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June 04, 2021 Dispute Resolution Magazine

A Conversation with Whitney Benns: Educator, Facilitator, and Emotional Labor Organizer

On ‘experts,’ neutrality, and protest as a powerful tool

Interview by Alonzo Emery
This interview, which was conducted over Zoom in October 2020, has been edited and condensed.

Probably the best way for readers to get to know you is for you to introduce yourself.

I am a 30-something, Black, queer woman from the Rocky Mountain West currently living in St Louis, Missouri. I work as an educator — I teach negotiation skills workshops and fugitive negotiation at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In those courses, we dig into questions of how to get your interests and needs met, and your community’s interests and needs met, particularly when that involves negotiating with, in, or against powerful systems. Which, it turns out, is all the time.

I also work as a facilitator with organizations and individuals and help them think and talk about these questions on internal, interpersonal, and organizational levels. How do we relate to each other? How do we make decisions together? How do we deal with conflict? How do we deal with harm? How do we know the difference between the two? And, importantly, how do we acknowledge and transform present and historical power distributions?

I work with those questions as an educator and facilitator, but a title that I have been playing with lately is emotional labor organizer. A friend used it to describe what I do, and it captured my intentions, work, and impact so well. I help people organize their emotional labor, personally and within relationships, and how they distribute it – getting and giving their fair share. I create explicit space and permission for people to consider how things are feeling – for themselves, for others, for the whole – and where those feelings have emerged from. Which, most often, are in our stories, their stories, and the ancestor stories we all hold. Then we dedicate space and time to the emotional labor we need to do individually, relationally, and collectively. Then we get to the change we need and the constellations of people we need to move toward that change. And that, to me, is organizing.

Emotional labor organizing also reflects the type of working relationships I want: we are all in this and doing something together – I am not just doing something to you. I don’t hold the magic wand of power that can fix you or your situation – I am here working and organizing alongside of you. I am noticing and knowing that what you are doing is hard and that it is labor.

I would love to hear about your values and stances as a teacher.

In my teaching I seek to embody and affirm the things I needed as a student and young person --  honestly, things I still need. This includes the affirmation that my students are not showing up to me as unmolded globs of clay. They are not showing up as amateurs. They are expert negotiators in the context of their life. They are very plainly survivors of whatever in their life has tried to kill them. And I know that to be true because I know that I did not show up to the Negotiation Workshop or Harvard or any institution as someone who needed to be told how to negotiate. A lot of things had already tried to kill me by that point. A lot of things still are trying to kill me. I’m not supposed to exist. I’m a Black woman, and this world is trying to kill us all the time. And yet I am here, and negotiation – my own negotiations, my ancestors’, my beloveds’ in struggle – has everything to do with that. 

I endeavor for my classroom to be a space where we broaden thinking about whom we should be learning from. If we can learn from Roger Fisher, we can surely learn from Audre Lorde. If we can learn from Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (and I have learned a lot from them personally), you can learn from Robin D.G. Kelley, Octavia Butler, and Derrick Bell. (And for those who aren’t familiar with these brilliant scholars – look them and their work up!) If it is worthwhile for us to consider negotiation strategies from business transactions, it is worthwhile for us to learn how queer polyamorous communities and communes negotiate how to live together, share house responsibilities, deal with shifting relationships and jealousy, and manage felt or real scarcity of different resources. Most negotiation teaching draws on such a narrow subset of “experts,” which makes it unsurprising that we would keep coming to the same solutions and answers, solutions that don’t begin to answer the threats to Black and Brown, poor, queer, trans, disabled life that structure our world. If we want those questions, and those answers, we need to shift whom we are counting as negotiation experts and as teachers. That’s the starting point for fugitive negotiation, which I work on with my comrade Sam Straus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

How do you define or think about fugitive negotiation? 

I would never dare define fugitive negotiation. After all, it is fugitive. But our intention is to think, feel, and practice negotiation philosophies and strategies for those of us who are moving through systems we seek to disrupt, dismantle, and/or evade. “Canon” negotiation philosophies are written mostly from the perspective of folks who are, in explicit and implicit ways, assuming legitimacy of the institutions or of the institutional agents with which they are negotiating. We refuse that premise.

The title fugitive negotiation comes from our distanced mentee-ship (as in, we love him and he doesn’t know who we are) from the poet, critical scholar, and cultural theorist Fred Moten and my deep ancestral love of Harriet Tubman. I want to be a negotiation student of Harriet Tubman.  I’m not that interested in what Business Scion X is doing. I’m not saying Business Scion X has nothing to teach me or tell me, but those lessons are not as critical for me as Harriet Tubman’s lessons about how she not only survived and evaded where necessary but organized, spied, strategized, and brought along hundreds of other people with her through an apparatus of death. 

