Friday, September 10, 2021
A number of years ago, I had an especially wonderful sabbatical experience with the help of the U.S. Fulbright Program that provided opportunities to conduct research in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Queen's University Belfast was my host institution, and there I met Professor Joe Duffy (on the left), who was working in social work, aging services and law. We have become forever friends, as well as co-workers on several projects.
One of the key educational concepts I learned from Joe's work was the importance of involving service users in the classroom, as well as in research. I experienced this as a "student" in Northern Ireland as I listened to speakers with Loyalist (Unionist) and Republican (Nationalist) perspectives on the historic "Troubles" in Ireland. I'd been working for years with U.S. law school clinics, which are inherently involved with "user" (client) voices, but when I returned from my time in Belfast I began to more actively include older adults in my doctrinal classes, usually as guest speakers about a particular case or experience. I confess, however, that I've drifted away a bit from that, but today I have a fresh reminder of why it is important to bring clients into the classroom.
Joe Duffy did his own Fulbright-sabbatical in the U.S. recently, and as part of that experience he worked at NYU with social work students and survivors of 9/11. This week, Queen's University offers Joe's detailed written account of how the NYU team planned carefully for including survivors as speakers in the classroom, and how the experiences were valuable for everyone. We can -- and I believe should -- remember to make time for similar outreach and listening exercises with students in law school. Here's a brief taste from Joe's experience with bringing 9/11 survivors into the classroom:
I knew from the beginning that trust building was at the heart of this process. I was indeed mindful of this throughout, where would I start in terms of asking people to share such difficult and personal experiences? The answer was to start with the people themselves and to create a safe environment where people felt valued and respected. In planning, we met as a group over a number of weeks and decided how the programme would evolve. Every aspect was therefore co-produced and together we agreed the following questions as the basis for the Conversation:
- Can you share with these students a summary of your experiences from 9/11?
- To what extent does the aftermath of such a traumatic event still impact on your life today and others close to you?
- How has this experience affected your identity?
- What sort of help did you receive to support you after these experiences?
- What are the skills that these students need to focus on when helping an individual cope with trauma related issues and also what are the behaviours they should avoid?
- What are the students take away messages from today.
The 90-minute classes ran for three consecutive weeks with two/three group participants joining me each week with the students. The students listened attentively and respectfully to the dialogue and there was total silence in the classroom, such was the emotional magnitude of the atmosphere. After each class we gathered for a coffee at a nearby café which helped the group support each other and reflect on what we had learned from the process.
I encourage you to read Joe's full article, Changed Lives: Voices from 9/11 in the Classroom. The voices of both survivors and students are captured succinctly here -- and provide wonderful reminders of the importance of a simple (or, perhaps not-so-simple) skill that all lawyers need to cultivate, the ability to listen. That seems especially relevant as a reminder during the 20th anniversary of 9/11.