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August 06, 2021

2021 Spirit of Excellence Awardees

Michelle Behnke

The Commission on Racial & Ethnic Diversity in the Profession is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2021 Spirit of Excellence Awards. The awards are presented to lawyers whose commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession is evident in their workplace and at the national, state, or local level.

Professor Barbara Creel

Professor Barbara Creel

Professor Barbara Creel

Professor Barbara Creel has achieved professional excellence in federal practice. She has devoted her career to public defense, specializing in Native American rights and individual civil rights. Professor Creel has worked at a variety of levels of litigation—trial, appellate, and post-conviction—on behalf of Native American indigent defendants. As an Assistant Federal Public defender, she argued before the Ninth Circuit on post-conviction matters, including arguing and winning an ineffective assistance of counsel case (Moore v. Czerniak 574 F.3d 1092 (9th Cir. 2009)), only to have it overturned by the Supreme Court (when she did not argue it). As a law professor, she introduced her students to federal habeas corpus in the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, arguing and winning habeas cases filed on behalf of Native Americans. She is known as an Indian Civil Rights “guru” by other federal Indian law practitioners. No other practitioner has more federal habeas cases under 28 U.S.C. 1303, of the Indian Civil Rights Act.

She has extensive experience in tribal courts, federal Indian law and federal criminal law. For example, her current research centers on the sentencing disparities Native Americans experience in federal courts under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. She has been called on for her expertise, serving on the USSG Tribal Issues Advisory Group, where she served as the co-Chair of the Tribal Convictions Subcommittee. Creel is a frequent speaker on Native American rights and Indian law for national groups such as the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL). She is also a trainer on race and civil rights for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Never backing down from a challenge, she often takes cases no one else will take and wins. That is, if she gets to trial. Local tribal courts have been known to dismiss matters shortly after she visits a potential new client in a detention facility.

But her spirit and leadership are best demonstrated elsewhere: in the classroom. In the Southwest Indian Law Clinic, she mentors clinical law students. She attributes her success in the clinical law program to teaching principles of integrity, values, and ethics, along with teamwork and a positive mental attitude. Serving as a clinical law professor, having achieved full tenure and a Professorship of Evidence, Professor Creel is a model litigator for women of color in law school. Her confidence, precision, and skill are unmatched. She is most well-known for teaching cultural competence and helping students go on to lead fulfilling careers as lawyers with an impact. She works creatively to help clients get the relief they need, without cost in her practice and in the supervising clinical law students.

Professor Creel is a champion of the underdog in the courtroom, the classroom, and the community. She works with the local chapter of the FBA as a board member, helping arrange continuing education and mentorship opportunities for students. She shares her expertise and connections with all of those around her. Her enthusiasm and her eye toward social justice are contagious. Professor Creel has won several awards for her excellence in teaching, mentoring, and advocating.

Several articles have been written about her work, but here are three notable pieces:

  • Law fighting domestic violence reveals inequities, Montana Standard (April 18, 2016)
  • Justices Examine Right to Counsel in Indian Domestic Abuse Cases, Supreme Court Brief Online (April 13, 2016)
  • Southwest Indian Law Clinic Students take on High-Profile Appellate Cases (March 14, 2013)
Mr. Román D. Hernández

Mr. Román D. Hernández

Mr. Román D. Hernández

The Managing Partner of Troutman Pepper’s Portland office where he focuses on employment law and commercial litigation and has particular experience in the defense of employers against claims filed by former, current, and prospective employees for allegations of discrimination, harassment, constructive discharge, wrongful discharge, and for alleged wage and hour violations in both state and federal courts, including class action litigation. Román also acts as lead counsel in class action disputes at the state and federal level. Román represents clients in a variety of industries including retail, telecommunications, agribusiness, health and hygiene, software development, manufacturing, logistics, transportation and higher education. He has appeared in federal courts in Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, and Pennsylvania on behalf of firm clients and has presented oral argument to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is a nationally recognized practitioner in his field.

More than 60 years ago, Román’s parents emigrated from Mexico as migrant farm workers before settling in rural Eastern Oregon to raise a family. Román and his seven older brothers and sisters grew up working in the fields to supplement his family’s income. He would spend 10 hours a day harvesting onion – a labor-intensive task that involves bending over or kneeling and using sharp knives to cut the leafy tops from the onions. The intense summer heat could reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and Román’s hands still bear the scars from the knives used in the harvest. It was “piece work” and he was paid as little as 10 cents a bushel for his work.

