In Diversity & Inclusion, News & Updates

This article originally appeared in the Daily Business Review on July 18, 2023, and was written by Chanae L. Wood.

In June 2020, I urged the legal profession to take action and figure out what role it could play in making society more equitable for all. My plea was provoked by the untimely death of George Floyd, whose image is etched into my brain to this day. Floyd’s death triggered a domino effect around the United States (or, rather, the world), with corporate and public entities alike issuing myriad statements meant to take a “stand” against the injustices that have plagued our nation since its inception. While commendable, without an action plan, many of those statements merely became a footnote in the long list of harrowing events that took place in 2020, including the global pandemic brought about by COVID-19.

As a young associate who assisted in drafting a statement issued by the law firm I called (and still do) my second home, I felt obligated to ensure that our pledge didn’t fall by the wayside. Luckily, or intentionally, my firm’s management team felt the same. So how did this midsize firm, managed by middle-aged White men, hold to their word and turn their statements into action? They stepped aside and trusted a then second-year, Black woman associate to lead a budding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program designed to promote inclusion of individuals, irrespective of gender, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, ethnicity or disability status. Through collaboration, our DEI committee has brought fresh ideas and solutions to confront the seemingly intractable inequities that permeate the legal profession. It has masterfully organized and presented exceptional programming that allows firm attorneys and staff, as well as professionals in the broader legal community, to develop a better understanding of why diversity in the workplace is important, and the value it brings to not only employees, but to clients as well.

The programming started in February 2020, shortly before the country shut down, with an in-person, internal lunch-and-learn featuring local elected officials from communities of color. After the pandemic cancelled in-person events, we began scheduling monthly virtual webinars covering topics such as implicit bias and racial, gender, ethnic, and sexual-identity stereotypes. These webinars have drawn the enthusiastic participation of prominent community figures. Participation has expanded well beyond the firm, with our Women’s History Month event, in particular, attracting more than 500 national and international participants. This event was so powerful that it brought a well-respected U.S. federal judge to tears, who proclaimed to the hundreds of participants tuning in that they could “die tomorrow and know that the [legal profession] would be in great hands.” The judge’s statement was and still is a testament to the nature and impact of our DEI program and the character of the folks who support it.

So as you can see, we have been busy over the past three years turning our statements into thought-provoking programming that challenges and questions the status quo. Our efforts to champion the greater issue of DEI in the legal profession has, indeed, been admirable, but there’s something else (or someone else) that I would like to highlight while I still have your attention: the students we’ve been able to impact through our DEI internship program.

Our DEI program has been committed to facilitating the inclusion of more diverse attorneys in the pipeline to the legal profession. Through our DEI internship program, select students are afforded the rare opportunity to gain professional experience by working for 10 stimulating weeks side-by-side with attorneys in our various practice groups. This program provides paid summer employment for first-year law and college students who demonstrate a clear commitment to, or interest in, diversity and inclusion. Unlike the typical firm internship program, our program is not designed to select students based merely on the accolades and activities enumerated in their resume, or a glowing recommendation from a peer in the profession. The students who are selected through our program are not only bright, but also resilient, self-driven and passionate about creating permanent change in the legal profession.

Take Angelica Knight, a recent graduate of St. Thomas University Benjamin Crump School of Law and a past student in our inaugural DEI internship class. What impressed me (and the rest of the interviewing committee) most about Angelica was her grit—her unrelenting desire to be better, do better and achieve more for herself and her 8-year-old son. While working a full-time job, she guided her son through COVID-19 virtual schooling, completed a master’s degree in public administration, and successfully navigated through her first year of law school. Knowing all of that should have made her participation in the program a no-brainer, but I still asked her one final question before wrapping up the interview: “why should we select you out of all the other candidates?” With tears in her eyes, she boldly replied, “there is no one else that will work harder.” You see, the odds had already been stacked against her. She knew how it felt to be homeless, she knew how it felt to have little to no familial support and she knew how it felt to be the “underdog,” growing up in the projects of Liberty City. But none of that stopped her from relentlessly pushing forward, breaking barriers and dismantling stereotypes to appear before our interviewing committee. Her story managed to move us all, even though a computer screen stood as a barrier between us. There was no second thought; we all knew a student like Angelica embodied the very mission of our DEI internship program. And we were right! She made such an impression on the firm that we invited her back for a second summer, and then extended her an offer of employment upon graduation. She recently was honored with the Outstanding Public Service Award for having completed the greatest number of legal pro bono hours in her graduating class. Without a doubt, Angelica is a testament of local talent right here in our backyards. But I’d be remiss if I did not share that our DEI internship program has expanded its reach beyond U.S. borders.

