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Chair's Column: Belonging in the Health Law Section

By John H McEniry IV, Fagron North America, Fairhope, AL

Belonging is a basic human need. It is a sense of psychological safety and security.  We all – no matter our background, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, race – have a need to feel a sense of belonging. 
Belonging is tied to dignity, and the ability to live without shame.
  -Montrece M. Ransom

I attended my first event with the Health Law Section approximately 15 years ago.  The one thing that really struck me about that experience was the friendliness of everyone at the event.  It wasn’t just the Section leaders and staff, by the way.  It was also the folks who were not part of the formal welcoming committee, including the event’s speakers and just about every attendee whom I had the pleasure of meeting.  It felt like one big, happy family.  I was not accustomed to such a feeling at a professional event.  I was drawn to it.  I felt like I belonged.  From that day forward, I have chosen to spend my time and efforts with this family.  I have been rewarded both professionally and personally for that choice.

I have always assumed – and as a Section leader, expected – that the Section would provide a similar experience to others who chose to give their time and talents to it.  And, by and large, I believe the Section’s leaders, members, and staff provide an exceptionally welcoming and friendly experience that is atypical of most professional associations.  The Section has long supported the larger ABA’s initiative, known as Goal III, which promotes diversity and inclusion within the ABA and the legal profession.  Indeed, the Section enthusiastically followed both the letter and spirit of Goal III long before it was a requirement of ABA Sections, Divisions, and Forums.

Though we’ve had the best of intentions, we have arguably not done enough to create an environment in which every person feels like they belong.  We have unknowingly failed to offer a place where every person, regardless of their background, race, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity, feels like they have an equal opportunity in all aspects of the Section’s vast opportunities and offerings, be it serving as a leader, a speaker, a writer, a contributor to other professional development opportunities offered through the Section, or even a contributor to social activities for which the Section is well-known. 

Our failures as a Section are indicative of the profession in which we practice.  We are a microcosm of a profession which has historically struggled with inclusivity and belongingness for people of all backgrounds.  Recent events have opened our eyes to systemic issues present in all aspects of our society, including law and healthcare.  We are now on notice.  We can no longer knowingly or unknowingly allow systemic racism and prejudice to inhibit what is fundamentally fair and just for every person.  One can never belong, or feel a sense of belonging, in such a system.  As a Section and as a profession, we must act.

Following quite a bit of introspection and a thorough assessment of all Section activities and offerings, I am proud to report that Section Officers, Governing Council (which is akin to a company’s Board of Directors), and other leaders have taken significant and meaningful actions to better promote diversity, inclusion, fairness, and belongingness within the Section. On July 22, 2020, the Section’s Governing Council unanimously approved revisions to the Section’s bylaws wherein the Chair of the Section’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee (“D&I Committee”) will now serve as a voting member of the Section’s Governing Council.  This action guarantees that the D&I Committee will be represented and have a voice at the highest level of the Section’s governance.

Additionally, the Section’s Governing Council unanimously approved revisions to the Section’s bylaws wherein the Chair of the D&I Committee will serve as a member of the Section’s Nominating Committee.  The Section’s Nominating Committee meets to nominate Section Officers and at-large Governing Council members each year. By participating on the Section’s Nominating Committee, the Chair of the D&I Committee will guarantee that diverse candidates are given appropriate consideration for Section leadership positions in the future.

Outside of bylaw revisions, your Officers and Governing Council have taken other actions to empower and support the D&I Committee to guarantee that the D&I Committee will be an essential and visible element of the Section for many years to come.  You will hear more and see more from the D&I Committee as it expands its influence and more significantly weaves itself into the fabric of the Section.

The Section is committed to making significant and enduring change to eliminate systemic racism and prejudice which has plagued us as a society and a profession for generations.  Please join us in effectuating change.  Let’s make the Section and our profession a place where every person feels like they belong.