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February 17, 2023

Small Changes, Big Impact – Why Leadership Matters

Doing Our Part to Create a 21st Century DEI Culture!

By: Judith Wright


  • Sharon R. Barner, Chief Administrative Officer, Cummins, Inc.
  • Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster, MD, MSc, Associate Dean, Office of Diversity Education and Research, State University of New York, Downstate Health Sciences University
  • Hon. Luz Elena D. Chapa, Justice Fourth Court of Appeals, State of Texas
  • Mark A. Kressel, Partner, Horvitz & Levy
  • Hon. Stephen David, Justice Indiana Supreme Court (ret.)

A summary of this engaging session cannot capture the riveting nature of the unspoken interaction between the speakers and the audience. A quiet, palpable connection occurred between those in the room – somewhere between a deep and sincere gratitude for the panelists who were willing to share their personal reckonings with discrimination and a bolstered resolve to collectively pursue a profession where diversity, equity and inclusion are givens.

An Impactful and Inspirational Commitment to Fostering Others  

The first speaker was Sharon Barner. A lawyer for 40 years, Barner shared that facing the ins and outs of her story have made her a stronger, more whole-hearted person. She has translated her personal experiences into a lifelong commitment to foster and mentor others for the good of her profession and society as a whole.

Barner’s parents engrained in her a truth that education was the means for improving one’s station in life, but that as a Black girl, she need to work harder and be better than others to achieve her goals. This belief came to bear when her high school counselor refused to write a letter of recommendation for college applications, telling Barner that despite her high academic achievements, class leadership and other significant accomplishments, she did not have requisite qualifications to be successful in college. Undaunted, and confident in her expectations for herself, Barner successfully applied to the college of her choice where she earned her degree with honors.

Originally interested in a career in medicine, Barner’s focus shifted after an impactful political science class helped her frame the civil rights movement she had observed as a child. The ideal of equal treatment for all in the eyes of the law spurred her inspiration to become a lawyer. Barner soon learned the power of legal skills and leveraged them from her platform of economic security, a professional network, and a strong reputation for competence. Yet subtleties in her legal career arose such as supervisors expecting more hours from Barner because she was an unmarried female, and supervisors withholding a bonus to her in favor of a male colleague because he supported a family. 

Through advancing her career, Barner became determined to mold her experiences to create opportunities and open doors for others across racial, ethnic and gender lines. She sought positions on her firms’ hiring committees to increase the pool of minority candidates. She made sure minority associates were given challenging case assignments to build skills and to seal relationships with powerful clients. She positioned herself in the partner selection process to ensure quality minority candidates were promoted.

When called, Barner chose to serve in the administration of President Barak Obama where she put the same mentoring skills to work. During her term as deputy director at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, she influenced a 30% increase in women in management positions.

Barner was attracted to her current company, Cummins, Inc., because of the company’s long-term culture built around social responsibility and equal opportunity. The company was an active player in the civil rights movement, threatening to leave its hometown if the practice of racial redlining was not discontinued. In the 1970s, Cummins pulled its profitable operations out of South Africa in protest of apartheid. The company began offering domestic partner benefits more than twenty years ago.      

Barner has continued to foster diversity in her corporate role, hiring and mentoring broadly among race, gender, ethnicity and nationality. With a legal staff of 90 lawyers across the globe, half of whom are located outside the U.S., Cummins views the diversity of Barner’s assembled talent pool as a strategic advantage for its international operations. In her current role, Barner continues this hiring strategy across all administrative functions of the company. 

Throughout her career, in all her varied positions, Barner has relentlessly maintained a focus on providing career opportunities for others. In mentoring a broad base of promising individuals, she has shown the power of assembling a diverse talent pool. She has proven the impactful business advantage of tapping top talent across the spectrum of society.         

A Stirring Reminder of Every Lawyer’s Duty   

Dr. Carla Boutin-Foster then took the podium to share her perspective on the obligation of the legal profession to meet the collective and individual oath to serve others. She compared the words of the Hippocratic Oath to the oath taken by lawyers when sworn in to the practice. While the lawyers’ oath varies by state, Boutin-Foster pointed out that all contain some version of the obligation to serve all people. She asserted that all lawyers, as a matter of professionalism and commanded by the code of conduct, have a moral duty to pursue a just society.

She cited wording from some of the oaths for attorneys:

  • Arizona: “I will never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed.”
  • South Carolina: “I will assist the defenseless or oppressed by assuring that justice is available to all citizens.”

Boutin-Foster spoke to the impact of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and related events. In response, medical students and faculty throughout the country collectively called on their schools to issue statements to respond to racism and to demand justice. Medical professionals recognized that calling out racism and demanding change were an integral part of meeting the oath they had taken.

