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May 29, 2023 Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

ABA presidents say diversity requires allies

Five ABA presidents discussed their perspectives on diversity in the legal profession and offered strategies for being an effective ally for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workforce and as a member of the ABA on the webinar, “Fireside Chat with Past, Present and Future ABA Presidents: Discussing How the Legal Profession and the ABA Can Be Effective Allies for Diversity”.

From left: Former ABA presidents James Silkenat, Paulette Brown and Judy Perry-Martinez, President Deborah Enix-Ross and President-Elect Mary Smith

From left: Former ABA presidents James Silkenat, Paulette Brown and Judy Perry-Martinez, President Deborah Enix-Ross and President-Elect Mary Smith

American Bar Association photo graphic

The 90-minute program featured President Deborah Enix-Ross, President-elect Mary Smith and past presidents James Silkenat (2013-14), Paulette Brown (2015-16) and Judy Perry Martinez (2019-20). Judge Adrienne Nelson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon moderated the discussion.

Brown, a longtime diversity officer, said her “mantra” for incorporating diversity in the workplace is “inclusion does not mean exclusion. That’s the kind of message that you have to deliver to get buy-in.

“You’re not trying to kick anybody out but you’re trying to have people understand that everyone has not been given the same sort of basic tools that others have been given,” she said. “So, let’s give people the tools that they need … that’s what equity’s about. Not just what is the same for everybody but what does this specific person need in order to succeed.”

Brown said the “privilege walk” exercise, developed to acknowledge that not everyone is starting their career from the same place, is a valuable resource for developing an appreciation for the diversity of individual backgrounds. In the exercise, participants step forward or back if a statement or question applies to them. Enix-Ross said the questions could include whether their parents went to college or were members of a country club, whether they had a nanny or housekeeper growing up or what tier law school they attended. More basic questions, Nelson added, could include whether their family had books at home or access to after-school activities, nearby parks or grocery stores.

Martinez said intersectionality is valuable when considering a role as coach, mentor, ally or sponsor. “We need all of these different roles in our lives,” she said, recalling advice she received from a colleague early in her career “He said ‘your biggest cheerleader, one day, is not going to be in the room. You need others who can speak to your abilities as well where you might fall short and how we can get you on the development track you need. You need all of those individuals to be there for you.’”

On an institutional level, the ABA offers allyship through community, opportunity and leadership, Smith said. A collaboration several years ago between the ABA and the bars of color—the National Bar Association, National Asian Pacific Bar Association, Hispanic National Bar Association and the National Native American Bar Association—to diversify the federal judiciary was successful because they had a common goal, she said.

“There was power in that allyship,” Smith said. “We are allies for each other much like the ABA is an ally for a large part of the legal profession.”

An effective ally “has a passion for the issues involved, a passion for helping someone. … Being committed and being willing to put yourself on the line for an issue or a person is what makes a difference here,” Silkenat said.

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