She knew that none of us is free until all of us are free. But she also was not about to let you turn back and endanger the freedom of the group or her. And that’s why I’m obsessed with relationships: because the smallest unit of humankind is not the individual but the relationship (which I learned from adrienne maree brown, the writer, doula, and Black movement facilitator). That feels inherent to Harriet Tubman’s negotiation praxis and why I know that I need to be in study with the negotiation of fugitive lives and relationships.

This is also where I don’t feel “of the field.” These kinds of practices and ancestral study are a specifically Black queer feminist stance. To be clear, lawyers are dealing with ancestor stories all the time. The law is obsessed with them: that’s what legal precedent is. It’s picking up and turning over what we think that judge or policymaker was thinking and feeling in a moment. However, the law has severely limited whose stories we care to interpret to a very narrow and homogenous set of people. And, in my experience, that’s also true about the negotiation/conflict/ADR field – even as the ancestors and experts it venerates are telling their own kind of counter stories in relation to legal stories.

So for me, fugitive negotiation is a Black queer feminist approach to negotiating the world as we know it to be. A negotiation theory rooted in surviving, not denying, long histories — personal, relational, ancestral — of extraction, violence, and dispossession, and then visioning and building a new future. And I am working to learn from my ancestors and contemporaries and inviting others into that practice.

You’ve raised some interesting questions about the “field of ADR.” How did you come to, or come into conversation with, the field of ADR?

I went to law school to change the violent law and policy systems I had observed doing harm to me personally and so many, many, others. My observations included experiences as a survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and the criminal legal systems I encountered in the aftermath. The criminal legal system is a massive failure for dealing with harm (though, I don’t believe that to be its purpose), one that narratively protects people while in practice enacting more violence. In addition to experiencing the criminal legal system as a false source of repair, I saw it deter and defer my family from other, real sources of support, healing, and safety. My family tried, but struggled, to support me in the aftermath of harm – when they, too, hadn’t been held well when harmed, and when the world told them that the courts, and punishment were enough and all that was possible. Having experienced that, I knew we had to be able to do better.

My first theory of change was that the laws, or people applying them, need to change. So I thought, go to law school, figure out the law, use it as a tool for change. As the marketing goes, Harvard graduates change the world, so I was like, “OK. Sign me up!” Then in law school I became thoroughly disenchanted with the law. I thought, “Oh, no. Now I have read it, and it is worse than I thought! There is nothing to save here. It is working as intended.” I encountered ADR in that context – as taught through negotiation, mediation, and dispute systems design classes, as office and classroom spaces for other people who didn’t believe legal systems are going to help us all the time. I was interested in knowing what those people were talking about. That was my entry point into the field. 

There I felt aligned with some parts of the ADR field and observed that other parts felt the same as legal processes (and the spaces and cultures around them) that do not alleviate harm but amplify it or just distribute it in the same predictable ways. For me, if a system is to be “alternative” to the very harmful white supremacist, colonial, cis-heterosexist, criminal, and civil legal systems, it should result in very different distributions and outcomes. It should also feel different in terms of how power shapes and shows up in those spaces. Where the power distributions look very similar to the status quo or different only in name or espoused process but not impact or outcome – then I didn’t see myself as a part of the same project.

You mentioned harm reduction and considering the impact of power as guiding principles. Are there other elements that you feel are core to an ADR process that aligns with the work you like to do?

As a law student and early-career practitioner, I learned about ADR’s love for a neutrality principle. I learned the principle was that you ought to be “neutral” if you are going to be helpful to the parties. You are not neutral to the process, but you have to be neutral to the substantive outcome. Spoiler alert: I think that’s mostly bullshit. You are always implicated in the substantive outcome and impact – period. Instead, we need to ask: how am I connected to this conflict? In what ways am I connected to these parties? And what is that going to mean about how I show up and am accountable to this process and these people?

As an example of what I’m talking about: I have facilitated student-organized town halls and healing spaces organized by students grieving after witnessing one of their peers beaten by the police. I’ve held community space for talking about accountability and power in the midst of ongoing repeated traumatic experiences locally and nationally. In each one of those moments, how did I get into that space? Relationships. Being known personally and my political commitments being known. That is not about neutrality. That is about trust.

The way neutrality gets claimed, asserted, and held up as the gold standard has a lot to do with the maintenance of power. It is asserted as a poor substitute for trust and accountability by equating neutrality and fair process and then equating fair process with a fair outcome. It is an assertion of legitimacy drawing on legal values and a rhetorical fiction that is false in the case of the courts and the legal systems and also false in the space of ADR. I have seen that “neutral” really means alignment with the norms of white spaces, cis-gendered spaces, straight spaces – if you are protecting those norms, you are protecting the status quo. That is not neutral. The status quo is protecting a power paradigm that is causing all types of harm.

