Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Living Our Mission: How CLA Promotes Diversity and Inclusion in the Profession

By Ona Alston Dosunmu

CLA’s deep committment to diversifying the profession and to promoting racial justice is inextricably linked to the other elements of its mission—promoting excellence and fairness in the administration of justice and rule of law. A diverse profession paves the way for a diverse bench, and together, affords all Californians more meaningful access to justice. This long-term, mission-centered work involves a multi-faceted approach that includes resource development and outreach to support pathways into the profession, stakeholder convening, and advocacy. Over the past three years, CLA has worked to promote diversity in the profession through tireless work by our professional team in partnership with volunteer leaders. While almost all of CLA’s volunteer leadership is united in its support for diversity, two committees have led the charge. CLA’s Diversity Outreach Committee, (co-charied by Monique D. Jewett-Brewster and Somita Basu) is focused on expanding and deepening CLA’s relationships with external stakeholders who share CLA’s vision of a bar and bench that mirror the unique and broad diversity in our state. CLA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, (chaired by Sean Hecht ), is focused on getting our own proverbial house in order by examining barriers to inclusion in our internal policies, structures and practices and encouraging the adoption of policies to promote a more diverse CLA leadership. Over the last several years, a variety of events have led to an increased emphasis on racial justice. Attacks on Black Americans, Asian Americans and others received a higher level of attention by the media, and ultimately led to a long overdue emphasis on reforms to increase racial equity. Last year, in the wake the murder of George Floyd, CLA expanded its work to form a Racial Justice Committee (RJC). RJC was formed by merging the separate efforts of two Sections, Criminal Law and Litigation. The committee has four co-leaders, two from each Section: Adrieannette Ciccone and Terrance Evans from the Litigation Section and Leif Dautch and Marjaneh Maroufi from the Criminal Law Section. This third leg of the stool supporting our committement to a more diverse and inclusive community of lawyers has the benefit of tying together our goals of promoting excellence as well as fairness in the administration of justice and the rule of law.

Since its conception in June 2020, the RJC has hosted more than 20 educational programs and events for the public and legal community. The RJC focused its early programming on story sharing among legal professionals to help the legal community understand the realities faced by many of our colleagues of color. During its first Town Hall event on June 24, 2020, the CLA community heard from civil rights attorney, Adante Pointer, in addition to CLA members Otis Bruce, Jr., Terrance Evans, Demetria Graves, and Diane Jackson McLean. Another Town Hall event, held on July 27, focused on the intersectionality of race and sexual identity—the panelists, Hon. Victoria Kolakowski, Deputy Attorney General Basil Williams and Anjali Rimi, shared stories about both their personal and professional lives through the lens of their LGBTQ+ identities. The RJC went on to consider the role of race in our criminal justice system and heard from John Burris on August 18 to learn about racial bias obstacles in selecting and litigating police misconduct cases. As the pandemic endured, the Committee explored the disparate impact of the pandemic on communities of color. In 2021, it began pursuing programs about specific minority communities including an event about Judaism and its history in pursuing social change, the experiences of African Americans in the armed forces, and the hate crimes and genocide against the Armenian community. The RJC continues to seek opportunities to bring attention and understanding to some of the deeply rooted issues in our country and state which continue to contribute to a lack of racial and civic equity. There is a nexus between CLA’s commitment to increasing diversity and inclusion in the profession, racial justice and the other components of our mission. We cannot be serious about promoting excellence if we are not taking advantage of all of the potential talent available to become future legal and jurisprudential leaders. Who knows whether we, as a nation, have missed out on the next Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. because a young Latinx, Black or first-generation immigrant did not have the educational and social opportunities that would make a career in the law feel within their reach? The administration of justice can hardly be deemed “fair” and the “rule of law” cannot prevail if whole categories of people are receive differential treatment at every step in the criminal justice process—from arrest (or execution under the color of law by those sworn to uphold it)—to decisions about whether to prosecute to sentencing.

CLA is not alone its recommittment to the national promise of “ . . . liberty and justice for all.” The California Judges Association (CJA) recently created a Taskforce on Eliminating Bias in Inequality in the Justice System. This task force is charged with working to confront and to eradicate bias and inequality in our justice system through education, training, new proposed legislation, data collection and analysis. In April 2021, CLA and CJA joined forces to host a program featuring Isabel Wilkerson, the author of the New York Times best-seller, Caste: The Origins of our Discontent. In the area of convening relevant stakeholders, CLA is particularly pleased to be partnering with the Judicial Council and CJA to host the Judicial Diversity Summit. This event has been held every five years since 2006 to assess the efforts to increase judicial diversity in California, and to make recommendations for future activities and initiatives to diversify the judiciary. This year the summit will be entitled “Stronger Together: Judicial Diversity Summit 2021”, and will be held remotely on three Tuesday evenings at 4:30 p.m. on September 14, 21 and 28. Leading up to the Summit, the sponsoring organizations will be hosting a series of events in August and September including a kick off on August 4, at 5pm which will reflect on the progress made over the past 15 years. In addition, a number of affinity bar associations will host weekly sessions to address different facets of the pathway to the bench. These lead-up events will take place at noon on August 11, August 18, August 18, August 25 and September 8. Earlier this year, on February 5, CLA convened 25 organizations around the state and country that are working to build smoother pathways into the profession for historically under-represented groups. This extraordinary meeting was the first of its kind and brought together groups that are working toward the same goal—some of whom had never met or collaborated before. We need to ask what we, as a profession, are inadvertently doing to perpetuate inequalities (either structurally in society at large or as a legal community) that impacts the pathway to the profession for under-represented groups or access to justice for everyone. This is some of the critical work CLA is undertaking through its DEI, Diversity Outreach and Racial Justice Committees. Any member is welcome and invited to join us. Committee applications are available and will be considered in August. Ona Alston Dosunmu is the C.E.O. & Executive Director of the California Lawyers Association.

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