This is my second and final year serving as Chair of DRI’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. When I was asked to author another submission for Black History Month, I struggled with what to write as I had already placed in print one year prior my perspective on this very important month. Therefore, after some thought, I reached out to the four individuals who have inspired not only my professional journey but many journeys inside and outside the DRI community. These compelling and groundbreaking individuals graciously agreed to sit down with me to discuss Black History Month, providing their valuable insight on the importance of the month, obstacles they faced in their professional lives, and current issues that continue to plague the Black experience in the United States.
Following is my 2023 Black History Month submission, which includes my interview of DRI Past Presidents Sheryl Willert, Toyja Kelley, Douglas Burrell, as well as the incomparable Pam Carter.
What does Black History Month mean to you, and why is it important?
Black History Month is important to me because I am in favor of anything that brings attention to the historical significance of Black folks in this country. And while we joke about Black History Month being the shortest month of the year, the reality is that a lot of people do not think positively, if at all, about the significant historical contributions Black people have made and continue to make in this country the remaining eleven months of the year. The more attention that can be brought to our contributions, even if it only changes the perspective on one person, for me is worth celebrating.
Black History Month is about the celebration of the contribution of people of color to the development of this nation. People forget that the White House was built on backs of Black people. Black people did a lot of things that make this a progressive nation. For me, it is even more important to celebrate Black History Month today, as we currently live in an era that is attempting to stifle the black contributions in this country. It is unfortunate that we have a segment of the population that is interested in changing the historical narrative as it relates to the Black experience in this country.
Black History Month is extremely important because it provides an opportunity for people to learn and better understand the Black experience in America. Black History Month provides a spotlight on the Black experience that a lot of people take for granted the other eleven months of the year. It provides a unique opportunity to say, “I am here, talk to me. Let’s exchange information so you can understand that a situation may occur and you may interpret it one way and I may interpret it another.” Black History Month is about opening the door to understanding different perspectives.
What are your thoughts about the current efforts to discontinue teaching Black history to children in the United States?
My mom taught elementary school for over 25 years, and my mother was the one who went all out when it came to Black History Month. She would do humongous walls that would display Black history, identifying scientists, entrepreneurs, and entertainers from every sector within the local community. I learned more from my mother’s bulletin boards than anywhere else.
As it relates to children and education, if children do not know where they come from, how can they be proud of where they come from? Minimizing Black history in the schools is tantamount to stifling dreams. How can Black children dream if they are not educated on the obstacles their ancestors overcame, the resilience demonstrated and the ability of people under dire circumstances to find light? That is powerful and a necessary component of this nation’s history.
While it is important to celebrate the leaders we all know well, including Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B Dubois, Black History Month is more than that. It is an opportunity for all of us to take a look at all blessings in our local communities and how we can help continue to build on that.
History is about the past and the future going forward, and it should all be celebrated and taught. Failing to teach children history interferes with their ability to grow and invest in their communities. Education is vital because it shows children that they, too, can accomplish things that they might not realize are possible. History teaches about possibilities. When you teach children true history, you show them women can be members of Congress, Black people can own businesses, and their lives are not limited by their race or gender. Even at its simplest form, it shows children that their people, who look like them, are just as smart, brave, and capable as anyone else.
When it comes to education, ignoring the truth does not change the truth, and we should not hide the truth from children. Not teaching children the truth about the history of their country is such a one-sided way of looking at things. It is important to teach everybody about what slavery not only meant for Black people, but for the nation as a whole. Slavery shows how Black people took the worse sort of situations, where they were not allowed to read, hold their families together, or make an income and turned that into enormous triumph and achievements. That needs to be celebrated and taught to all children.
The movement to whitewash history amounts to intellectual dishonesty. I find it interesting that when there have been heated discussions about city and states deciding to remove confederate monuments, people were complaining that this was their “history,” and it was wrong to remove that history from their town centers. Yet, when we talk about teaching the truth about slavery, the same people who so desperately wanted to preserve their history, want to now remove our history, which in essence, is doing the very thing they were complaining about.
Every day, I am learning something new about the history of my people, and I am amazed at the vast historical contributions. To have folks wanting to silence that, while it does not surprise me, makes me sad. Sad for the children being denied access to such an abundance of knowledge and inspiration and sad for a nation that continues to be divided, in part, because they are not open to the truth.
My mother was a high school teacher, and my dad was a principal. As it relates to the notion that teaching children about slavery results in white children feeling bad, teaching of truth is never made to feel someone bad. There is no reason for any child to feel guilty for something they had no say in and were not even around when it occurred. Children can feel bad that it happened at all, but that makes the children compassionate people and should not be confused with them owning the guilt of their ancestors. There is no reason not to teach the truth about the past because it shapes our present and future. If we do not teach the truth, future generations will be ignorant, and that should not be perpetuated.