Though his family had limited financial means, Román was determined to go to college. In the fall of 1987, after another hard 10-hour day harvesting onions, he received a letter that would change his life. He had been awarded financial aid from the Treasure Valley Community College (TVCC), and his college dreams were now within grasp. Román worked in the fields up until two weeks before he started college. While at TVCC, Román was on the Dean’s List multiple times, and was able to pursue, and ultimately receive, an Air Force ROTC scholarship from Oregon State University (OSU). Román financed his undergraduate education through scholarships, Pell Grants, work-study, student loans, and part-time work (including working 39 hours per week his final term at OSU).

In 1992, Román graduated from OSU with a degree in General Science with a co-major in Aerospace Studies. He was the only Hispanic-American Air Force ROTC cadet at OSU in the Professional Officer Corps. (the upper division cadets) during his time at OSU. Upon his commissioning as a Second Lieutenant, Román served as Squadron Section Commander for the 428th Fighter Squadron at Cannon AFB in New Mexico. He was also hand-picked to serve as the Executive Officer to the Vice Wing Commander (the second highest-ranking officer of the base) at McChord AFB in Washington. He volunteered for 90-day deployments to Saudi Arabia in support of Operation Southern Watch, and to Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in support of Operation Sea Signal. In total, Román served nearly five years of active duty before completing his service to his country with an honorable discharge at the rank of Captain.

In 1997, Román began his legal education at the Lewis & Clark Law School. His lifetime of hard work served him well in his pursuit of his J.D. Upon graduation in 2000, he was inducted into the prestigious Cornelius Honor Society, a small and honorary group of graduates selected by the faculty. Román began his career in private practice with Schwabe Williamson & Wyatt (a prestigious regional law firm headquartered in Portland) where he practiced for over 14 years, including becoming the first Hispanic-American partner at that law firm in 2006.

As a second-year associate, Román was one of three founders of the Oregon Hispanic Bar Association (OHBA) in 2002. Now, the OHBA is one of the more vibrant and active affinity bar associations in the state and has served as a catalyst for the betterment of Oregon’s legal profession through its programming and events. Román has played a large role in increasing the diversity of Oregon’s legal profession, including among the practitioners before state and federal courts in Oregon.

A leader within Oregon and beyond, Román is one of only two attorneys in the Pacific Northwest (and the only one from Oregon) to have ever served as a National President of the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA), a voluntary, nationwide bar association that represents the interests of 100,000 Hispanic attorneys, judges, law students, and paralegals throughout the United States in the organization’s 48+ year history. Román is the founder and former Chairman of the Board of Directors of The HNBA Legal Education Fund, the HNBA’s charitable foundation which develops pipeline programs for Hispanic youth considering entering the legal profession.

Devoted to his community, Román has a long record of community service. He serves on the Portland Mayor’s Council of Economic Advisors, and on the Mayor’s COVID-19 Economic Recovery Task Force, which is comprised of business, community and governmental leaders to develop policies to help the Portland community succeed despite the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

Román served on the Board of Directors of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber, including serving as the Chamber’s President. Román also is a former Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Portland Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, one of the 12 banks that comprise the central banking system of the United States. Through his six-year Federal Reserve service, Román helped develop the nation’s monetary policy. Only 274 Americans serve as a Director within the Federal Reserve System’s 12 banks at any given time.

Román is a former member of the Board of Directors of The Oregon Community Foundation (OCF), which is the sixth largest community foundation in the nation and has assets in excess of

$2 billion. He also is a former member of the Board of Directors of the Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU), a position to which he was appointed by Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski. OHSU is Oregon’s only academic health center, Portland’s largest private employer, and operates an annual budget in excess of $2 billion. Román served eight years on the OHSU Board, including serving as Chairman of the OHSU Board’s Personnel Committee.

In recognition of his strong record of service to his communities, Román has received accolades from varied and diverse organizations and institutions, including the “Distinguished Business Law Graduate Award” from his alma mater, Lewis and Clark Law School; the “Paul J. De Muniz Professionalism Award” from the Oregon Hispanic Bar Association; and the “Diversity and Inclusion Champion Award” from the Oregon State Bar; the “Civil Rights Champion Award” from the Oregon League of Minority Voters, the “J. Michael Brown Award” from the DuPont Minority Counsel Network; the “Judge Learned Hand Emerging Leadership Award” from the American Jewish Committee, Oregon Chapter; the “Distinguished Citizen Award” from the Cascade Pacific Council Boy Scouts of America; among many other honors.

Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill

Sherrilyn Ifill is the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the nation’s premier civil rights law organization fighting for racial justice and equality. LDF was founded in 1940 by legendary civil rights lawyer (and later Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall and became a separate organization from the NAACP in 1957. The lawyers at the Legal Defense Fund developed and executed the legal strategy that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, widely regarded as the most transformative and monumental legal decision of the 20th century. Ifill is the second woman to lead the organization.

