Meet Our DEI Manager Julia Roundtree Livingston—Educator, Advocate, and Community Leader

Growing up as a Black girl with a multiracial heritage in central Illinois in the 1980s, race often played a role in my experiences. And in those moments, I felt a sense of otherness.

Julia Roundtree Livingston in first grade
Julia Roundtree Livingston in first grade

Whether I was the only brown face in my school, on my extracurricular teams, or in my church, I was hyperaware of racial differences.

I was not the only one who would define my differences; my classmates regularly pointed them out in my appearance—brown skin and protective hairstyles (often braids)–which was starkly different as compared to theirs.

Like other children, I was often uncomfortable discussing how my background was different. However, as I grew older, I practiced and slowly became more at home talking about race and diversity. But although my confidence grew, I noticed that this was not always the case for others. This bothered me.

So, early on, I aspired to become a positive voice who helped others understand and become comfortable with diversity and inclusion in all of the spaces I occupied. And I have been inspired by that same mission in my career, whether it was in higher education or with CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) in the Illinois courts.

Creating spaces of inclusion

My passion for the acquisition of knowledge and desire for discourse led me to teaching positions at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Florida State University, and Richland Community College.

I loved being in classrooms where my peers were committed to reading about, discussing civilly, and even disagreeing about the unique human experience.

As a result, I have sought to recreate the qualities I admired about my jobs in academia – the open-mindedness, inquiry, validation, and celebrations of difference — in every role I have served in after.

In my estimation, these qualities provide the best chance of creating a healthy and productive work environment. An environment much like what the Commission on Professionalism promotes, where lawyers and judges deliver essential services while respecting the unique value that their clients, coworkers, and opposing counsel offer.

The art of disagreement

Teaching in higher education, I quickly learned that the art of civil disagreement is not innate. My students had conflicting mindsets about how to effectively frame an argument and myriad lived experiences to support these discussions.

Helping these students understand and practice civil discourse became a primary goal in my classroom. As a professor of English, I wanted to teach these students that words matter and a well-informed, open, and civil approach was the most effective way to participate in an argument.

I saw firsthand that students who promoted their ideas only to win an argument were much less fruitful than those who communicated to listen, learn, and understand.

In much the same manner, the work of the Commission on Professionalism begs us to be critical thinkers. As individuals who work within or support our legal system, it is our responsibility to discuss tough topics like inclusive workplaces, cultural competency, and implicit bias.

And we must consider how embracing other points of view will provide value to clients – or potential clients —  from backgrounds that are different from ours.

My introduction to the courts  

After my time in higher education, I gravitated toward the nonprofit world. I was appointed as Director of Development at Macon County CASA and was later named Executive Director.

I seek to do good in the spaces that I love. CASA was a wonderful transition because it allowed me to help the Macon County community in which I was born and raised.

At CASA, I oversaw a roster of dedicated volunteers and staff who served as a voice in the court system for approximately 450 children (annually) in foster care in Macon & DeWitt Counties. This work exposed me to the structures and practices of our judicial system.

Julia Roundtree Livingston conducting a CASA training
Julia Roundtree Livingston conducting a CASA training

As CASA advocates, we navigated the often contentious interactions between the parents (both biological and foster), caseworkers, lawyers, and anyone else involved in the child’s life, who often didn’t agree on the best next step.

We then made recommendations to the juvenile advocacy (JA) judge based on the facts found in our visits and our interactions with the child victims.

Hands-on training of the volunteer advocates was essential to our operations, and we worked closely with the JA judges and the guardian ad litem (GAL) attorneys to ensure our volunteers were prepared to handle the emotional challenges of working with the victims and the procedural challenges of the court system.

A big part of this was cultural competency. The CASA staff worked to ensure that our volunteers were well-prepared to embrace the different cultures and lived experiences of the child victims, including socioeconomic, racial, cultural, religious, sexual orientation, and more.

We also worked to identify biases that may prevent them from unfairly reacting to their assigned children, their families, and their circumstances.

Through my role, I gained a unique understanding of our justice system, and the challenges of those using and working within it, especially the most vulnerable and traditionally excluded.

I was fortunate to forge strong relationships with members of the bench and bar, regularly communicating with legal and judicial professionals about CASA’s capabilities while also presenting to the Decatur Bar Association on our work.

Community conversations spark action

As a lifelong advocate for embracing growth and tough conversations, I recognize that not everyone is comfortable talking about DEI.

My goal has always been to meet people where they are. Effective conversations come from an ability to provide a sense of comfort to all involved and an acknowledgment of the differing realities of each other’s lives.

In my community and throughout Illinois, I have committed to entering these difficult but necessary conversations when I have the chance.

I have participated in community conversations on diversity through my membership on the DDELT (Diversity & Equity Leadership Team) for Maroa-Forsyth School District in Central Illinois, the SJR47 (Senate Joint Resolution) State of Illinois CASA/Children Advocacy Centers Task Force, the CWAC (Child Welfare Advisory Committee) on Racial Equity, and the Illinois CASA Equity Task Force.

I do not believe that just one person or just a few people can be the voice for all diverse communities. Many of us in underrepresented communities carry a personal weight into conversations on DEI.

While I am honored to participate in such conversations, the obligation of the task also creates an emotional weight as each of our voices are different.

I have also been the creator of community conversations. In May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and while much racial unrest was ensuing, I sought to help my community begin fruitful and educated conversations on racial differences. With an English literature background, my instinct was to create a book club focused on racial discourse.

Julia Roundtree Livingston's book club
Julia Roundtree Livingston’s book club

With the help of the Community Foundation of Macon County and the United Way of Decatur & Mid-Illinois, my virtual book club “Discourse on Racial Difference:  A Macon County IL Book Club” quickly grew to over 600 statewide members. Together, we committed to listen, learn, inquire, and challenge our understanding of diversity.

Promoting DEI in the legal profession

Throughout my career, each experience has afforded me a strong foundation for the work I will take on at the Commission on Professionalism: leading the Commission’s education and advocacy initiatives aimed at promoting DEI in Illinois’ legal and justice systems.

Here are some themes that motivate me:

  1. Education in DEI is ongoing and should be consistent.
  2. Every individual needs to work on adopting a DEI lens daily. Whether you are a member of an underrepresented population or part of the majority, we all must put in the work.
  3. Inclusion matters and it is important to commit as a legal community to have tough conversations—and then to take action to make a change.

The work of the Commission on Professionalism is intentional, as outlined in Illinois Supreme Court Rule 799.

I invite all Illinois attorneys to seek out the Commission’s contributions to fostering DEI in the legal profession in the form of our blogs, social media, CLEs (both online and presentations), mentoring program, and The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference.

I am eager to put my experience—teaching in higher education, leading CASA in the courts, and steering community-based DEI work—to work in support of a more diverse and inclusive legal profession.

Staying up to date on issues impacting the legal profession is vital to your success. Subscribe here to get the Commission’s weekly news delivered to your inbox.

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