Spotlight on Sections: Minority Groups

Spotlight on Sections: Minority Groups

 

By Barbra Elenbaas

 
AALS sections provide opportunities for law school faculty and staff to connect on issues of shared interest. Each section is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of AALS sections and information on how to join, please visit aals.org/services/sections.
 
At its November meeting, the AALS Executive Committee provisionally approved the new Section on Leadership, raising the total number of sections to 103. The section will promote scholarship, teaching, and related activities that will help prepare lawyers and law students to serve in leadership roles. To join the Section on Leadership, contact AALS at support@aals.org.
 
As part of the ongoing “Spotlight on Sections” series, AALS sat down with the leadership of the Section on Minority Groups and the recently created Section on Empirical Study of Legal Education and the Legal Profession to discuss section activities at the AALS Annual Meeting and beyond.
 
Elena Maria Marty-Nelson, Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of LawChair: Elena Maria Marty-Nelson, Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law
 
What can you tell us about the membership of the Section on Minority Groups and the work your members do?
 
Elena Maria Marty-Nelson: We have scholars with expertise in widely different areas. Our members range from those who are just joining the academy to senior tenured faculty. We have legal writing professors, clinicians, endowed chairs, provosts—we even have university presidents. They are prolific scholars, and mentors who are active in legal scholarship, advocacy, and public policy initiatives. But we have a common theme: we’re all extremely concerned with advancing social justice, inclusion, and diversity, as well as improving access to justice in the legal profession and making sure law schools are as inclusive as possible. We work on social justice and equality in general. We see major problems and try to address them.
 
Our members have deliberately created and nurtured our section to be a collaborative and supportive community of scholars. I am constantly amazed at how we champion and develop each other’s work, and it’s all because we’re all focused on our goals of inclusion and social justice.
 
When you say you aim to increase diversity and inclusion, is that within law faculty, in law schools, or among your students? Or all of the above?
 
EMMN: All of the above. The issues we’re grappling within the legal academy and our section are the most critical global issues for society. Structural and economic inequality exist, and we see that in law schools, the legal profession, and the world. Who gets into law school? What preparations did they have? What advantages did they have? Once you are in the legal academy, are you getting the same mentorship? Are you getting the same advantages as others? We grapple internally with the same issues—continued racial, ethnic, and gender discrimination and disparities.
 
What are some important conversations happening right now regarding minority groups and diversity in legal education (and/or the legal profession)?
 
EMMN: We’ve been talking about protecting the most vulnerable amongst us: topics like immigration issues, the travel ban, DREAMers, prison reform, reinstating voting rights, inequality in general, racial oppression, gender-based oppression, and states promoting anti-hate legislation. Many issues that the nation is currently focused on are the same issues the legal profession is discussing, and those are the same issues at the forefront of our section. Our listserv is actively finding opportunities for collaboration, obtaining highly qualified expertise, sometimes even setting up strategy calls for current issues.
 
What I like about our section is that we are proactive when something (either legislative or at the agency level) is proposed. We don’t like to wait until it’s too late. We have people who know what the [state and federal] agencies are doing, so our experts proactively get involved. For example, we had a lot invested in the immigration and travel ban, and many section members had helpful expertise. We reached out to each other for amicus briefs, advocacy letters, and volunteers to help on the ground. I’m very proud of our members for immediately answering the call.
 
As an affinity section, do you do a lot of work with overlapping subject sections?
 
EMMN: We collaborate very closely with immigration, women and legal education, health law, and many other sections. Our issues have a lot of intersectionality.
 
Our executive board also has leaders in other sections and throughout AALS—being chair of this section is a dream. That is part of why we are so active. The executive board is passionate and dedicated, and the members who are not on the executive board are equally so. Our members volunteer so much of their time.
 
How do your section members interact, collaborate, and support scholarship outside of AALS events?
 
EMMN: The real springboard for collaboration within our section in terms of scholarship, public policy initiatives, pedagogy, or anything within the legal academy, is the listserv. Conversations begin there and then separate out into individual calls or volunteer work. An added bonus of such activity is that when someone gets a promotion, writes an article, or has an honor such as being awarded an endowed chair, you’ll see responses and congratulations back and forth. It’s a very supportive, vibrant community.
 
Our members also attend various conferences for people of color, or are members of other groups such as the Society of American Law Teachers, and see each other at those events.
 
What programming do you have in the works for the 2018 AALS Annual Meeting?
 
EMMN: We usually have four events at the Annual Meeting: two panels, one pedagogy section, and at least 150-200 people at our Minority Groups Section Luncheon.
 
This year, on Wednesday, January 3 at 1:30 pm, we have a panel on “Structural and Procedural Hurdles to Justice Affecting Minorities.” We’ll discuss not only the impact of economic disparities, but also structural barriers such as barriers to class action and how that affects minorities, procedural rules, implicit bias, prosecutorial bias and discretion. Dennis D. Parker, the director of the ACLU National Office’s Racial Justice Program, will be on that panel and Deborah will be the moderator.
 
Thursday at 3:30 pm is our pedagogy program: “Strategies and Support for Persons of Color in New Law Teaching.” Our incredible speakers, all of whom are award-winning professors, will give advice and share ideas. One of our executive board members, Jessica Weaver (Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law), will moderate.
 
