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WER June 2020 Feature 6
Volume LXX, Issue IV

Published June 11, 2020

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Diversity and Inclusion: Why Does it Matter?

By: Mary Szondy

Mary Szondy has been a solo for fifteen years in Saint Paul. She focuses primarily on guardianship and conservatorship cases, working with both children and vulnerable adults. She also works as a court-appointed attorney in Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey counties. She is a member of the Board of MWL and a co-chair of the Solo/Small Section.

 Mary Szondy

I am one of the co-chairs of the Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee. Committee members consist of Dionne Blake, Calandra Revering, Poonam Kumar, Sukanya Momsen, and Jennifer Robbins, my co-chair. During one of our very first meetings, Dionne Blake asked us “why does diversity and inclusion matter?”  When it was my turn, I told this story:

As a sophomore in college, I accompanied my best friend, Tasha, to Target to get a birthday card. Tasha was born in Trinidad.  While looking over the cards, she complained that there were no brown people on any of the cards.  As she made this comment, I realized I had—at age 19—never given a single thought to the images on a Hallmark card. I truthfully cannot remember my response, if any, but her comment obviously made a lasting impression. Her comment made me wonder: what else am I missing?  What else haven’t I thought about because I simply didn’t have to?

I answered Dionne’s question: I want to know what I am missing.

Fast forward several years to last fall. I invited my good friend, Julie (not her real name) to the Rosalie Wahl Lecture. Julie works in-house for a large company in the cities. Honestly, I felt like I should have invited Julie to an MWL event much sooner than I did, but since we had recently added the In-House Attorneys Affinity Group, it seemed like the right time.

But Julie’s reply to my invitation took me by surprise: She heard that MWL was “not very welcoming to women of color.” She formed her opinion based on statements made by her colleagues, not by her own personal experience, since Julie had not attended any MWL events. And as a white ally to her women of color colleagues, she certainly was not going to start now.

Her response was like a slap to my face.  It was a wake-up call.

Having been a member of Minnesota Women Lawyers for 16 years and serving on the Board for the past 6 years, I know how top-of-mind diversity and inclusion has been over the years in everything MWL does from programming, to speaker selections, to its membership campaign, and leadership opportunities. Yet, I could not come up with an intelligible response to Julie’s comment. I prodded to find out more (what events had her colleagues attended? When was the last time they attended an MWL event?), but her comments were brief. She made up her mind: MWL was not for her.

I have a lot of pride in my involvement with MWL. Even so, Julie’s opinion of MWL cut me to the core. Is this the real MWL? And do I really want to continue to be a part of something perceived to be so… segregated?

My answer: No, I do not.

When MWL President Amy Taber asked me to co-chair this subcommittee, I saw it as an opportunity to help change not only the perspective some have of MWL, but also our reality.

So, what are we going to do about it?

The MWL Diversity and Inclusion Subcommittee is overseen by the Governance Committee. We meet monthly to work on implementing the following goals, which were approved by the board in March 2020:

Project/Goal #1: Work with the Strategic Taskforce and MWL staff to refine and develop D&I goals and ensure alignment throughout the organization with initial focus of D&I efforts on racial and ethnic diversity.

Action: Review concrete steps MWL staff has begun implementing to further MWL D&I efforts and provide feedback and direction as appropriate. Review/discuss Strategic Taskforce’s proposal for D&I and provide input as appropriate. Consider revisions to the Subcommittee’s plan as necessary.

Project/Goal #2: Coordinate D&I training for the MWL Board of Directors at least twice per year (once formally and once informally). Participation in the D&I training should be considered an expectation for service on MWL’s Board of Directors.

Action: Engage facilitator(s) for at least one annual training session for MWL Board of Directors. Ensure at least one informal annual training/check-in with MWL Board of Directors. Ensure annual budget addresses D&I-specific training efforts. Training topics for consideration: engaging in honest/“tough” conversations regarding diversity and inclusion; ensuring MWL leadership is speaking about the organization’s definition of, and goals related to, diversity and inclusion with one voice. To the extent possible, training opportunities will also be considered and provided to other MWL leadership groups as possible.

Project/Goal #3: Build programming that specifically address D&I issues, focusing on racial and ethnic diversity, including from an ally perspective.

Action: Act as a resource for other MWL committees and affinity groups in the action planning process to assist in development of goals that advance MWL’s D&I efforts, focusing on racial and ethnic diversity. Schedule in-person meeting, to the extent possible, with Programming and CLE Subcommittee during their action-planning processes. Ensure annual budget addresses D&I-specific programming efforts.

Project/Goal #4: Effectively communicate MWL’s D&I efforts, goals, and focus.

Action: Implement ways to highlight MWL’s work in the D&I space. Assist in developing part of MWL’s Annual Report to inform readers of MWL’s D&I goals, successes, and areas for focused improvement. Make the MWL Annual Report and a D&I-specific report easily accessible. Share information with other affinity bars and within the legal community. Consider ways to utilize the MWL website to advance goals.

Project/Goal #5: Build affinity groups specific to racial/ethnic diversity.

Action: Invite the creation of an affinity group for black women based on interest already expressed. Assess interest for other affinity groups either specific to particular race/ethnic background or for women of color generally.

Project/Goal #6 (specific to FY2020-2021): Build and strengthen relationships within LGBTQIA+ community by meeting with, and listening to, community leaders.

Action: Actively consider how MWL might broaden its D&I reach to include members of the LGBTQIA+ community in action plan for FY2021-2022

*    *    *    *

Minnesota Women Lawyers—both as an organization as a whole, as well as individual members —must not bury our heads in the sand. We know there is more work to be done. We must continue to ask: what are we missing? Who are we missing? And we must be prepared for the truth: We are missing a lot.  We also believe this plan will bring us closer to where we should be with regard to diversity and inclusion in MWL.

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