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June 01, 2016

Q & A Paulette Brown, 2015-2016 ABA President

I met President Paulette Brown about a year ago, during SOGI’s annual business meeting, held at the ABA offices in Washington, D.C. Pres. Brown not only introduced herself and the plans for her term, but she also sat-in on portions of SOGI’s business meeting, making it clear that she was interested and committed to SOGI’s work and role within the ABA. When we took a walk to buy stronger and better coffee than what the ABA caterer offered, our conversation waw light and comvortable. Therefore, when SOGI's Director, Malcolm "Skip" Harsch emailed me asking whether I would be interested in interviewing Pres. Brown for SOGI's newsletter- The Equalizer - I jumped at the chance.

President Paulette Brown is the first African American woman to serve as president of the American Bar Association. With her term mearing its end, SOGI was pleased to interview her about her tenure as president, and in particular, about her diversity and inclusion work. Our conversation during the morning of June 16, 2016 began with Pres. Brown's path to this historic position. Here's what she had to say1 about getting to this place:

So, I didn’t start off looking to be that [the first African American woman president], obviously. I’ve been around the ABA since I graduated from law school in 1976. I’ve done a number of different things within the ABA. I’ve been in the House of Delegates since 1997 and I have served on the Governance Commission and the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors. When I sat on the Program, Planning, and Evaluation committee of the Board of Governors, I learned about every single entity in the ABA. And so that gave me such an in-depth knowledge. Then, I had an opportunity to chair that committee and be on the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors, which gave me a lot of additional training and insight into what other roles I might be able to play within the American Bar Association. I also listened when people suggested that I run for higher office within the ABA.

I had developed initiatives along the way and I also served as president of the National Bar Association, which helped with my leadership skills as well. I also needed support from real key people, like my firm, my family, and other leaders within the ABA.

TJ: What does it mean to you that you hold this position, especially in light of where we are in the light of where we are in the United States in terms of the elections, the mass killing of LGBT people at Pulse Nightclub, and Black Lives Matter. Do you think of your work in that context as well?
I think about the fact that the American Bar Association has so many policies concerning anti-discrimination. I think about the fact that Goal III is to enhance diversity and inclusion in the profession and I think about all the other things we have in place as an organization that allow us to speak and advocate about various issues when it comes to not discriminating against any particular group of people. I think that because of Goal III and these policies, we can be a strong voice in some of these issues. Now, the ABA doesn’t become involved in any type of political issues, but there are some things that transcend political issues, and we will continue to speak about those issues.

TJ: I think that’s a really important point that you made about the ABA’s extensive policies and commitment to antidiscrimination and diversity and inclusion. The ABA is positioning attorneys to do the work that attorneys have always done in the U. S., for as long as there have been attorneys, which is working to bring equal rights and protection to people.  
I want to shift a little bit to your analysis of your tenure as president. What you think has been your greatest accomplishment?
  I don’t like to think of “greatest.” I am pleased about certain things that have happened that are tangible, that will have long-lasting effects, I hope.  We developed an interactive online toolkit for young lawyers that is constantly updated. At Midyear, we rolled out the portion of the toolkit that is for lawyers with 0-3 years’ experience and we will roll out portion for lawyers with 3-6 years’ experience in August. Lawyers with 6-9 and 9-12 years’ experience will also have access to the toolkit. The online toolkit addresses the issue of young lawyers having to hang out their own shingles, but other lawyers will also benefit from it. I’m really proud that we were able to do that and that we designed the toolkit to not just a book that we sit on a shelf, but that it is something that can updated on a constant basis, keeping it alive and relevant and keep it live and relevant.

I’m also really pleased about And Justice for All and ABA Day of Service, which launched during National Pro Bono Week. We had tens of thousands of lawyers dedicate their time to providing free services to people who could not afford them. I hope these efforts will continue. We provide free member benefits for all of our members every day of the year through our ABA Every Day program. I think that is something that will continue.  I’m really proud of my commitment to going to all 50 states to connect with our members. I will go to my 50th state on July 27th. I also go to the Boys and Girls Club in most the states. I’ve gone to about 33 Boys and Girls Clubs so far.

And then, finally, my Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360. I asked them to do an extraordinary amount of work within a one-year time period and we will come away at the end of this year with numerous tangibles from our four working groups: (1) looking internally at the ABA (2) pipeline (3) economic case and (4) implicit bias. All of them will have tangible products that will have an impact far into the future.

We also created videos on implicit bias. We rolled out a video for judges in February 2016 which actually won a big award - a Telley award. We won second place-bronze out of about 13,000 applicants. We will have videos for prosecutors and public defenders, and training materials to go along with it.  There’s a new Diversity and Inclusion portal on the ABA website where people can go and get almost anything they need for diversity and inclusion.

So, I'm more pleased about all of those things.  I could go on, but I'm limited on time.

TJ: Congratulations on the Telley award!  It's extremely important the implicit bias videos target attorneys within the criminal justice system because it is a system that has very long lasting effects on people's lives.  
What do you think are the next steps for the
Diversity 360 Commission after your tenure?
The Commission sunsets on August 9th, but we have homes for the various components to make sure that things continue to be implemented and have long-lasting impact and to make sure policy proposals become ABA policy.

TJ: What's your impression of SOGI?
: SOGI has been really important to the Diversity 360 Commission. Skip and Jim [James] Holmes, who formerly chaired SOGI, are on the Commission. What we tried to include on the 360 Commission people from all aspects of the profession, people with disabilities, academics, all sorts of people, so we could have as many perspectives as possible. Jim Holmes will tell you how I have crashed SOGI meetings and I think you were there at one of one those meetings I crashed.

One of the things that I think is really important that SOGI has been able to do bring to light the heightened impact of discrimination and bias on LGBT people, LGBT people of color, and transgender people. SOGI has also done a lot of work on bullying especially in school, which is something that we [at the 360 Commission] have looked at, through our pipeline discussions. SOGI has highlighted the high rates of suspension and expulsion of LGBT students, which we have tried to incorporate into our pipeline working group. SOGI also had the 2015 Advocacy Day, in which I also participated. I view SOGI as an example for other entities that want to have their separate ABA Day [in Washington, D.C.]. I say, “You should talk to SOGI because they really know how to be effective.”


Chicago Attorney and Ph.D Student in Sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago SOGI Commissioner