On Friday at 10:30 am, we have a panel co-sponsored with the Section on National Security Law called “Technology as a Sword and a Shield.” It will address the intersection of civil rights and liberties, surveillance, and data. The good news is DNA evidence can exonerate you if you were wrongly accused and convicted. But, on the other hand, there are some risks with bias in the data. Sahar Aziz (Rutgers Law School) will moderate that panel.
 
We will move straight from that to our luncheon, where our Derrick Bell and our Clyde Ferguson Award recipients will speak. It’s a very important time for us to come together and celebrate each other, to learn who’s been promoted and who has just joined the academy. We have a moment of silence for anyone whom we have lost over the year. It’s an important, powerful, and substantive event where we can hear from each other, be with each other, and enjoy our community in person.
 
As you just mentioned, your section has two awards. What can you tell me about those?
 
EMMN: The Derrick Bell, Jr. award is for junior faculty, and the Clyde Ferguson is for senior faculty. They are very prestigious and difficult to win—the former winners are impressive. Both of these awards are for a body of work, rather than for a particular article or action. This is because we value the ability to recognize somebody who, in addition to being an influential scholar, is a phenomenal mentor or has done community work. It’s very different from your typical award. Winner must be teachers, mentors, scholars, and care deeply about society generally.
 
Your section is also very active at nearly every AALS conference and meeting throughout the year. What can you tell me about your presence at those meetings?
 
EMMN: We do a breakfast at the AALS Workshop for New Law School Teachers, which is an important opportunity to initiate mentor relationships and show the value in institutional knowledge from faculty of color. It’s a way to make sure that people just entering the academy know we are here to help. New faculty can benefit from our struggles and from what helped us, and learn what they should be doing. That might be finding a mentor, finding supportive people to work with, using our section for help, or preparing for courses and balancing time with other duties. We share stories and information—many things we wish people had shared with us.
 
We’ve found that new teachers remember the breakfast years later. It has a lasting impact as the venue where new teachers met both the rest of their new teacher cohort, and their fellow new law teachers of color. They’ll bond even if they are at different schools because they’ll know they started together in a safe space and they reached out to each other.
 
Your section is one of three affinity groups among the 102 AALS sections. How and when did your section start?
 
EMMN: A couple of scholars have written about the origins of our section—Linda Greene from University of Wisconsin School of Law comes to mind. Here is the short version: In 1950, after Sweatt v. Painter, was decided, an AALS group of law faculty came together as a committee to focus on eliminating racial discrimination in law schools, but it was not a chartered group. Outside of AALS, there was an independent committee, the Caucus of Black Teachers, led by Derrick Bell from Harvard Law School working on the same goals. The AALS committee merged with the Caucus of Black Teachers in 1973 as a way of trying to break down historical racism in legal education. That new merged group was chartered as an AALS Section on Minority Groups. That was the same year that AALS chartered the Section on Women in Legal Education. Being chartered so long ago means we now have law professors of color in positions of leadership in AALS, advancing the issues of equality and helping in the struggle against discrimination.
 
What do you think has changed as a direct or indirect result of the work of the section?
 
EMMN: I think we have driven a lot of change in legal education because we work in so many varied areas—more legal clinics, more simulation courses, and more experiential learning, for example. Of course, we alone cannot take credit for that. Our voices are part of a chorus of voices.
 
I think the voices must be continued, and we must continue to make equality a priority. I can’t say whether there has been sufficient change. Our work is certainly not done. If you think about real leadership at the higher levels of academia, people of color are still not there. The numbers are better within the academy broadly speaking, but are they better for people of color at the highest levels of deans and presidents?
 
Tell me about the mentorship efforts within your section.
 
EMMN: We encourage mentorship in several different ways, though there is no formal structure for mentorship run through the section. First, we talk about the importance of mentorship at the Faculty Recruitment Conference for aspiring teachers before they’ve even become faculty. The first time it comes up formally is at the New Law School Teachers Conference. We do it again at the Annual Meeting Luncheon, where we talk about reaching out and sitting with someone and breaking bread. Finally, we consistently promote mentorship through the listserv. It’s not an enforced structure, but it is a strong community norm within our section.
 
What is your vision for the section, this year and in the years to come? What new initiatives, project-based or ongoing, would you like to see as part of the section?
 
EMMN: I want us to continue our struggle and continue to be the voice for equality and justice. One issue that is top-of-mind for me is disparities between federal responses to natural disasters within Texas and Florida versus Puerto Rico. I think our section should be a place to help give voice to these issues. Our section has experts in many different areas where we can help. I hope our section continues to work on combating racial, ethnic, religious, and gender-based discrimination in all areas, including procedural issues, immigration, employment, corporate, and tax.
 
Section on Minority Groups panel at the 2015 AALS Annual MeetingSection on Minority Groups panel at the 2015 AALS Annual Meeting
 
AALS Sections provide opportunities for law school faculty and staff to connect on issues of shared interest. Each of the 102 AALS sections is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of AALS sections and information on how to join, please visit aals.org/services/sections.