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Finding Community with the Harvard Mediation Program

Finding Community with the Harvard Mediation Program

By Kate Strickland ’24

I started HLS in Fall 2020 which, as many will remember, meant that I was part of the class who spent our entire first year online due to the Covid pandemic. Unlike many of my peers, I found virtual law school had several advantages. First and foremost, in all of my online interactions, I got to be just another head in a Zoom box instead of the quadriplegic woman in a power chair that I had been since my accident during my first year of undergrad. Online, my disability was no longer the first thing everybody knew about me; I retained the choice to decide whether to disclose my disability. Virtual law school also meant I got an extra year at home in an environment designed for me, so I did not have to stress over finding accessible housing or navigating the often-perilous sidewalks of Cambridge. Plus, attending classes online meant my Texan blood got at least one year of reprieve from the snowy Cambridge winters!

That said, I feared online law school might make finding a supportive and inclusive community even more difficult than usual. I would not have the opportunity to sit next to friends in classes or spend time getting to know others between classes. Further, even without the added online complication, I still frequently struggled to find an inclusive community. As an example, in undergrad, I tried joining student organizations to connect with others but found some organizations met in classrooms where I could access only the back of the room or would often hold social events in inaccessible venues despite my requests. To give myself the best possible chance of success at HLS, I decided to attend as many virtual information sessions as possible to learn about all the various clubs, student practice organizations, and journals. I came across the Harvard Mediation Program (HMP) during one of these many virtual information sessions.

HMP is a student-led organization that pursues a dual mission: education and community service. This means that HMP trains classes of mediators and puts on events focused on alternative dispute resolution (ADR) while also offering free mediation services to the community. HMP mediates a variety of topic areas and offers its members the opportunity to mediate small claims cases in six different District Courts in the Greater Boston area. I was immediately interested, despite my lack of mediation knowledge or experience, because I believed mediation skills could teach me how to best approach the sometimes-contentious conversations that arose when seeking disability accommodations and increasing accessibility. Thankfully, I was accepted into the program later that fall and went through online training in Spring 2021.

Throughout my training and my subsequent years in HMP, I have always felt like a valued, respected, and included member of the community, even after making the transition back to campus. In part, I believe the organization is naturally inclusive because the HMP community is uniquely diverse. In addition to HLS students, HMP welcomes and trains students from other graduate and undergraduate schools as well as community members from all types of backgrounds and professions. What we all have in common is our commitment to effective communication, self-determination for our parties, and efficient resolution of disputes. I also was able to get more involved with HMP by serving on its Board, first as a Training Director and then as a Co-President. As a board member, I attended weekly meetings where I made close friendships with other student board members and the fantastic HMP staff members.

In addition to serving as my home on campus, HMP has allowed me to gain so many valuable skills and experiences. In Basic Training, I spent two weekends learning many foundational skills including facilitative mediation, active listening, giving and receiving constructive feedback, and handling difficult situations. Later serving on the HMP Board as a Training Director, I further reinforced and refined these skills by co-teaching modules on these topics with other HMP members at subsequent iterations of Basic Training.

Outside of the educational aspect of HMP, I greatly enjoyed serving members of the community by mediating their disputes. When I first started mediating, most of my cases took place online as the local courts conducted their small claims sessions virtually. These mediations not only taught me how to use several different features of Zoom, but also how to better manage strong emotions of my parties as video calls become quite chaotic when multiple people try to speak at once! Once the courts went back to in-person sessions, I enjoyed physically going to the courthouses to mediate. One of the most important things I learned as a mediator with HMP is that mediation is not always about successfully resolving the case. Of course, it always felt good when my cases were able to come to a mutual agreement. But, sometimes, mediation is successful just by giving parties an opportunity to talk to one another, to clarify their understandings, to express the emotions they are experiencing, and allow the parties to choose how they want their case to proceed.

One of my favorite features of HMP’s approach to mediation is the co-mediation model. Under this approach, we always mediate in pairs as co-mediators. One of my early concerns when I first started mediating was what I would do if I could not think of a question to ask my parties or, even worse, if I asked the wrong question and derailed the mediation. Not only did HMP ensure I was paired with an experienced mediator for my early cases, I learned that having a co-mediator provides a built in support system: I always had someone I could depend on to jump in and who could serve as a sounding board for my thoughts and concerns during a private mediators’ session if needed. Co-mediation also gave us the opportunity for both mediators and any observers (who were either other HMP mediators or mediators-in-training) to debrief the mediation and give feedback to each other to help us continue growing as mediators.

By joining HMP, I was also introduced to the larger ADR community on campus. In addition to mediating, I loved taking both the Negotiation Workshop and Advanced Multiparty Negotiation courses. Even recognizing negotiation is different from mediation, learning interest-based negotiation often paralleled what I was learning and teaching in HMP. Additionally, I spent two semesters in the Dispute Systems Design Clinic working collaboratively with two different teams of students and clinical instructors first on a project with the New Hampshire Office of Mediation and Arbitration and then on a project with the National Disabled Law Students Association. In the DSD Clinic, I got to approach ADR from a broader lens, evaluating all the stakeholders, needs and interests, and points of tension of the system from a neutral, holistic perspective. I learned how to conduct interviews with stakeholders, generate findings from our research, and offer solutions in ways that would be useful to the clients we served. And, throughout it all, I always felt supported by my team and our clinical instructor who helped us with each step of the project.

Read the complete article here.

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