At this time of year, we take time to honor the contributions of civil rights leaders in the United States. First by honoring the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in January and then by recognizing the contributions of African and Black Americans in the month of February. We also stop and acknowledge that as our Constitution suggested, we strive for a “more perfect union” recognizing that we will not be perfect.
As the NAELA Strategic Planning Committee discovered when it considered the answers in our survey last fall, lawyers are not always comfortable talking about their identities outside the office. In our strategic planning survey, about 10% of our members indicated they weren’t comfortable answering questions about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender, or life circumstances. The legal profession can be seen as operating as a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of environment. As a former prosecutor in a predominately male area of law, I realized very quickly that I would need to work harder, longer, and more effectively to convince my colleagues and even the judges that a woman could be a prosecutor. Sometimes, this intentional blindness to an individual’s identity — whether family status, race, sexual orientation, gender — can equal the playing field. Yet it can also unintentionally close off doors by signaling that people are not welcome as they are.
Engaging in diversity initiatives requires us to be thoughtful, and to act with intention. I’m sensitive to a comment from one of NAELA’s state chapter leaders, who wrote in our strategic planning survey, “I am a Hispanic female on the board of a state chapter ... This fad of inclusion and diversity initiatives insults and angers me so much! Qualifying my and my colleague’s inclusion on the board in the spirit of diversification undermines our accomplishments, hard work, and passion in the elder law field.” We must move forward in ways that welcome, not undermine, all members of the elder law community.
Many organizations have implemented a thoughtful approach by working directly with the populations that they’re reaching out to. Rather than a “quota exercise,” there’s a real desire to find common ground. One example is the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care, which launched a pilot program within communities of Black churches — led by ministers in those areas — to host local attorneys to talk about planning. These programs were based on research, such as a 2020 article in the Journal Palliative Care & Social Practice, finding that “Advance care planning is under-used among Black Americans, often because of experiences of racism in the health care system, resulting in a lower quality of care at the end of life.” Centers of faith provided a trusted place for people to get access to justice they needed, but from community leaders who they felt confident had their best interest at heart. This was a strategy that Dr. King included — mixing the secular and the faith community to achieve common goals.
Can we also find common ground in our community? How can we celebrate the contributions of all our members and make a welcoming path for those who traditionally may not have felt welcome? This spring we are launching a new committee to help NAELA think through these issues. Led by former board members Wendy Capelletto and Crystal West Edwards, we need balanced perspectives that can help NAELA prepare for the future. We will be asking for volunteers to join this effort. I hope that you’ll consider applying. We need your voice.