2013-11-09 11 37 45 (2)Via the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinic
By Brittany Williams, J.D. ’14

In a world that is growing ever more complicated, the consequences of our choices—what we buy, how we travel, what we prioritize, what we conserve—have become more and more far-reaching. The debate about how to address climate change is at the center of the tension between humanity’s ever-growing material needs and our knowledge that our world is small, finite, and with limited capacity to absorb the effects of our choices. Views on how to combat climate change run the gamut from outright denial of climate change’s existence, to insistence that we must quickly pump the brakes on our fossil-fuel dependent lifestyles in order to avert the end of the world as we know it.

While the issue of fossil fuel divestment started merely as hushed whispers on the fringes of the climate change debate, it has now taken center stage due to the work of environmental activist Bill McKibben, and the thousands of college students around the country that follow his work and are pushing for their educational institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies. As a result of this burgeoning movement, over the past two years many organizations have emerged to help students and community members advocate for divestment. One such organization is the Better Future Project (BFP), which operates locally in Massachusetts in collaboration with the Massachusetts branch of 350.org.

While organizations like BFP and 350Mass have made progress in advocating for divestment, BFP created a project with the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program focused on improving its affiliates’ negotiation and communication skills. Thus, during the Fall 2013 semester, Alex Civetta ’15, and our clinical instructor Chad Carr, and I dove headfirst into the complicated and passionate debate surrounding divestment from fossil fuel companies.

In creating a workplan for the semester, our clinical team and BFP decided to first focus on creating a conflict assessment; an in-depth look at the various perspectives regarding divestment, informed by hours of interviews with student and community activists, endowment professionals, and college/university administrators. The assessment strove to uncover the interests of involved parties, and identify both hurdles and opportunities for moving the conversation forward.

From there, the clinical team utilized the insights gained through the conflict assessment to build a custom negotiation and communication skills training for BFP affiliates. We led a training in November 2013 for a group of student and community divestment activists. The training focused not just on delivering the core concepts of negotiation theory, but also on recognizing the importance within activism for a balancing act between empathy and assertiveness.

The training created a learning experience for all involved, including ourselves. “All in all, it was a wonderful experience. There’s something about building a curriculum like that from the ground up that was incredibly satisfying,” my partner, Alex, noted.

Moreover, it was an opportunity for us to reinforce our understanding of the negotiation theory we’d been studying, first in the Negotiation Workshop and then in the Clinic. It helped us put theory into practice in a meaningful way. “The greatest satisfaction,” continued Alex, “came from seeing some of our participants start to really engage with the material and generate ideas for how it could be used to improve the dialogue on their respective campuses.”

Feedback from the training was quite positive, leaving us satisfied with a job well done. I am so happy to have been a part of this project, not only to continue working with the substance of negotiation theory, but to share it with a community of people that are working on climate change, a topic that will have a huge impact on our society. As clinical students, we can’t change the world in one semester, but by doing work like this we give other people the tools to change the world in their own ways.