Contrary to popular belief in the field, you can be invited in, you can help as a facilitator or mediator, without espousing “neutrality” as the terms on which you enter. There are plenty of organizations and conveners who really want a “neutral” or a “neutral process.” But what that often means is keeping background power dynamics out of view and out of reach and keeping an absurd stance of talking in race-erased, class-erased, gender-erased, and sexuality-erased terms. So for practitioners concerned about espousing a different stance, much less practicing one, the fear of not being hired, or being fired, isn’t completely off-base. They might not hire you. If you push back, they might fire you. But that only further clarifies what the purpose of centering “neutrality” really was: protecting power. And, for me, that’s not a purpose that guides my facilitation or my design.

And if we toss out neutrality, then some fundamental questions are exposed: What are my political commitments? What are my values? What is my vision for the future, and how do I understand the past? And how do those answers shape the work you do and how you do it (because they always are). And beyond just your individual views, with whom are you in community? How are you investing your time and labor and energy? For me, that is important work to do before you enter into any space as an educator, process holder, or designer or before you muck around in any relationships.

Everything about how I am going to notice and feel and intuit in a situation is connected to my experiences, which are filtered through how I understand myself and how the world understands me in the body I am in: Black, queer, straight-assumed, 5’10,” mixed race, fly-over-state-born, ivory tower credentialed, oldest daughter of five. Whether I am aware of it, whether others know it or not, that is how I feel others, feel situations, make decisions, and also how I might miss things. If you haven’t interrogated how your identities shape your work and the impact you have, they will move you to reify status quo-dominant power paradigms and will show up in the processes you suggest and design. It will show up in what distributions you think are fair, in who you think to invite to the table, and what questions you think are important. Folks in the field, including those teaching, should be asking themselves those questions, and stepping back to do their own learning.

I guess what you are naming is the internal interrogations one should do before deciding to engage. What some practitioners might then say is, “I’ve done the work and think I can be a harm-reducing agent.” How does race and identity get discussed or raised in a mediation, in an engagement, or in a classroom?

I want to be clear I am not suggesting that people should run out, take Anti-Racism 101 or watch a social justice educator and then crib their stuff. That’s colonial and theft. Just don’t do it. It is also not just about incorporating a practice of naming your identities in the room. You actually have to be moving in a way that both acknowledges present power paradigms and dynamics and actively works to shift them. Shift away from “what’s something I can add to this workshop or lesson plan to make it feel more down?” to thinking about regular, daily practices in all your relationships and negotiations that can move us towards more justice, equity, and freedom. 

One of the things that makes this messy and hard (and what makes everything messy and hard) is capitalism – and the fact that people are trying to make a living out of doing this. It doesn’t lead us to do things that would set us up for better success and less harm. You should have a community of practice, other space-holders, other mediators, or other facilitators that you work with regularly that you are actively working to be in right relationship with. Then look to see who is in your community of practice, and if they have all the same identities as you or are similarly close to power in ways that you are, then I think start at the beginning. Go back to studying and try to understand why that is true and what that replicates. Become a student – and become a student in consensual relationship with those who can be teachers.

I am less concerned with improving the powerful people already in the room, even those who believe they “have done the work,” than I am with getting them to realize the room was constructed to keep them in power. What is most misleading about the term “alternative” in ADR and maybe most misleading about the idea of “the field” is that these important skills and stances are actually diffuse. They are present in communities and cultures all over the world and have been for probably as long as we’ve lived in communities. ADR as a field, and its formal and informal professionalization, attempts to capture something that was a common good — and still exists beyond capture.

We should want as many people and communities to have tools and means of dealing with conflict and harm in more life-affirming ways as possible. But ironically, those in or adjacent to the field often have much more to learn about alternative systems for conflict and relationships from people doing community-centered work beyond “the field.” The people doing this work from a different perspective, with a deep reckoning with power embedded in their facilitation/mediation/space-holding and design are out there. They are just not acknowledged. They are not invited in. They are not paid. Occasionally they are stolen from, as a way to smooth the edges of an old and homogeneous thing. Or they are temporarily included in subordinate status roles but aren’t invited into continuing relationship with institutions or as principals on projects. They don’t tend to be the people who are asked to regularly contribute to magazines. They are often in relationships where others are inviting them to be brought in as a second or a sidekick to the main event. I think that is a big problem.

If it is not about token-izing and “fronting” (bringing a particular person of a particular identity to a meeting with the client for the purpose of demonstrating diversity without giving that person meaningful opportunities for advancement), then it is about doing something completely different. What is the different thing?

