Chair's Column: Let the hard conversations begin…

By Hal Katz, Husch Blackwell LLP, Austin, TX

As most of you know, one of my four priorities for the year is to increase the Health Law Section’s awareness of racial, gender, and ethnic inequities, and implement remediation initiatives. While the Section has a long history of embracing the importance of diversity and inclusion, I believe as lawyers we have a larger role to play in addressing inequities within our profession and in our own communities, and I am committed to doing this work.

Last month, the Governing Council had its first monthly business meeting of the Bar Year, which included a new diversity and inclusion standing agenda item. The topic focused on racial inequity, and a 20-minute segment of a podcast was played.  While much effort was made to select content that would be viewed as balanced and non-controversial, I received feedback that has helped me appreciate even more the importance of meeting people where they are today. Some of the feedback included the following:

“Why are we using time during our Council meeting to discuss racial equity instead of Council business?”

“Why aren’t we focusing on the more traditional diversity and inclusion initiatives, like implicit bias training?”

“I don’t think Council meetings are the place to have these kinds of discussions. These types of discussions should be occurring at a community level, not in our Council meetings.”

These are great questions and comments, and I wish they would have come up during our meeting. I recognize that talking about our opinions, feelings, and beliefs can be challenging in almost every setting and many of us struggle with constructive criticism on work projects, both giving and receiving. Even with great effort and awareness, rarely does it go as well as desired.  It can bring about feelings of being attacked, unappreciated, disrespected, or unheard, which can lead to anger, pain, sadness, and fear. For the Section to be successful in all of our efforts, we will need to be able to have honest and open discussions. My intent is to create an environment where people feel safe to share opinions and beliefs, and I ask for your help in creating this space.

I’m relying on my head and my heart to guide my judgment on how best to proceed with these efforts. Like most of us, I have had no formal training in facilitating these conversations, nor am I an expert on the topic.  I’ve been working closely with the Section’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee to get its valuable input and recommendations. My commitment to you is that we leave politics out of the discussion and out of the materials used during this process. I ask that you extend your trust to me as we navigate this process together, and be patient and forgiving as we learn our way forward.

As we approach these discussions, I think it is helpful to recognize that many people struggle with the existence of racism and other forms of prejudices, which can occur with and without conscious awareness and intent. To admit there is racism or prejudices in our society could imply that they are a bad person, or the beneficiary of bad actions. Admitting there are historic racism and prejudices can also be challenging if they haven’t been experienced or witnessed first-hand. Just like we don’t need to be in the woods when a tree falls to know it makes a sound, we don’t need to personally experience or witness these injustices to accept they occur on a scale larger than what can be seen. 

I know it’s impossible not to be influenced by our own life experiences when forming our opinions.  What town or city we grew up in, what our family members believed, and our friends over the years have all shaped our opinions. Without our own experiences in these areas, it’s hard for us to be empathetic. We all have examples of learning this lesson in other aspects of life – like having a family member dealing with dementia, substance use disorders, loss of their life’s savings, or other tragic event. I hope you can draw upon your own life lesson to have an open heart and an open mind in these discussions.

No one had a choice to be born into the bodies within which we go through life (be it female, male, Asian, White, Black, etc.). It’s undeniable that we have a history of treating those bodies differently. The only question that remains is the extent to which it continues today, and how we eliminate any remaining disparate treatment. That is the focus of our work this year.

No matter how challenging it may be, I am committed to this undertaking. I appreciate everyone’s support, and am always open to your feedback.

Be well! 

*****

As promised in my last column, in recognition of the Section’s 25th Anniversary, I am sharing pictures from memorable moments over the years. I hope you’ll enjoy the road down memory lane. Looking forward to when we can create new memorable moments, in-person!

This photo was taken at Church Hill Downs during the 2009 Spring Governing Council Meeting held in Louisville, Kentucky.

This photo was taken at Church Hill Downs during the 2009 Spring Governing Council Meeting held in Louisville, Kentucky.

Front row: Sena Leach, Shelley Hubner, Vickie Yates Brown Glisson
Second row: Dave Leach, Jill Pena, Marylou Patterson, Alexandria McCombs, Joan Hilgers, David Hilgers, Robin Pemberton, David Douglass, Sheila Conneen, Kim Wall
Last row: Linda Klein, Diane Clark, Simeon Carson, David Johnson, Tony Patterson, Christi Braun, Linda Baumann, Howard Wall, Bill Horton, Andy Demetriou, Judilyn Horton, Hal Katz, Bob Hubner, Marc Meyer, Erin Coleman, Greg Pemberson, Bob Nelson, Eugene Holmes