Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinic Students Help Local Somali Youth Manage Conflict

Abdulkadir Hussein, founder of African Community Economic Development of New England (ACEDONE) came to the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) with a problem. Hussein had noticed an emerging issue in the Boston East African community—the growing divide between Somali-born parents and their American-raised children.

Hawa Yassin, Zeena Mohamed, and Nasra

For Somali parents, the stress of raising children in a new country is coupled with the challenges of culturally adapting to new community structures and differing authority roles. Fearing the impact of American culture on their teenagers, many respond with traditional Somali parenting approaches that alienate their more Americanized children. For the Somali youth, their transition to adulthood is complicated by their desire to integrate with their American peer groups while

juggling a more Somali identity at home. “Somali parents and youth come from very different worlds and we often can’t communicate,” said 21-year-old Hawa Yassin, President of ACEDONE’s Youth in Charge group. “Parents are coming from Somalia and children look at things as Americans.”

The challenge to communicate led ACEDONE to partner with HNMCP, a clinical program at Harvard Law School, in the fall of 2012 to actively address parent-youth conflict in Boston’s Somali community.  Michael Robertson ‘14 and Andrew Sullivan ‘14, under the supervision of Clinical Instructor Chad Carr ‘06, spent the fall semester interviewing nearly forty Somali parents and youth, researching the challenges faced by Somali immigrant communities, and developing a conflict assessment and a tailored curriculum for managing those conflicts.   “Everyone we spoke with in the Somali community emphasized the value of family and the importance of strengthening those relationships,” said Carr. “Our goal was to surface some of the underlying causes of parent-youth conflict and to provide a set of tools that would empower Somali families to address these issues constructively.”

Michael Robertson & Andrew Sullivan

The project culminated in a January 2013 workshop, led by Robertson and Sullivan, focused on helping youth develop communication skills for managing parent-child conflicts. Twelve members of ACEDONE’s Youth in Charge group visited HLS to engage in discussion, learn new skills, and practice through role play activities. A key focus of the workshop was on the skill of perspective-taking. “The training taught us that when a situation gets heated we should take a step back, assess what’s going on and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes,” said Yassin. “This was the first time I ever learned this.”

According to Sullivan, “The level of engagement among the youth we taught was phenomenal. They are truly devoted to their community and to helping one another.”

ACEDONE founder Abdul Hussein is eager to use the workshop curriculum to reach out to the broader Somali community. “The collaboration with HNMCP has provided the Somali community with the opportunity for the generations to start understanding each other for the first time.”

Kaynan Yassin, Bile Yassin, Mohamed Farah, Mohamed Mohamed

Participant Mohamed Mohamed agreed. “This is something that my fellow Somali youth desperately needed,” he said.

For Sullivan and Robertson, one of the rewards of the project was the way it connected their legal studies to real issues in the local community. “It was a privilege to work with a group of young people who are so committed to improving their neighborhoods, their families, and themselves,” said Robertson. “Our collaboration with ACEDONE broadened in my mind the scope of conflict resolution and impelled me to think of less obvious ways to use the lessons I am learning here at law school.”