There is so much information people do not know about Black history. For example, many people do not know that Jack Daniels learned how to make whiskey from a Black man who was a descendent of slaves. This is not to say that slavery was good, but it demonstrates that there are both positive and negative things to be learned about slavery when it is taught from an honest space. One of the most important messages about slavery is that black people achieved, in spite of, and the question is why do we not want to teach that? Why is that something we do not want to be known?
As lawyers, we are supposed to be vanguards of the truth, and if we are not pushing for a truthful rendition of history, then we are not serving the rule of law. The reason why I say that is because throughout history the rule of law has been used to hold back minority groups - whether it's Japanese interment, Jim Crow Laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, or even current immigration laws. The law has been used to exclude and hold back people. As vanguards of the truth, we have a responsibility to make sure that the truth is told no matter what, because the alternative is the truth will not be told - which is what is happening now. We would rather tell them things that are not factually accurate, which is more harmful to them.
The notion that teaching the truth is harmful is problematic. Child psychologists support truth-telling. For example, if a parent dies, we are told to be honest with children. This is why people talk about the death scene in Bambi being so powerful for kids. Why should we tell our children the truth about life and death but then lie to them about history?
People are always seeking advice about how to handle tragic events in life, but then when it comes to history, they want to shield children from it, which makes no sense. If you can talk to your children about calling 911 in an emergency, why are you unable to talk to your children about documented history, including reasons for the Civil War?
Please share an obstacle related to being Black that you faced in your professional journey.
When I was a prosecutor in Washington, I moved from the criminal division to the civil division under the tutelage of an incredible woman who became an appellate court judge. The County was sued by an African American male for alleged racial discrimination, and when I was assigned to handle the case, he sued me because he felt it was not fair to him if a Black person represented the County. I share this because it is important to recognize that at times, people of color are willing to interfere with the success of other people of color when it interferes with their personal goals.
On another occasion, I interviewed at a law firm after leaving government service. At the interview, the firm said to me that they wished I had interviewed sooner because they had hired their “Black person for the year.” Interestingly, in my mind, I thought if there is any place that needs me as a lawyer, this is the place. However, once that was said, I was no longer interested in ever working at the firm. In fact, what that did for me is fuel my energy and anger, giving me the drive to find the right job versus any job. Unfortunately, this statement was made to me decades ago, in the 80s, and these types of statements are still common today, in 2023.
When I first started practicing law, I was excited to be placed on a team of women that represented General Motors. The case ultimately went to trial, and we successfully defended the case. The thing that struck me was a juror who was a woman of color. After the trial, she approached me and told me that she was upset with me initially because she thought I was a “sell-out.” In the Black community, a sell-out is someone who betrays the community. She felt this about me because I represented the company. She ultimately stated that she understood I was just doing by job, but this was a big lesson for me. It taught me to always unapologetically be my authentic self, no matter who I am representing. It also taught me never to take for granted who I am representing and how I am perceived. At the end of the day, I cannot read a juror’s mind, so the only thing I can control is being true to myself and not worry about the rest. You can only control you.
The first example is I realized that a partner only wanted me at the firm so that he could check the diversity box needed for current and prospective clients. They would keep me away from power people and decision makers. My impression was that they feared being compelled to share some of that client with me. However, my biggest disappointment was with the clients, who championed diversity and inclusion but did not enforce it. I would see similarly situated white associates being given access to clients and decision makers I was not. This experience is what ultimately brought me to DRI’s Diversity for Success Seminar, where I learned how to develop my own power via a book of business. I met life-long friends in Toyja Kelly, Sheryl Willert, and Pam Carter, who helped me develop in my profession. I had access to in-house counsel, which motivated me because I felt I had a chance to build business with some of them. I learned how to pitch for business and also learned the essential skill of correcting mistakes with grace. Since my first attendance at a DRI seminar, I have been able to network and build relationships that have resulted in referrals for business, contributing to my book of business and creating my own space and power in the legal community.
Admittedly, my experience has been a bit different and not as dire as others because I was shielded from criticism common to other attorneys my age. Most of my career, I was able to have a level of autonomy unusual to other attorneys at the same level. As such, I was a bit naïve relative to what the true experience was for other lawyers of color at law firms. In a lot of ways, I was shocked when I heard some of the stories from people regarding what they were experiencing. I now know that my trajectory could have been very different had I not had that unusual autonomy.
One thing that was very jarring for me was after I made partner and became more involved in the review process. I noticed that partners would comment similarly when it came to review of minority associates. Words describing them as inarticulate or commenting on their writing styles were consistent across the board when referring to minority lawyers. This really brought home to me the reality that lawyers of color must work twice as hard and the margin of error was so much thinner than for other similarly situated attorneys.
