As an attorney and a woman of color in a mid-sized city (Madison, Wis.), Michelle Behnke figures that she’s gotten more than her fair share of invitations to take on a leadership role at various professional associations and organizations.
“I hit a lot of [diversity] check-boxes,” she laments. “I’ve had people ask me to join and say, ‘Diversity is our number one goal, and therefore, we’re talking to you.’ OK, but do you know me? You have now reduced me to one thing: diversity. You haven’t taken in my expertise, and that’s insulting. And if I’m insulted, I’m not likely to accept.”
It’s not that Behnke doesn’t relish bar leadership—when she is asked to serve because of reasons other than the need for diversity. In fact, she is currently treasurer of the American Bar Association, having previously served on its Board of Governors; as the Wisconsin delegate to the ABA House of Delegates; as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services; and as treasurer and president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
As bar associations move from diversity alone (thinking in terms of numbers and "boxes") toward inclusion (meaning that everyone's contributions and needs are fully valued and appreciated), Behnke and others say, it's important to ensure that this is reflected in the bar’s leadership and organizational structure—and in how new volunteers and leaders are engaged.
If associations want to succeed in that quest, they add, it will likely mean stepping outside the comfort zone of traditional leadership and communication paths to provide meaningful opportunities for a wider range of diverse members. From new-school social media and analytics to old-school conversation and outreach, associations can make strides in finding and keeping those diverse members and leaders.