With soup and cider, HLS’ new social change program just getting warmed up

BY KATHRYN LEGOMSKY

On a dismal and snowy Sunday afternoon, students and faculty trekked over to the Newton home of Professor Ben Sachs for warm fall treats and informal discussion about the social change community at Harvard Law School.  This “Soup & Cider” retreat was hosted by the Program of Study on Law and Social Change, one of the five programs of study that offer “pathways through the HLS curriculum.” 

The event was the first of its kind since HLS launched Programs of Study, meant to serve as communities of academically and professionally like-minded students, two years ago.  Its goal: to unite the social change community at HLS.

The philosophy behind the social change program is that law is deeply implicated in our economic, political, and social worlds. The pursuit of social change, then, invariably involves an engagement with law.  The program helps students understand how law can be harnessed for social change, and how they can pursue careers as social change agents, in areas ranging from health care to immigration, criminal justice and international human rights, by engaging in, for example, litigation, electoral politics, and organizing.  The intent is to enable students to develop a rich understanding of the promises and limitations inherent in the various modes and areas of work that are of interest to the student.

Via a bouncy school bus, fifty brave students – not entirely sure what to expect – arrived at Sachs’ home en masse. They warmed up with hot cider, toasty fall pies, and home-made squash and tomato soup.  Soon, the breakout discussion sessions – the core activity of the retreat – began.  Faculty advisors, including Dean Martha Minow and Professors David Grossman ’88, Deborah Anker LL.M. ’84, Gerald Frug ’63, and Ben Sachs led informal, small-group discussions about law and social change at HLS.  Two common themes emerged from many of the discussion groups:  first, how 1Ls can interact with and benefit from the (alleged) wisdom of upper-class students, and second, how to build a community of like-minded social change people at HLS – across substantive legal areas of interest, between students and faculty, and with the other Programs of Study.

Several ideas for community building emerged from the event, and plans are already underway to host a weekly drop-in table in Harkness Commons where students and faculty interested in social change could meet for lunch on an impromptu basis to discuss topics related to social change.  At least until the new Northwest Corner complex opens, the lunch tables will provide a critical physical space to gather and organize.  Other ideas included study groups to bring out themes of social change in the 1L curriculum and allow social-change-minded students to connect the 1L curriculum to their reasons for coming to law school, an annual weekend retreat for current students and faculty as well as alumni, and unity around events scheduled in diverse substantive law areas.  Illustrating the interconnectednes of diverse legal areas, Dean Minow told a fascinating story about a project she led to overhaul special education legislation.  The project involved not only education law and education groups, but also – to her surprise – such diverse and unexpected areas of law as copyright, anti-trust, and others. 

Faculty later spoke with students especially interested in their own areas of law. Prof. Anker spoke about immigration, Dean Minow about education and civil rights, Prof. Sachs about labor and employment law, Prof. Grossman about legal services, and Prof. Frug about local government.

Despite the miserable weather, students and faculty were overwhelmingly positive about the retreat.  Sandra Ray, a 1L, exclaimed that “everyone I talked to who went really enjoyed the whole day!” The 1Ls in particular reminded upper-class students about how isolated the 1L experience can be, and they especially appreciated this opportunity to come together and get the inside scoop about the HLS experience, clinical opportunities, professors and classes to watch, and student activity opportunities.  Many 2Ls were similarly inspired to take their involvement to the next level.  Leah Watson and Sakisha Jackson, for example, wanted the Program of Study to form small committees to allow many students to take leadership roles in building the community.

The event was held on October 18 and organized by faculty directors Ben Sachs, David Grossman, and Martha Minow, and student fellows Joy Wang and Katie Legomsky, with assistance and support from Nancy Thompson, Lisa Sachs, OPIA Director Alexa Shabecoff and Shonu Gandhi ’09.

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