MLAC conference explores expanding racial equity in legal aid
Nearly 200 legal aid lawyers and staff gathered in Boston to learn and share strategies for increasing racial equality in legal aid organizations and the communities they serve. The day-long conference, “Disrupting Cycles of Inequity,” included national experts on implicit bias and racial equity and advocates for immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.
“These topics are challenging, but essential to the work we do in civil legal aid,” said Tonysha Taylor, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. Taylor, who created the July conference, invited people to “lean into the discomfort” of these difficult conversations to learn ways to increase equity in their workplaces and in society as a whole.Rachel Godsil, director of research and cofounder of the Perception Institute and a professor at Rutgers Law School, delivered the day’s keynote address on implicit bias – unconscious judgments an individual makes that are linked to each person’s upbringing and social environment. These background thoughts, she said, affect people’s decision-making and day-to-day interactions in ways that may be at odds with their conscious values. She offered strategies people can use to begin to override their subconscious thoughts to create better relationships and to promote excellence in legal offices and representation.
“Peer-to-peer contact is the only way to reduce implicit bias,” Godsil said. However, people can also work to reduce and override their biases to break the links between unconscious thoughts and behavior, she said.
Building on Godsil’s presentation, New York civil rights lawyer Milo Primeaux led a workshop on how to build workplaces that welcome people’s many identities into the office. A white, transgender man, Primeaux spoke of the different treatment he has received when people perceive him as “a white dude with a beard and a law degree” compared to when he is introduced as a queer transgender person. When people – and whole organizations – work to challenge their implicit biases and their beliefs, they can begin to create change, embrace diversity, and move toward inclusion, he said. “Inclusion is activated diversity. It puts diversity to work in a way that is innovative and beautiful.”The conference took place on the campus of Simmons University in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood. Two Simmons administrators led a workshop about how people can be allies and accomplices in creating diverse and inclusive organizations. Sasha Goodfriend is Simmons’ Assistant Director of Communications & Public Affairs, as well as president of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Organization of Women and Chair of the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ youth. She shared the story of Mass NOW’s decision to recreate its board of directors to replace what had been an overwhelming white board of older women with a mixed race, multi-age board that also included representatives from the LGBTQ community.
Debra Pérez, Senior Vice President of Organizational Culture, Inclusion & Equity at Simmons, recounted how Simmons has changed its hiring practices to attract and retain more staff and faculty of color. She advised that employees at every level of an organization can seek to have an impact on an organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts, recommending people ask themselves, “What is within my authority to change?”
Sarang Sekhavat, federal policy director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, led a discussion about advocating for immigrant communities and navigating changing federal immigration policy. Sekhavat highlighted the growing challenges that low-income immigrants face—including threats of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests, misconceptions surrounding public benefits, and the potential loss of housing because of new Department of Housing and Urban Development policy. Additionally, Sekhavat said that because the Trump Administration has deemed all undocumented immigrants “removable” by ICE, people who apply for legal permanent resident status run the risk of deportation if they are denied. One silver lining for these communities is that the administration has not provided guidance to local agents on how to proceed with new policies, which has limited their impact, Sekhavat said.The Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s workshop, Internal Organizational Alignment for Race Equity, focused on creating racial justice within organizations that promote it externally. Kimberly Merchant, the Center’s Racial Justice Institute director, challenged people to do more than just be aware of diversity issues. Instead, they should be competent in discussing racial justice and bold enough to advocate for equity—especially when it’s difficult. “Everyone has some leadership within them,” said Merchant.
Ellen Hemley, the Center’s vice president of advocate resources and training, shared the experience of the Shriver Center staff; their history of overlooking racial inequity within the organization; and their long, intentional process of creating change. She detailed a number of strategies and tools for addressing internal issues, including a frank self-assessment of an organization’s racial equity.
Cheryl Sharp of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities and Robyn Gibson of YW Boston each led workshops on the challenges of pursuing equity in the workplace—specifically the legal profession. Sharp’s workshop addressed the unique challenges that intersectionality poses for women of color as they face prejudice in the courtroom and navigate relationships with co-workers and supervisors in white, male-dominated workplaces. Gibson focused on racial bias, and identified different ways race affects a work environment. By asking participants to reflect on their own identities and positions of privilege, Gibson illustrated that everyone has a stake in pursuing racial equity. We are “doing the work for our own liberation,” said Gibson.
Top photo: Joanna Allison, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Jacquelynne Bowman, executive director of Greater Boston Legal Services.
Photos by Elbert John.