Tackling tough issues in new ways
When immediate past President Francis Deisinger was getting ready to become president-elect of the State Bar of Wisconsin, he thought a lot about what he wanted to accomplish during his term. He looked through the rules that govern the mandatory bar and noticed that one of its responsibilities was to provide access to justice for the public.
He also knew that Wisconsin has the highest disparate rate of incarceration of minority males in the country, especially for African-Americans. He wanted to do something about that.
"My problem was I didn't have a clue what I could do about it. I struggled. I talked to a lot of people about what we could do, and for the most part the ideas I got were the traditional approach," Deisinger recalled. "I could form a blue ribbon committee or a special committee or something like that. 'What you want is to get a report authored' [people said]."
But Deisinger wasn't comfortable with that approach, having seen what became of such reports in the past. "It gets stuck on a dusty shelf," he said, "and if you're lucky, people remember it and people say, 'Wasn't that the guy who had that report?'"
Deisinger realized that his bar had a great deal of talent to leverage in tackling the issue. "We … had broad expertise on issues such as justice, a relationship with law schools, political influence, meeting planning expertise, and publications and public affairs expertise," he explained, noting that these assets are typical of bar associations.
Over the next two years, Deisinger worked with bar staff and leaders to develop the Symposium on Disparate Incarceration and Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin. The event included a showing of a documentary about the issue, and a fairly simple agenda with a lot of time for discussion.
The symposium had a full house of attendees and was generally well received, Deisinger says. The bar created a report for the membership on what happened, put video on its website, and is continuing to focus on the issue in its online and print publications.