From Art School to the Art of Negotiation: Brooke Davies Reflects on Leadership

Rose Lincoln/Photographer

If you had asked Brooke Davies (UNC ‘17) when she was applying for art school as a senior in high school, if she ever thought the United Nations would one day be using her research to broker peace in conflict torn regions, her answer would have been a resounding no. But now, 8 years later that’s exactly what’s happening. Brooke, who has just graduated from Harvard Law School, is being celebrated along with her research partner Daniel Oyolu for their published work, “Power, Protest, and Political Change.”

“The report came about in the summer of 2020 during the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder along with Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. And we got to the question of the protests and we wanted to do something to help in this moment and to contribute based on our interests in alternative dispute resolution and our knowledge; including my personal experience with community organizing and we basically landed on a question which really fascinated us both which was, ‘if you are a protest movement seeking to negotiate with your political leadership for change how do you as one individual or one movement build power to get into the negotiating room and then successfully assert that power once you’re at the table?’”

The two thought that at best they’d form a “guerrilla reading group,” with a few classmates and professors, but under the guidance of the Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School, the research question became a full blown independent project within the program. That started a three-month journey in which Brooke and Daniel spoke with activists and protest leaders from different countries including Venezuela, Belarus, Tunisia, Sudan, and Yemen. They connected with national protest movements in the US including Black Lives Matter, the Sunrise Movement, and March for Our Lives. “We also talked to bail support groups, housing support groups, and really what we wanted to do was to collect all of this wisdom and put into a freely accessible resource, and that became this 83-page report, including 1-pagers, resource pages. Really, we were just trying to tell these stories and raise the issues, problems, and solutions.”

Enter the United Nations. “We heard from NGOs, and some units within the UN who are interested in using the one-pagers. We’ve also heard from different professors and academics who are interested in reading more. It’s been a wonderful experience, not only the reactions of people we interviewed getting to read it and learn from it and take something away from it, but also folks who have heard of it through word of mouth. I think we achieved the objective that we set out to do.”

It’s all part of Brooke’s drive to create a more just world. “I feel like the people who have raised me or taken a chance on me, have given me the fundamental value that the life we spend on this earth should be a just one and should be in pursuit of justice. That includes my mom and family, that includes the American Jewish community that raised me and gave me my religion, that includes the Robertson, and that includes the law school. My work feels like my inheritance of those values.”

As a Robertson, Brooke shared that she was challenged to critically examine systems and reflect on the responsibility of leaders to transform those systems, “I think that there very much was a tone set from the beginning that we were encouraged to think boldly about how we wanted to make a change.”

The challenge to think boldly has stayed with Brooke throughout her career, “The Robertson has been a huge influence on my professional life. It allowed me to do three things. First, it provided support for me to explore my emerging interests. Second, it allowed me to  reach farther. I remember when I was a finalist telling my mom, ‘Oh my gosh, this will make graduate school at a place like Columbia, or University of Chicago, or NYU possible.’ I don’t know why I had those schools in my mind, but I remember meeting a Robertson who was at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and I had never met someone who went to Harvard before. The program allowed me to see a future where I could have a career that involved these types of institutions and now I’ve graduated from Harvard Law School and it feels like a wonderful fulfillment of the promise from that initial info session. And third, the community aspect of being surrounded by people who pushed me and believed in me, and to see their achievements. I was supported by a group of people who were smart, and challenging and if they could do it then I could do it too. So, I not only found friends in my cohort, but also role models.”

Now, Brooke will be moving abroad to work with International IDEA, an organization funded by United Nations member states, that focuses on democracy and electoral systems. “I’ll be serving on the constitution building team for the Middle East and Africa. I’ll be providing assistance to the UN-led peace process in Yemen, as well as the constitution-building processes in Sudan and Mali.”

For Scholars, Brooke has one piece of advice, “You have been given a lucky ticket. You’ve been given this once in a lifetime opportunity to explore, and find your interests and take risks knowing that you have this safety net beneath you called The Robertson that’s not going to let you fail, no matter how big the risk. So, I would say to use that lucky ticket to take leaps, to challenge yourself, to do something you never thought you would be able to do in your life because you have a whole community behind you helping you to succeed.”