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Graphic: Best Practices In Pro Bono Difficult Conversations On Racial Justice Panel Collage

Best Practices in Pro Bono: Difficult Conversations on Racial Justice

By Amelia Patrick

The racial justice reckoning that began last year set the stage for many crucial, yet difficult, conversations about how we move forward toward a just and equitable society. On Monday, July 26th, we continued this important discussion through our Best Practices in Pro Bono Series virtual panel event.

Paul Lee, Pro Bono Counsel at Steptoe & Johnson LLP, led our conversation with:

  • Sabrina-Yvette d’Almeida, Chief Talent & Equity Officer, Children’s Law Center
  • Rachel Rintelmann, Acting Deputy Legal Director, The Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
  • Jaya Saxena, Global Diversity Senior Manager, White & Case
  • Kathleen (Kitty) Wach, Pro Bono Counsel, Miller & Chevalier

Paul began the conversation with his belief that pro bono work can be a way to promote anti-racism. However, for lawyers to do so they must first understand antiracism. Our panel used the National Museum of African American History and Culture definition of antiracism to ground our conversation and provide a shared understanding of what we meant when we used the term antiracism.

“No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do.”

Framing the conversation around choices and actions resonated with the panel and audience, and set up a framework for discussion. The panelists briefly began by sharing context about their backgrounds, because all people view the world and race, in particular, through their own lived experiences. Sabrina-Yvette is a black woman whose father is an immigrant. She continually interacts with antiracism as her job combines the roles of an organization’s human resource officer and the head of diversity and inclusion. This combination ensures that there are equitable outcomes within an organization’s systems and structures; she believes that more human resource officers should have diversity and inclusion training.

Rachel introduced herself first as a lifelong learner, especially when it comes to race relations. Growing up she learned about racism through the stories her parents, an interracial couple, told her and by watching the way people treated her black friends and family. Her father is black, and her mother was white. Growing up, she viewed the stories about the overt racism her parents – especially her father – experienced as relics of the past. As she got older, Rachel came to understand that racism is still prevalent and systemic. This understanding connects to her antiracism work, as she now makes a conscious choice to incorporate antiracist advocacy in her work with low-income individuals of color.

Jaya also acknowledged that personal life circumstances change the way we view the world when she referenced her struggle to juggle two cultures as the child of South Asian immigrants. She often felt like an outsider, and thus, her current job as a diversity and inclusion strategist, who ensures that all individuals are included and valued across all aspects of an organization, allows her to help others avoid similar painful situations. In this role, she encourages daily conversations between employees about race and racial differences in comfortable spaces with no fear of judgment.

Kitty’s family is also unique and has had transformative impacts on her view of the world. Kitty is a white D.C. native who grew up with a black, adopted sister from the foster care system, and she, in turn, adopted two black children from the D.C. foster care system. Through conversations and interactions with her sister and her sons (who are now adults), she has seen how they were treated as minorities in the U.S. and understands the need for all individuals to hold themselves to a vigilant standard of antiracism.

Paul agreed that there should be a vigilant push towards antiracism, as he is the child of two immigrants from Korea who has experienced racism throughout his life. He highlighted that one way antiracism can manifest is through pro bono work. One resource for connecting lawyers with these opportunities is the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA). Formed last year to help bring about systemic change and racial equity in the law, the LFAA connects lawyers and firms all across the nation to racial justice pro bono work. Paul noted that the LFAA is especially important because of the lack of racial diversity within the legal field and the difficulty that some lawyers have in finding this work.

Rachel agrees that pro bono work can promote antiracism, but she also stressed that just because a lawyer is doing pro bono work with a client of color that does not inherently mean the work itself is anti racist. For the work to be anti racist, the lawyer must intentionally become an advocate. Viewing pro bono work as an opportunity to learn about a client’s lived experiences can teach the lawyer more about our nation’s racist institutions, and thus, about how they can be better advocates.

One key to successful antiracism pro bono work is cultural humility. All of the panelists advocated for diversity and inclusion training, not only for lawyers about to take part in pro bono work but for all legal professionals. Rachel noted that it is helpful to bring in an expert to facilitate these training sessions as an educated outside voice. Sabrina-Yvette commented that during these training sessions she likes to begin by asking questions that allow people to realize how their personal identity shapes their view of the world. This understanding of who you are and who others are in relation to U.S. institutions is the first step towards antiracism. Creating a safe space during these training sessions to promote these conversations without judgment or fear is also vital to building cultural humility.

Another major part of attaining cultural humility is the personal agency to educate oneself. There should be no expectation of those hurt by racism to teach others; instead, individuals must actively seek out further knowledge for themselves. There is a wealth of books, podcasts, and other resources on this topic. Some of the panelists’ favorite resources can be found at the bottom of this post.

The panel ended with wise words encouraging pro bono lawyers to practice self-care, as this can be draining work. Sabrina-Yvette and Jaya both reminded us that these problems will not go away overnight and encouraged everyone to take time to care for themselves personally, whether that be through meditation, exercising, or another hobby so that they can have the energy to continue this work for the long haul. Rachel emphasized the importance of forgiving oneself for mistakes and moving on from these mistakes because you cannot help anyone if you are stuck in the past. Finally, Kitty stressed the importance of creating friendships with people you can safely talk to about these difficult issues. Paul reminded us that Washington Council of Lawyers is a wonderful place to make those supportive friendships, so please join!

Our panelists shared some excellent resources to get familiarize you with the issues and provide background for these continuing discussions. This list is not exhaustive, and we invite you to share resources you’ve found helpful on social media using #BestPractices.

Articles, Podcasts, and Websites

Books

Movies

There are many resources that can help us better appreciate different perspectives, gain a better understanding of our history, and forge new ways forward. These are just a few!

Amelia Patrick is our 2021 Summer Intern.

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