Guyana is from where Kenresha Frazier, a recent college graduate from Florida Memorial University, hails. Her passion for changing policies that affect marginalized communities caught our interest. An eager learner, she heard about our program from an upperclassman, Myrlandie Myrbel, a native of Haiti, who had participated in our DEI internship program the prior year. While still an undergraduate, Myrlandie impressed the attorneys at our firm with her ability to quickly interpret and analyze the law. It was no surprise that shortly after completing a summer with us, she went on to become a 2021 White House HBCU Competitiveness Scholar and continued on to have a stellar academic career. In August, she will take her talents to Gainesville at the University of Florida School of Law on a full scholarship, where we know she will excel.

As if Guyana and Haiti were not impressive enough, you might be surprised to learn that our program has reached far across the Indian Ocean to the Republic of Mauritius to connect with Damon Duchenne, a student at the University of Miami School of Law who came to the United States on a scholarship to study at the University of Pennsylvania. Damon passionately advocates for asylum-seekers and refugees who have fled their countries to find safety in the United States. His fluency in French has allowed him to assist in providing affordable and pro-bono legal work for several asylum-seekers fleeing Haiti, the Congo, and Algeria because of the persecution they suffered—whether because of their beliefs, ethnic origins, or sexual orientation. Damon’s selfless efforts in advocating for a world with more compassion and respect for all people is the cornerstone of our DEI internship program.

And he’s not alone in his efforts to influence humanity for the better. Ella Duckworth, who also upholds the core values and mission of our program, has been a true ally. Before attending the University of Miami School of Law, she co-organized an event called “Black Orgs Rock,” which focused on empowering Black-led student organizations on campus and helping students find involvement opportunities within student organizations. It made no difference to her that she was not a member of the Black community—empathy and compassion guided her leadership. Ella met with Black-led organizations as a member of the Council of Student Organizations, listened to their needs and desire for more inclusivity on campus, and then acted by using her position to elevate her peers. If you haven’t noticed yet, there’s a common thread that runs through the students who have participated in our DEI internship program—they are change agents!

The same goes for Amber Fabian and Mark Royero, both students at the University of Miami School of Law. Amber’s upbringing as a biracial woman growing up in a small city in Ohio and her past experiences being subjected to covert and overt racism have served as the foundation for her commitment to and interest in cultivating diversity, equity, and inclusion within the legal profession. She “finds it imperative to honor and hold space for every facet of a person’s being, recognize their innate humanity, and respect them for who they are at their core.” Similarly, Mark’s passion and focus can be summed up in one simple word: service. During his experience as a City Year teacher, he realized that “a commitment to diversity is more than just a desire to help others, but recognizing that others can help you.” And he’s right. In supervising our interns over the past three years, I’ve learned so much from them. They give me hope that more and more people, diverse in thought and culture, are in the pipeline ready to impact the legal profession, in spite of our world’s current challenges.

Some may suggest that, three years later, the fire ignited by Floyd’s death has dwindled. And I can see why. Every other day it seems like there are efforts to chip away at DEI education and programming. But if you truly have the heart for this work, I urge you to stay the course. Invest the money, time and energy needed to build up the next generation of professionals who will be the change we want to see. DEI programming still matters—perhaps now more than ever when there’s an active campaign against it—and it is making a difference in the lives of individuals like Angelica, Myrlandie, Kenresha, Damon, Ella, Mark, Amber and the many other students who have graced our offices.

I’m proud my firm held true to its pledge and answered the call to action. Collectively, we figured out what role we could play and we’ve been doing our best to play it well. Sure, there is still much work that needs to be done and internal policies to be revisited and others to be created, but I am confident that three years from now we will have even more great news to share. The young lawyers that we are helping to mold are going to take the legal profession by storm and I am honored to assist them in doing so.

Read the original article in the Daily Business Review here.

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