Ifill began her career as a Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union, before joining the staff of the LDF as an Assistant Counsel in 1988, where she litigated voting rights cases for five years.

In 1993 Ifill left LDF to join the faculty at University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore. Over twenty years, Ifill taught civil procedure and constitutional law to thousands of law students, and pioneered a series of law clinics, including one of the earliest law clinics in the country focused on challenging legal barriers to the reentry of ex-offenders. Ifill is also a prolific scholar who has published academic articles in leading law journals, and op-eds and commentaries in leading newspapers. Her 2007 book “On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century,” was highly acclaimed, and is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation. A 10th anniversary edition of the book was recently released with a Foreword by Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed lawyer and founder of the national lynching memorial in Montgomery, AL.

In 2013, Ifill was invited back to the Legal Defense Fund—this time to lead the organization as its 7th Director-Counsel. In that role, Ifill has increased the visibility and engagement of the organization in cutting edge and urgent civil rights issues, while maintaining the organization’s decades-long leadership fighting voter suppression, inequity in education, and racial discrimination in application of the death penalty. At critical moments during national unrest following the killing of unarmed African Americans by law enforcement officers, Ifill’s voice and vision framed the issue of policing reform and urban deprivation with powerful clarity in media appearances and public discussions. Her forceful and fact-based analysis of complex issues of racial justice has made her a sought-after speaker and strategist whose counsel is sought by government officials, civic and community leaders, and national civil rights colleagues.

Ifill graduated from Vassar College in 1984 with a B.A. in English and earned her J.D. from New York University School of Law in 1987. She has received honorary doctorates from New York University, Bard College, Fordham Law School and CUNY Law School. She serves on the board of the National Women’s Law Center, the National Constitution Center and on the Advisory board for the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a past chair of U.S. board of the Open Society Foundations, one of the largest philanthropic supporters of civil rights and liberties in the country.

She serves on the board of the Learning Policy Institute and on the Advisory Board for the Profiles in Courage Award. She is a past chair of the U.S. board of the Open Society Foundations, one of the largest philanthropic supporters of civil rights and liberties in the country.

Recent Publications


  • A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law (2018)
  • On the Courthouse Lawn (2007)
Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot

Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot

On May 20, 2019, Lori E. Lightfoot became the 56th Mayor of the City of Chicago. Her campaign’s call for an ethical and responsive government and opportunities for all Chicagoans resonated in every ward of the city.

Mayor Lightfoot carries watchwords of her campaign into office:
*Diversity & Inclusion

Mayor Lightfoot came to City Hall following a career as a manager, advocate, and reform expert, with extensive experience working at the city and federal level to make government more accountable and accessible. Before taking office, she served as a senior equity partner in the Litigation and Conflict Resolution Group at Mayer Brown LLP. While at Mayer Brown, Mayor Lightfoot took on two critical tasks for the City of Chicago, chairing the Police Accountability Task Force, and serving as president of the Chicago Police Board.

Mayor Lightfoot held other key positions in City government, as the Interim First Deputy of the Chicago Department of Procurement Services and Chief of Staff and General Counsel of the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Prior to that, Mayor Lightfoot was Assistant United States Attorney in the Northern District of Illinois criminal division, managing large-scale investigations involving criminal drug conspiracies, political corruption and bankruptcy fraud.

Mayor Lightfoot is the youngest of four children born to Elijah and Ann Lightfoot in Massillon, Ohio. With the exception of a one-year clerkship on the Michigan Supreme Court in Detroit, Mayor Lightfoot has lived in Chicago since 1986. She and her spouse, Amy Eshleman, live on the near northwest side with their daughter, Vivian.

She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Michigan and a JD from the University of Chicago Law School.

About Lori Lightfoot

An experienced manager, advocate and reform expert, Lori Lightfoot has worked at the city and federal level to make government more accountable and accessible. Taking on tough challenges and forging solutions, Lori is prepared to successfully lead the third largest city in the country. As mayor, she will work to create opportunity for every Chicagoan—regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic status, or neighborhood.

Personal Life

Committed to social justice and equity

Lori’s upbringing shaped her commitment to social justice and equity. She is the youngest of four children born to Elijah and Ann Lightfoot. Her parents were born in the late 1920s and grew up in the segregated south – Elijah from a tiny Arkansas farming community, in which his father was a sharecropper, and Ann from the hills of Alabama. After migrating to Ohio separately with their families when they were teens, her parents met at an Urban League dance. While raising their first two young children, Lori’s father became gravely ill. He spent almost a year in a coma and awoke with complete hearing loss. Witnessing her father’s struggles with his disability—and the resulting impact on her family—profoundly shaped Lori’s views on social justice and equity.

