Last year, the Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers’ Section (CBA YLS) established the Racial Justice Coalition (RJC) to bring together leading voices in the Chicago legal community to act against racial injustice.
Since then, more than 31 bar association and legal advocacy organizations have joined the RJC to combat systemic and institutional racism through pro bono opportunities, community engagement, and educational opportunities, including trainings and seminars that champion diversity and inclusion in the legal community.
We spoke with RJC Co-Chairs Chastidy Burns, Counsel at the U.S. Senate’s Committee on the Judiciary, and Kenny Matuszewski, a Patent Attorney at Braun IP Law, as well as Co-Chair for the upcoming bar year Nick Flores, a Trial Attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor. They discussed the origin of the RJC, how institutional racism can impact the administration of justice, ways lawyers can better serve minority populations, and more. They’ve been busy!
The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism is pleased to serve as a member of the RJC.
Why did the CBA YLS establish the RJC?
(Chastidy) The CBA YLS established the RJC in response to the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many others who had recently lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement.
We wanted to contribute to making tangible change and advocating for powerful reform and knew that a united front would have the most impact.
We collaborated with bar associations, nonprofits, and even law schools to form the RJC under the pillars of service, community engagement, and education in hopes of using our skills, resources, and networks to raise awareness about the critical need for equity and to work to combat systemic racism.
How does institutional racism undermine the fair and equitable administration of justice?
(Nick) Racism pervades every aspect of the justice system, and the RJC seeks to counteract that problem. Because the justice system is enormous and multi-faceted, racism can originate and grow in numerous ways. Its actors, including lawyers, span across all three branches of government and the private sector.
Coupling these actors’ implicit and explicit biases with the sheer number of roles and actions taking place in the justice system transforms racism into a hydra ravaging the very people it was supposed to protect at every turn. It bleeds not only into bills, committee debates, and statutes but also criminal investigations, enforcement policies, executive orders, and even litigation.
As a result, the justice system is stacked against those who need it the most: poor minorities, often at the expense of their lives. The RJC seeks to identify and confront that racism in both our general and our legal communities by creating and solidifying partnerships across both groups.
What three things should the legal profession do to advance DEI?
(Nick) First, passing, enforcing, and defending all laws necessary in order to protect everyone’s constitutional rights and to prevent any other tragedies befalling minority communities associated with the criminal and civil justice system.
Next, educating itself on how racism pervades all aspects of the legal profession both in the modern era and historically. Doing so will allow lawyers to become more culturally available to minority communities and their residents, and to become better advocates.
Finally, partnering with the community at large, and within various groups of the legal community, to ensure continual access to justice in all forms for all underrepresented groups.
How can lawyers better serve minority populations?
(Nick) The RJC believes lawyers can better serve minority populations by developing cultural competency and building community and proximity with them.
For example, a particular minority population may have legal concerns particular to an aspect of their culture, community, or both. Lawyers should seek to understand their minority clients’ predicaments not just as legal quandaries but as real-world problems whispering “poverty,” “felony,” or “fear,” with increasing volume.
Cultural competency and proximity allow for this understanding and empathy to develop beyond the attorney-client relationship.
Second, lawyers can admit when they need to educate themselves about particular cultural aspects and practices and understand when it is permissible to ask for help. Having these conversations, and obtaining this cultural understanding, allows lawyers to better understand the facts and evidence of their cases by placing them both into the proper cultural context.
As a result, lawyers can advocate more fiercely, tirelessly, and effectively for minority populations.
What initiatives will the RJC be working on in 2021?
- (Kenny) On Friday, February 19, the RJC presented a Resolution at the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division Mid-Year Assembly Meeting requesting legislation banning no-knock warrants at all levels. The text of the Resolution can be found here.
- The Resolution faced no opposition before it was passed and will be presented to the ABA House of Delegates at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in August. We will continue to work with the ABA and other relevant stakeholders to ensure the House of Delegates passes the Resolution in August.
- On Saturday, March 20, the RJC will be hosting its second virtual Power of Attorney for Healthcare clinic with the CBA, the Center for Disability and Elder Law (CDEL), and My Block, My Hood, My City.
- This unique partnership will allow the RJC to address intergenerational injustice, and remedy inequities facing minority populations in end-of-life care and estate planning. Learn more about CDEL and My Block, My Hood, My City and the available opportunities to volunteer at both organizations by clicking on the hyperlink for each organization.
- In April or May, the RJC will host a joint CLE program with the Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois focusing on the collateral consequences of convictions in immigration proceedings. A link to register for the event is forthcoming.
- The RJC and CBA are also working with the Northern District of Illinois’ Racial Justice Diversity Committee to gather statistics and information about diversity, equity, and inclusion within the courts, at all levels. The gathered statistics are planned to be analyzed in a subsequent report.
- The RJC is planning a CLE program about environmental racism with the CBA YLS Environmental Law Committee. Registration information and the date of the presentation will be announced at a later date.
- Finally, the RJC hopes to continue working with its signatory members to develop relevant, stimulating conversations about racial justice and diversity and inclusion. We have been very fortunate to have had so many stimulating discussions and to accomplish so much in a purely virtual format. While it is uncertain when it will be safe for in-person meetings to occur again, the RJC is hard at work developing programs and initiatives for both a virtual and in-person environment.
How can legal professionals get involved in the RJC?
Additionally, if attorneys are members of any of the signatory bar associations or organizations listed here, they can encourage their organizations to develop programs and opportunities focusing on racial justice or diversity and inclusion or take the lead in developing these programs themselves.
The Racial Justice Coalition is always happy to serve as a resource and encourages everyone of all backgrounds and experiences to get involved any way they can.
Want to learn more? The Commission will be discussing The Future of DEI in the Legal Profession at our The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference on April 27-29. CLE is offered. Register here: https://thefutureisnow.2civility.org/registration-2021/.