Does your firm celebrate Black History Month? Should law firms celebrate Black History Month?
Law firms should celebrate the history months of all groups because it creates greater understanding. If the goal of a law firm is to make money for partners, one of things you would want is for everybody to have a better understanding of everybody else so you can collaborate, work together, get along, and make more money. I never understood why certain law firms resist in engaging in things that will make people feel accepted and respected. Law firms do a lot of things and spend a lot of money to try and create a sense of camaraderie and yet they resist things that really do not require a lot of funding.
My firm celebrates Black History Month and takes part in community events. I believe it is important for the firm to engage in the communities surrounding them. As lawyers with so many opportunities and many blessings, we should be giving back to our communities, whether it be by participating in a march, cleaning a school, or volunteering at a local charity. The best way to celebrate not only Black History Month but the diverse communities we all live in is to get involved in those communities. As a child, I remember seeing a Black doctor driving a Mercedes. I grew up in the “hood,” and seeing that doctor encouraged me and made me realize what I could accomplish. As attorneys, we should get out into the communities and be that inspiration for today’s youth.
We celebrate Black History Month in a variety of ways. We have a Daily Bulletin where we highlight achievements in the country every day. In 2022, we started having at least one fireside chat where people would share their success stories, including the obstacles they faced and how they stayed on course. The firm community responded with enthusiasm to these fireside chats, causing us to start doing them for Pride Month. I anticipate this will continue to expand, but the excitement in the firm left the impression that people are craving this type of education and information.
My firm is the beneficiary of one of our former partners who was at the forefront of Diversity & Inclusion, Paulette Brown. She was instrumental in the hiring of Diversity & Inclusion professionals who have picked up where Paulette left off in getting the firm from top to bottom to recognize the important contributions of Black attorneys. Similar to Sheryl’s firm, we are expanding this to all celebratory months and holidays for all our diverse communities.
One thing that really stood out for me is our firm chairman, who, on a monthly basis, does an address to the firm. In February, he utilizes a significant portion of his presentation to recognize Black History Month. Being newer to the firm, this really impacted me in a favorable way. It is easy for firms to post something on social media, but we can usually sense the sincerity or insincerity of these posts from far away. When the chairman addresses this in his address to the firm, something that is not for marketing purposes, that demonstrates for me that the firm is truly committed to inclusion.
What advice would you give young lawyers who face disparate treatment or witness it in their law firm? How should they handle it?
In my opinion you have two choices. You either speak up or you don’t. If you choose to speak up, you have to understand that law firms are political animals. You need to have formed at least one relationship with someone who has a position of persuasion and who is in a position to protect you. The reality is that it is difficult to raise issues at law firms without some sort of retribution or retaliation. Because of the political nature of a law firm, you have to spend political capital by letting the decision makers get to know you, because if they know you, they are more likely to weigh in in support of you.
Therefore, from the very beginning, when you walk into a law firm - create a plan to develop those relationships. I went to every social event, talked to the leaders, and got to know them well. This can be challenging because diverse attorneys are hesitant to share their personal business. In these scenarios, I suggest sharing anything that is public record and avoid sharing personal things that show areas of vulnerability. For example, when my father got cancer, I never told my firm until it could impact my availability to work or my work itself. You never want people to be in a position to utilize your personal information against you.
The most important thing that you have is your own integrity. If you stand back and observe or allow yourself or someone else to be victimized, it is a degradation of your own integrity. It is important to be able to sleep at night, look in mirror and respect who you are. Incredibly important to stand up and say, “I am not going to be silenced. I am not going to accept this. I am not going to let this continue to happen.”
In the short term, you face possible retaliation. In the long term, you are a better person and more successful because you chose to do the right thing and had the courage to do it. Also, never be afraid to ask for help. You would be surprised at how many people have confronted similar issues who can provide wise counsel.
I agree with Sheryl. There is nothing worse than years later remembering you did not say something when you should have. That regret does not leave you and can mentally scar you. I can remember specifics down to the judge, lawyer, and issue when I chose not to speak up and should have. I remember not saying anything when a judge said something outwardly racist. I remember all those details, because I am haunted by my choice to stay silent. I did report the statement to the chief judge. In the end, what you have is your integrity, your worth, and living with who you are, which requires you say something. I would also agree it is wise to have counsel in moments like these, a trusted mentor who can guide you in the right direction and possibly provide that political protection Douglas referenced.
As I stated earlier, I operated in a bubble largely through my career and now realize that at times certainly other minority attorneys were having a vastly different experience. If I could go back and say something to my younger self, it would be to recognize my ability to say more. In certain situations, I wish I had said things where I could have helped others. However, I recognize that today there is space for me to even do more and I am committed to be that space for those attorneys who need it. This upcoming generation, I applaud them and their courage to speak up in the face of injustice.