the Systemic Justice Project, the Law & Social Change Program of Study, the Velociraptorts, the Office of Public Interest Advising, the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program, Real Talk, Student For Inclusion, and the American Constitution Society.

Harvard Law Today reports on the Systemic Justice Conference

Dick Dahl for Harvard Law Today reported on the April 10th Systemic Justice Conference with the headline “Systemic Justice: At a Harvard Law School conference, students reimagine the role of lawyers in addressing societal problems”. The full text is here:

Last year, HLS Professor Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton ’14 launched a new venture,the Systemic Justice Project, intended to provide students with a new way to think about the role that law and lawyers play in society.

Professor Jon Hanson

According to Hanson and Lipton, the persistence of long-standing policy problems suggests that the legal system and conventional legal education are broken. One contributing factor, they believe, is the way both law and law school tend to insulate their participants from many of those problems. Another is that legal academics, operating within traditional doctrinal and theoretical silos, have yet to develop a thoroughgoing approach to understanding and addressing such policy challenges.

The mission of the Systemic Justice Project is to help remedy those shortfalls. In their new courses, for instance, Hanson and Lipton are attempting to teach law students how to approach systemic injustices and to see themselves in broader terms—not just as lawyers, but also as citizens, policy designers, policy advocates, and social activists.

Jacob Lipton (Systemic Justice)

On April 10, the first annual Systemic Justice Conference was held in Austin Hall and featured six teams of HLS students who demonstrated how public-policy problems might be addressed from this broader perspective. The team participants were the 30 students enrolled in the Justice Lab, a two-credit course in which students—in consultation with scholars, lawyers, and activists—develop policy papers analyzing social problems and coming up with possible solutions.

Presenting the results of their research, one group examined the problem of “financialized courts,” a trend that has drawn increasing attention since the revelations of Ferguson, Mo.’s heavy reliance on court fees and fines to fund its municipal budget. Plotting what has become a typical sequence, team members showed how a simple stop-sign violation can escalate into thousands of dollars in subsequent fees and fines for nonpayment—and even jail and probation, both of which also involve fees.

Team member Alex Self ’16, reported that the practice of charging detainees and defendants is an apparent offshoot of a larger trend.

“Mass incarceration is very expensive,” he said. “The cost of running America’s jails, prisons, and courts increased by more than 10 times since 1980 to roughly $67 billion today. The purpose of these fees initially was punishment—punishing the offenders and reimbursing the victims—but as the cost of mass incarceration has increased, we’ve seen the purpose shift from punishment to a stream of revenue.”

The team recommended a multi-level response to halt or ease the practice, including litigation, public-education campaigns, and legislation.

Another team studied the student-debt crisis and outlined the onerous terms—such as the inability of student loan takers to declare bankruptcy—that are attached to the $1.2 trillion of student debt in the U.S. The team examined competing “narratives” about the purpose of higher education that have become conflated and manipulated and that has yielded a system in which students are wrongfully perceived as “consumers.”

“We believe that before we can fix student debt and higher education generally, we really need to decide and understand for ourselves why education matters to us in the first place,” said team member Salomé Viljoen ’16.

Sam Caravello, Adrienne Mendle, Sam Wheeler (Systemic-Justice-Conference)

Another team’s interest was climate change, focusing on the question of why society has not come up with a plan for combating it. Much of the presentation examined the strategies employed by the fossil-fuel industry to deflect attention from that issue and how that might be addressed.

For instance, the team suggested, the powerful lobbying influence of the Chamber of Commerce on this issue could seemingly be countered by other business interests.

“You could imagine there could be a group of businesses coming together to support sensible climate-change policy, not just as good citizenship but as thoughtful, careful business investment,” said team member Jessica Ranucci ’16.

In addition to the team presentations, the conference included a showcase of exhibits from the 67 students who are taking Hanson and Lipton’s four-credit Systemic Justice course—pamphlets, podcasts, posters, websites, etc., dealing with social problems.

Salome Viljoen (Systemic Justice)

“We’re attempting to redesign legal pedagogy in a way that engages students on problems they select because they care about them” Hanson said following the conference. “Many students come to law school hopeful that a legal education will allow them to make positive change in the world, but, very often, those students leave feeling frustrated, hopeless, or cynical.”

“People both in the course and the lab have been have been telling us it’s the most important experience they’ve had in law school,” Lipton said. “We’ve heard a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for the project and how it’s working.”

Viljoen described the conference as “one of the best days in law school I’ve ever had.”

“There’s a general sense that we’re at a point of crisis in legal education and I think right now is really a nice moment in time to be thinking about why are we training lawyers to begin with and what is the purpose of legal education,” she said. “I think having courses like this helps you to sort of re-orient yourself to the reasons why you came to law school to begin with and why we think lawyers are necessary—to tackle problems that exist.”

Sam Wheeler ’15, a member of the climate-change team, said he thinks that becoming involved in the Systemic Justice Project may prove to have a profound impact on his life.

Wheeler said he came to law school because he wanted to do legal work in the public interest but had become disenchanted and thinking about changing to a non-law career.

“I think that what Systemic Justice has done for me is that it has showed me ways in which I could pursue the kind of career I wanted with the goals that I have for my life as a lawyer. I think that were it not for the systemic justice lab and Professor Hanson’s approach to those issues, I seriously don’t think that I would have pursued a career in law at all.”

Systemic Justice on Radio Boston

Radio Boston Logo

Yesterday afternoon Radio Boston’s Meghna Chakrabarti interviewed Jon Hanson and Jacob Lipton, the Co-Directors of the Systemic Justice Project, in a story they titled “Harvard Law Flips Legal Education on its Head with ‘Systemic Justice.'”

Listen to the interview here.

Here is the show’s preview:

Any way you look at it, law school is in trouble. Schools nationwide received the lowest number of applicants in four decades this year. Graduates are struggling to find jobs. Debt is skyrocketing.

Meanwhile, law is being subjected to the same relentless global trends that have devastated the manufacturing sector: outsourcing and mechanization.

Why pay for a white shoe lawyer in a Boston skyscraper to write your will when an attorney overseas can draft it for a fraction of the price? Better still, go on

The legal profession is due for a rethink. There’s a new idea on how to do that, and it starts with flipping the legal education on its head. Rather than teach students the law and how to apply it to the world, they want students to focus on problems — income inequality, climate change, racism — then see how they can use the law to solve them.

It’s called systemic justice and it’s a new program at Harvard Law School.


Jon Hanson, professor at Harvard Law School and faculty director of the Systemic Justice Project.

Jacob Lipton, program director of the Systemic Justice Project. He tweets @JacobLipton.