When the fall semester began this past August for Denver Law students, many of our students “arrived” on campus and on Zoom, exhausted, defeated, and overwhelmed. They, like all of us, were in the midst of surviving two pandemics. Indeed, it had been six months since COVID-19 threatened the health and well-being of their friends and families, and wreaked chaos on their spring semester classes and summer externships. It had also been just under two months since May 25, 2020, the date of George Floyd’s killing by police. In those two months, they witnessed a summer of racialized violence with little response from state actors. In some cases, they saw prosecutors and police failing to protect protestors’ rights. They saw elected officials, including lawyers, releasing statements quickly condemning violence but refusing to condemn police actions without more facts. While some were inspired by the racial uprising in the streets and by the commitments from law firms and other legal organizations to become “anti-racist,” many were left wondering what to think about their role as future lawyers in the midst of it all. Many were motivated to join this profession to both create and preserve laws designed to support, help and serve others, and now they were questioning how to join a system that seemed to be designed to oppress rather than liberate, punish rather than rehabilitate, and kill rather than set free.
Like others navigating these unprecedented times, our students face many big questions about their professional identities and whether they will use their degree to either uphold the status quo, or overhaul it and seek a new system of justice. These are questions that require self-reflection, intentionality, and deep thinking.
As we began a second semester in January, our students’ situations hadn’t really changed, but we also knew many were thirsty for ways to “be better” as individuals and to better understand the impact of race on the law and our profession and we wanted to provide an opportunity for them to reflect. In February, Denver Law’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) launched the Anti-Racism Education Series. Co-sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and the Student Bar Association, the series consists of a 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge© and four virtual events.
Part 1: Habit Building Challenge
Originally developed by diversity consultant Eddie Moore Jr., the habit building challenge is designed to build habits around racial equity by asking individuals to spend 15-30 minutes over 21 consecutive days (ideally) reading an article, watching a video, or listening to a podcast. While many variations exist, as a simple google search will demonstrate, we utilized the challenge as designed by the American Bar Association’s Section of Labor and Employment this past summer. The goal reflects the ABA’s goal: to support individuals’ efforts to become more aware, compassionate, constructive, and engaged people in the quest for racial equity. The challenge consists of a mix of mediums and includes articles, reflections, talks and more by lawyers and importantly, non-lawyers. Despite being geared towards lawyers, the syllabus ensures participants gain a broader, interdisciplinary perspective and given this moment in time, emphasizes the lived experience of Black individuals and communities in America.
Part 2: Virtual Talks
We offered four virtual talks as part of the series:
What is DEI anyway?[Most] everything you need to know about DEI in an hour, featured Sara Scott, CEO of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness. This session was a primer, helping students develop familiarity with DEI terminology and offering examples as to how these inequities come to fruition in everyday life.
#Me too: Discrimination and Sexual Harassment in the Externship or Workplace featured Iris Halpern, employment discrimination lawyer with Rathod Mohamedbhai and formerly of the EEOC, and Emily Babb, Associate Vice Chancellor for Equal Opportunity and Title IX. It discussed how to recognize discrimination and sexual harassment and what to do about it when you experience it or observe it.
DEI Storytelling Series 1: Perspectives from the Ground highlighted the critical race theory concept of counter-storytelling, offering space for those from historically marginalized groups to shape and share the narrative that defines their own lives. We were joined by Asma Kadri Keeler, a first-generation Indian-Muslim woman attorney at ACLU-CO; Olivia Mendoza, a lawyer and Mexican immigrant who serves as deputy director of litigation and policy at the Nat’l Redistricting Foundation; and Hassan Latif, an African American male who was incarcerated for over 15 years and then founded the Second Chance Center, a community re-entry agency.
The Biological Effects of Racism was led by Dr. Kenjus Watson, a research scholar who discussed the structure of anti-blackness as well as potential pathways of addressing its insidiousness with the assistance of novel research on the biopsychosocial impact of everyday racism.
As students process both the written materials and the talks, they are invited to submit written or oral reflections in response to particular prompts throughout February. Faculty and staff of the DEI office review and offer feedback on such reflections, allowing students to continue to process and reflect on their personal growth.
We strongly believe that attending a handful of lunchtime talks and reviewing materials over a month does not mean participants know all there is to know about issues of race. It does not get anyone “off the hook” from engaging in continued work in this area. In fact, we shared with participants that understanding anti-racism principles and living them in practice is an ongoing journey that requires commitment and intentionality. With that said, we do hope that participating allows for critical self-reflection and enhances knowledge. We also hope it motivates participants to keep reading and keep reflecting, as we all work to come to grips with the realities around race in the US and in our own lives. And finally, we are hopeful that it will build empathy and help ensure members of our community engage meaningfully and thoughtfully with one another as peers now and colleagues in the future.
Alexi Freeman Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Director of Social Justice Initiatives. Freeman has a distinguished record working alongside low-income communities and communities of color as a racial justice and legal advocate. Prior to joining Denver Law, Freeman worked as an attorney at Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, where she assisted grassroots organizations across the country on social justice advocacy campaigns around education and juvenile justice policy, housing, and voting rights issues. Freeman continues to support grassroots communities and social justice movements pro bono. At Denver Law, Freeman focuses her efforts inside and outside of the classroom on building a community of students dedicated to pursuing the public good and training the next generation of social justice advocates. She is a member of the National Association of Pro Bono Professionals and serves on the Board of Governors for the Society of American Law Teachers, which is a community of progressive law teachers working for justice, diversity, and academic excellence. Freeman is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard Law School. While at Harvard Law, she was recognized for her work in public interest law and her leadership on campus. She first became interested in issues of racial and social justice as a child growing up in an interracial and interfaith family.