Center for Legal Inclusiveness Hosts Annual Diversity Conference

Sessions discuss how diversity impacts workplaces and law schools

A close up of a woman with a microphone in her hand speaking in an animated way
Yvonne Hunter speaks during a discussion about the importance of names. She and others discussed what a person’s name can say about their identity, such as culture, family, race and gender. / LAW WEEK, JULIA CARDI

The legal profession has talked a lot about increasing diversity in the past several years. Law firms have formed committees and created recruiting programs to direct hiring efforts at underrepresented groups. “Pipeline programs” have sprung up to encourage high school and college students to go to law school. 

But efforts to change statistics don’t mean much if companies don’t make efforts to actually understand the experiences of people in underrepresented groups and why the challenges they face are unique. To educate people in the legal profession about what makes diversity efforts meaningful, the Center for Legal Inclusiveness hosted a diversity conference and career fair July 29 at the Embassy Suites in Denver’s Tech Center. The panel and session topics ranged from managing diversity fatigue avoiding tokenization to legal protections for LGBTQ employees.


Identity as a Token

A panel of two law students and a Sturm College of Law faculty member discussed how organizations and law schools can avoid making people with diverse identities feel like “tokens” who are hired or admitted so their organization can appear diverse but may not actually understand how to make them feel respected. 

Panelist Rebekah Gordon, a third-year student at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, said she’s used to being the only black person in a room, whether it’s in a law school class or as a firm’s summer associate. 

“I know I’m the black person there, so I’ll be on the website, I’ll probably make the newsletter, I’ll probably be the diversity co-chair.” Tokenization, Gordon said, makes people with diverse identities question why they’ve been hired or admitted: “Did I get in because I’m black, or because I’m qualified?”

University of Denver Sturm College of Law student Desiree Palomares had a different experience than Gordon, having grown up in Southern California’s diverse cities and attended the University of California at Berkeley on an athletic scholarship. So the dearth of Hispanic students in her law school class was a shock for her, and she remembered getting asked by fellow students about her LSAT score. “I thought we were just sharing LSAT scores, but I realized that people were trying to see if I actually deserved to be there.”

Palomares said experiences like that, and a general lack of diversity, are isolating for students of color when they want more than anything to feel accepted. She’s gotten involved with pipeline programs such as Journey to JD for high school students and Law School…Yes We Can. Palomares has also made efforts to talk with her faculty advisors and supervising attorneys about challenges she faces as a student of color.

“I really think that it helps open the dialogue about how we can help our students of color as they transfer into their actual placements.”

Alexi Freeman, Denver Law’s director of externships and public interest initiatives, discussed ways law schools and externship employers can make diverse students feel valued without singling them out for their identities. Efforts can’t stop at having recruiting programs that target diverse candidates, she said, and she acknowledged creating a workplace culture of inclusion that has buy-in from leaders takes a lot of work.

Freeman gave some examples of small actions that can have a big impact: Discuss and understand why diversity is valuable beyond boosting statistics; Don’t introduce externs or summer associates as a person hired from a diversity initiative; Make sure workplace policies around hair and clothes don’t marginalize certain people.

“Too often I think students and supervisors go into an externship relationship as a transactional nature. The students can do this work and the situation is done in nine weeks. … I think for diverse students, whether students of color or other diverse identities, it has to be much more, because otherwise it can have a really negative impact.”

The bottom line for avoiding tokenization: People are more than their diverse characteristics, so it’s important for employers and schools to not treat them as just statistics. “Being a token has its psychological burden, and it has its opportunity,” Gordon said. “As recruiters or people who have the opportunity to hire, that’s something you may want to think about.”

What’s in a Name?

One of the last sessions of the day provoked reflection about the biases people can form based on others’ names, because names can indicate characteristics such as race and gender. But instead of listening to a presentation focused on statistics and the legal risk of discriminatory practices, the group spent the session discussing the meaning names can hold about culture, family and personal identity. Attendees talked about their own names and what they mean to them, if they’re part of a family tradition and if their names fit their personalities.  

“We find [names] to be not interrogated the way that they should, not unpacked the way that they should. They have really deep, meaningful implications for … the work that we do, how we interact with our work, and how we really see ourselves in relation to our work,” said presenter Roberto Montoya, the manager of diversity and engagement for Denver International Airport.

Some attendees said their last names got anglicized when their ancestors came to the U.S. Others said they wouldn’t change their distinctive-sounding names, liking that it makes them stand out. Many of them shared stories about other people constantly mispronouncing their names. 

One attendee, Adis Vila, has an Ethiopian first name and a Catalan last name. She said her last name often gets misspelled with an extra “l,” which she said changes it to a name of Mexican origin. Both her names are steeped with meaning: She has chosen to keep the last name of her father, who escaped to and then from Cuba during times of political turmoil. And Vila’s mother decided to honor her grandmother’s tradition of choosing names for her children starting with “A.”

“By hearing all your stories, it’s so complex,” said presenter Monica Williams, the director of equity and inclusion at Denver International Airport. “When was the last time you told someone the meaning of your name? But it’s so important to us.”

Montoya talked about an elementary school teacher who insisted on calling him “Robert,” and Montoya was in his 30s before he made the conscious choice to go by “Roberto” again. 

“Going from ‘Roberto’ to ‘Robert’ was a forcible anglicizing of my identity,” he said. “My name then became more palatable for a particular dominant culture, and it also made me think that I had to be more palatable for a particular culture.”

He said making the choice to go by his given name again felt liberating, and fighting racial biases comes down to making extra effort to learn names from different cultures.

“If you can say” unfamiliar European names, he said, “you can say ‘Roberto.’”

  —Julia Cardi

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