Boutin-Foster drew a direct parallel to the legal profession, citing the June 2020 statement by the ABA taking a public stand for justice and fairness in response to Floyd’s murder. While such condemnations are meaningful and necessary, Boutin-Foster asserted that statements to “stand by” those who are unjustly treated is alone insufficient to meet one’s obligation as a doctor or lawyer. She called on anchor institutions in the medical and legal professions to lead by example, to take bold action, and to be proactive in working to ensure that everyone in their communities is served and treated justly.    

She emphasized the concept of equity – that everyone should have equal opportunity for success. As an example, she discussed health inequities that came to the forefront during the pandemic. Many Black communities experienced high rates of mortality, not because of race, but due to combined social determinants of poverty, food insecurity, crowded housing, and in some communities, inequitable distribution of vaccines.    

Foster-Boutin then challenged the audience to pursue proactive means to address legal inequities that result from the same social determinants. She challenged the professions to examine their institutions as a means for creating new opportunities and promoting an expanded level of excellence. She asserted that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are an integral part of raising the bar for professions. The perspective of the profession is naturally expanded by widening the range of individuals who are invited to participate. Bringing diverse individuals into professions, paving paths for opportunity, and fostering their advancement into leadership positions are integral steps in serving all and making for a just society.      

She stressed the importance of mentorship in advancing excellence in a profession. She challenged lawyers to speak to young students to explain the role of the profession and to plant seeds of career interest and possibility at an age well before the individuals begin to experience the legal system.

Foster-Boutin posited that lawyers are often in a direct position to influence change in inequitable policies. She cited the legal profession’s historical and impactful role in bringing about reforms in eliminating redlining, creating opportunities for immigrants, providing protections for individuals with disabilities, and securing marital rights for gay individuals. 

Foster-Boutin then discussed a topic that Barner had shared in summarizing her talk. They each spoke to the importance of recognizing and reflecting on their own biases and prejudices. Foster-Boutin emphasized that everyone has unconscious biases. She invited audience members to REACT to their individual implicit prejudices: Reflect on experiences, Educate ourselves, Assess information/data, Call attention to inequitable policy, Treat everyone with respect. Likewise, Barner acknowledged that her life experiences impact her decision making, but that conscious recognition of her personal biases and prejudices makes for better and more meaningful decisions.

Foster-Boutin’s final challenge to the audience was to revisit their individual oaths, to recommit to justice for everyone, and to not remain silent in the face of injustice. She called on lawyers to galvanize and to work collectively to make changes necessary for the good of the defenseless and the oppressed.

The Power of Examining Implicit Biases

Justice Luz Elana Chapa rounded out the panel, sharing some of her experiences as a Latina lawyer and judge. She, too, reflected on the George Floyd case and its direct impact on the AJEI organization. In mid-2020, the leadership opted to hold a webinar about the social unrest that was occurring across the country. Chapa’s experience in leading that project led her to examine her own implicit biases. She reflected on her family’s immigrant roots and her upbringing in a Hispanic community where most people looked like her. Chapa first experienced a diverse culture when as a young lawyer she took a position in Washington, D.C. There she came to reckon with a personal lack of experience in interacting with Black persons. She knew from her personal experience that acknowledging and talking about individual biases would be a critical element in addressing the webinar topics surrounding racism.

Chapa credits her success to mentors throughout her career who helped her navigate through difficult circumstances. She experienced sexual harassment; she has dealt with racial discrimination. She told the audience she is inspired by her sense of obligation to the public at large and to her children to pursue diversity and equity in the legal profession. She is called by her position to actively address injustice.

Like Barner and Foster-Boutin, Chapa devotes substantial effort to mentoring and helping others to feel included. Believing that lawyers and judges are the heart of democracy, she challenged the audience to have courage to stand up to injustice.        

The Importance of Diversity in Carrying Out Justice

Mark Kressel took advantage of the remaining time to ask some questions of the speakers. He first asked for advice for audience members who feel frustrated by insufficient progress in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Barner referred to individuals who have given their lives for causes and told those who are frustrated to get some rest, then to get back to work. Foster-Boutin agreed that there is much work to yet be done and recommended that people actively seek out and work with allies to achieve common goals. She also advised demonstrating the need for change through collection and use of data.

Kressel also asked how DEI initiatives in the court system impact the experiences of parties who appear in court. Chapa stressed the importance for judges to lead by example and to influence in their local jurisdictions with a positive narrative and civil discourse. Barner shared that most citizens believe in democracy and they place their trust in lawyers and judges to carry out the law. Diversity in those who carry out justice and the law reaps further trust in the democratic system. Foster-Boutin emphasized that the next generation is inspired by and relies on the promise of diversity, equity and inclusion. 

In discussion with audience members after this session, numerous individuals wondered about the exact words of the oaths they had taken when admitted to the bar. This presentation led the author, and hopefully most other attendees, to revisit those words and translate them to the current call to the profession. Every attorney has an obligation to fulfill the oath and to pursue justice for all.

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Judith Wright

Kelley School of Business at Indiana University

Judith Wright is a Clinical Professor of Business Law and Ethics and Senior Mosaic Fellow at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University.