Overcoming adversity for family

Despite his hearing loss and limited education, Lori’s father worked at least two, and typically three, jobs to keep the family in stable housing and provide the basics. He worked as a janitor, barber, and handyman to earn money to support the family. Lori’s mother Ann spent her working years in low-paying jobs in mental hospitals and nursing homes, and eventually finished her work life as a home health care aide. Throughout Lori’s life, her family faced economic instability and all the obstacles typical for a family living paycheck-to-paycheck.

Nothing short of excellence

The importance of a quality education was emphasized by Lori’s parents, especially her mother. Ann Lightfoot constantly pushed Lori to excel and not to use her race, gender, or economic status as an excuse for anything short of excellence. As a result, Lori thrived academically and earned acceptance to the University of Michigan, where she graduated with honors. She paid her own way through college with loans and a series of work-study jobs. In the summers, Lori returned to her hometown and held CEDA and factory jobs to pay for college.

Making a life in Chicago

After college, Lori worked as a legislative aide for two years in Washington, D.C. She received a full scholarship to the University of Chicago Law School and moved to Hyde Park. With the exception of a one-year clerkship on the Michigan Supreme Court in Detroit, Lori has lived in Chicago since 1986. Lori and her spouse, Amy Eshleman, live on the near northwest side with their 10-year-old daughter.

Professional Experience

Most recently serving as a senior equity partner in the Litigation and Conflict Resolution Group at Mayer Brown LLP, Lori routinely managed large, complex litigation matters with teams of attorneys, expert witnesses, and others in defense of client matters. Lori also spearheaded complex internal investigations which required managing teams of attorneys, client personnel, expert witnesses and other vendors. Lori served as the co-chair of the firm’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, among other firm responsibilities.

As Chair of the Police Accountability Task Force, Lori created the organizational structure and stating, and helped facilitate the financing for the independent PATF which conducted an in-depth analysis of the practices ofthe Chicago Police Department and related entities; issued a detailed report of findings and recommendations on April 13, 2016. Lori designed a process that included significant stakeholder involvement and opportunities for public input. Many of the PATF findings and recommendations were subsequently mirrored in a DOJ report issued on January 13, 2017. Lori continues to push for implementation of key PATF recommendations.

John C. Yang

John C. Yang

John C. Yang

The president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC in Washington, D.C.

At Advancing Justice | AAJC, John leads the organization’s efforts to fight for civil rights and empower Asian Americans to create a more just America for all through public policy advocacy, education, and litigation. His extensive legal background enables Advancing Justice | AAJC to address systemic policies, programs, and legislative attempts to discriminate against and marginalize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other minority communities. Because of his expertise, John has appeared in over 50 different media outlets, including Tucker Carlson Tonight on FoxNews, PBS NewsHour, CNN, NPR, NBC News, ABC, CBS, USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Newsweek, Time Magazine, People Magazine, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, and Houston Chronicle. He has received numerous national and local awards for his community and public service.

In 1997, John co‐founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the direct service legal needs of Asian Pacific Americans in the D.C. metropolitan area. He served as chair of the Asian American Justice Center (former name of Advancing Justice | AAJC) and as general counsel for the Organization of Chinese Americans.

John was president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) from 2003 to 2004, and since 1998, he has served as Co‐Chair of NAPABA’s Judiciary and Executive Nominations & Appointments Committee. In that capacity, he has worked extensively with the White House and the U.S. Senate in securing the nomination and confirmation of over 25 Asian American and Pacific Islander federal judges and numerous other Senate‐confirmed Presidential appointments.

He served in the Obama Administration as Senior Advisor for Trade and Strategic Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where he was the principal advisor to Secretary Penny Pritzker on issues related to Asia and worked with the White House and other U.S. agencies on strategic and economics issues concerning the region. Previously, John was a partner with the Washington, D.C. law firm Wiley Rein LLP, and also worked in Shanghai, China for several years as the legal director for the Asia‐Pacific operations of Illinois Tool Works – a U.S. Fortune 200 company.

John’s other leadership positions have included: Board Member, Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights (2017–present); Executive Committee, National Council on Asian Pacific Americans (Co‐Chair, 2019‐present); Member, American Bar Association House of Delegates (2008–2018; Minority Caucus Chair, 2014–16); Member, U.S. Census Bureau National Advisory Committee on Race, Ethnicity, and Other Populations (2017‐2019); Board Member, ABA Rule of Law Initiative (2013–2017). John also has served on the external diversity councils of BB&T, Charter Communications, Comcast NBCUniversal, and Verizon.

John graduated with honors from George Washington University Law School, where he served on the George Washington Law Review and the Moot Court Board.

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Michelle Behnke

Chair, Commission on Racial & Ethnic Diversity in the Profession