I think the difference is shifting power. For people reading this who are in the field now, the critical, uncomfortable question is: “How might I need to be shifting my resources and power to people different from me who will be asking different types of questions and who will have different approaches and be focused on addressing different problems?” That might mean saying “no” to a job offer and referring it to someone else, someone for whom that is their experience, directing resources to those people who have been – and who are already in their embodiment – better positioned to do the work.

I’m speaking candidly: this is a real moment where “established” ADR practitioners and educators are scrambling to align themselves with progressive-movement language through watered-down trainings explicitly or implicitly on racism which serve to secure their position in a power schema. There is nothing progressive or radical or helpful about that. For white people in particular, if you are working furiously to protect your role, then you are protecting your power, which – again – is not neutral to power relations you say you are challenging. If you believe there is something fundamentally wrong with how power is currently distributed, as I do, then we need to do something different. 

Despite being implored to do so over and over again, we continually fail to shift power and resources to those who are most harmed. I understand that there are things that are hard about that. Capitalism doesn’t incentivize that, educational institutions don’t incentivize that, RFP processes don’t incentivize that. And yet the system has been running and cranking away and suffering continues, and we don’t make progress toward sharing and distributing in a way that we all get to live in dignity. So I am asking: can you be in relationship to power differently? Actively work on shifting power to those who are closer to the pain and see what incredible work is possible when that happens! And don’t interject and grab back power the minute you feel uncomfortable or threatened. See what other people with different experiences do when they are given the opportunities and resources they need to do so.

Building something different will require intentional choices at the systemic level and also at the individual level. So yes, if you are someone who was born into a body that gets conferred privilege onto and you want to be in right relationship with others in society who were not, you must intentionally intervene on yourself and those systems by redistributing power, resources, and burdens. Period. It’s not just read some books – though you should do that. Not just getting up the courage to name your privileged identities in front of the room – though yes, you should do that. It might mean not getting those dollars in your paycheck. It might mean not insisting that your name is put on those publications or that project. It might mean giving the work and credit back to people for whom it is due.

Here’s the last domain I want to hit on: what is the role of other modalities, such as protest, in advancing change?

I want to trouble the false notion that interest-based negotiation, coming to the table, mediation, are the only right, good, principled, collaborative ways to engage with conflict. I think that stance and orientation often is repeated, propagated, and used as a shaming tool without any power analysis attached. And I think that is wrong – and deeply dangerous.

We experienced uprisings all over this country this summer with protesters saying, “We are not going to tolerate the police continuing to kill and take our people, and use our resources while doing it.” People took to the streets as a part of that strategy. They created policy demands and worked on politically educating others. And some burned things down. The field often derides or dismisses protest as “uncollaborative,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Organizers of protest and direct action are incredibly collaborative. The protests this summer were a massive demonstration of collaboration with a shared message: “Police do not make us safe. This is not safety. We want something better. We keep each other safe.” And organizers are discerning in choosing collaboration partners. This summer, organizers were choosing not to engage in interest-based negotiations with the police. Which makes strategic sense: you cannot negotiate with the police to stop killing and taking people in the name of property, law, and order and the status quo because that is their historical and present function. 

People seeking a more just and free future for Black and Brown folks, for poor folks, for unhoused folks, for immigrants, for queer and trans folks have to use so many negotiation strategies. We have to think about what we are trying to get, what ways power will try to thwart us and refuse to come to the table (sometimes by pretending to come to the table), and given that, what myriad strategies we need to succeed. Protest is a powerful tool of disruption of the status quo, which is why protest and protestors have been so maligned by institutions and those in power. It is why there have been robust reeducation efforts around recent significant movements like civil rights, labor, and the LGBTQ movement. Protest as a communing ritual and strategy of power-building and power-exercising is not only reasonable but very strategic if your purpose is to change the status quo.

What do you say to someone who sees an inherent tension between being an ADR practitioner and engaging directly in protest or justice movements? 

If you think saying “Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, White Supremacy is Real” is too political, I don’t trust you. I wouldn’t trust you to hold any kind of process where my life or interests were at stake or my people’s lives or interests were at stake. I don’t want someone “neutral” as to whether my life and the lives of people who look like me and the lives of people I am in solidarity with are deserving of dignity and preservation. And if you are not sure where you are on that question, or not sure whether to assert where you are publicly, then you are not worthy of getting to hold space for us, teach us, or represent us in any way. Know that you are taking a position in not being involved or aligned with those life-affirming protests. You are picking a side. And there is absolutely nothing neutral about that. 

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Alonzo Emery


Alonzo Emery is a lawyer, facilitator, mediator, and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches the Negotiation Workshop. He is a member of the Dispute Resolution Magazine editorial board and can be reached at [email protected].

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