Law School Deans Create Antiracist Clearinghouse

law deans antiracist clearinghouse project

In June, AALS launched the Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project, a webpage for law deans, faculty, and the public that contains resources and information related to addressing racism and police reform to help develop remedies for these and other complex issues. The webpage was developed and curated by five Black women law deans: Danielle M. Conway (Penn State Dickinson Law), Danielle Holley-Walker (Howard Law), Kimberly Mutcherson (Rutgers Law), Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Boston University Law), and Carla D. Pratt (Washburn University Law).

AALS recently interviewed the deans behind the effort and discussed the development and future of the project.

law deans antiracist clearinghouse project
Left to Right: Danielle M. Conway (Penn State Dickinson Law), Danielle Holley-Walker (Howard Law), Kimberly Mutcherson (Rutgers Law), Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Boston University Law), and Carla D. Pratt (Washburn University Law).

How did the project first come together?

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: A few women of color deans and a couple of progressive white women deans would have rap sessions or collaboration sessions over Zoom from time to time. One night, we were talking about the recent tragedies in our society, the fears for our children, the brilliance of James Baldwin, and what we felt we would say or not say publicly as deans. We each felt frozen, but we were trying to encourage each other to speak and were throwing out ideas for actions we could take. The first plan was for one of us, Melanie Jacobs (Michigan State University Law), to suggest the idea of a Deans’ Dialogue on these issues to Kellye Testy. The meeting and a plan of action allowed for some release, and words just flowed out of some into statements. Eventually, Danielle Conway shared my statement over the deans’ listserv, and a flood of different statements from deans of all races across the country came in. It was nice for us to see and know that other deans were moved to action. After that night, Danielle Conway reached out to a few of us to suggest her fantastic idea of creating an antiracism clearinghouse. I found her vision inspiring. We all did. The rest is history. It’s a great project because it pushes all of us to ask ourselves if we’re doing antiracist work within our own communities.

Danielle Conway: I had sent out a message to the deans’ listserv asking our dean colleagues to consider using our collective voice to say and do something as law deans to respond to the racism and violence we witnessed most recently with the killing of George Floyd by police. That led to deans bombarding the listserv with their individual community letters. After seeing around the 40th statement come through on the listserv, I confided in Kellye Testy (CEO of LSAC) that I had hoped we would do more than send statements to the listserv.

I sent that message because we have these jobs, and we need to have our voice heard on these important issues. I thought maybe if we speak as one, somebody might listen, and maybe one less person would die. When I told Kellye that, she said I should talk to Judy Areen (Executive Director of AALS). Judy said that we should do something to communicate the collective voice I was talking about.

I did not want to let Judy down, and I knew this project might be cathartic for me. To respond in a collective way, I needed to reach out to other deans. That following Friday, I delivered some PowerPoint slides to my “sister deans” on the project. We all asked ourselves why we had not done something like this before.

I created the framework. There were some aspects that I knew better than others—like the art, literature, and music sections. Also, the iterative phase and the leading phase I knew well from my career in the U.S. Army. We needed an introduction to the page, and my dean sisters started working on it together. I felt validated.

When we were getting ready to announce it, we knew this was important for legal education and something all the deans could reflect on.

Carla D. Pratt: I got a video call from Danielle Conway. During the call, she showed me a collage of photos of Black and Brown faces. She didn’t say a word, but I knew that they were the faces of Black and Brown people who had been killed by police action. Then she held up another collage, which was the picture of Black deans that Evangeline Mitchell (Founder, National HBCU Pre-Law Summit) created in celebration of this time when we have more Black deans serving in American law schools than ever before. There was a stark juxtaposition that we are being celebrated for ascending to a very revered position in higher education, yet any one of us could have been a face on the other collage. We realized we had to do something.

Danielle and I are Howard Law alumni. We wanted to reach out to Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard Law, because the school has the longest tradition of civil rights around race in the country.

Kim Mutcherson’s statement was so powerful, personal, and impactful that we immediately reached out to her as well. Danielle (Conway) knew that Angela Onwuachi-Willig had to be involved because she has been regarded as the most prolific scholar on race and law for over a decade.

For Black deans, this was not just a moment of leadership. It was a moment that had a personal impact on us, and it took a personal toll on us. We are in positions requiring us to lead, but we’re also grieving the loss of another member of the Black community.

What has been the reaction to the project from your colleagues?

Danielle Holley-Walker: The reaction has been incredible. One of the most powerful reactions was during a webinar that the National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA) put together on how Black law students can make an impact at this time with many students feeling a sense of exclusion on their own campuses. The reaction to the audit phase has been so powerful because you can use it in several settings. It is having an impact outside of legal academia. Also, there has been a positive reaction among students seeing their deans make powerful statements on ending police violence.

Carla D. Pratt: The reaction from my colleagues at Washburn Law has been very positive. The law faculty acted promptly to adopt the Penn State Dickinson Law resolution and is working to strengthen our curriculum and our teaching pedagogy. I feel very fortunate to have such supportive law school faculty colleagues.

Kim Mutcherson: The audit holds people accountable. There is a long list of statements that many law school deans made, and the statements are deans saying they are committed. Now schools must start doing the work. It will be interesting to see in the next couple of months how many schools have started this work, how many are doing so in a public way, and how many of them are going to follow through with making significant changes at their institution such as changing the first-year curriculum.

The project starts out with a listening phase stating that it is important to listen to the voices of deans personally affected by systemic racism. What can law school leaders learn from these perspectives and how can it inform efforts to create an antiracist environment on campus and in society?

Danielle Conway: I was impressed with all our dean colleagues because of their willingness to receive instruction, listen, and make space without having to be the authority in the room. One of the important parts of the listening phase was being wise enough not to challenge the notion that you should be listening. The legal academy is blessed to have wise deans who are friends and supporters.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: My new colleague at Boston University, Ibram X. Kendi, wrote the book “How to Be an Antiracist” and writes about the difference between someone who is not racist and somebody who’s antiracist, meaning someone who’s actively engaged in dismantling racist policies and practices. He makes it clear there is no neutral “not racist” position in our society. If you’re supporting racist practices or policy through inaction, you’re on the side of racism.

Law school dean leadership has not been as diverse as it is currently. People haven’t always known about, heard about, or listened to the experiences of those whom our society marginalizes. Many of our colleagues have not thought about the many ways that laws and policies facilitate and reinforce racism. They do not consider how their experience is defined as normative and neutral. When people listen to marginalized voices, they hear a different perspective, which makes them rethink the way that they teach their courses and build their curriculum. It may make them rethink policies that reinforce inequities in the school.

We’re finally in a moment when the voices of people of color are more likely to be centered, even if just for a short period. That means people who normally have the privilege of ignoring or remaining ignorant about other people’s realities are forced to think more deeply about our differing realities, what they mean in society, and how our experiences and voices should be better integrated.

Kim Mutcherson: There are some people for whom this was an opportunity to think deeply about what it means to make impactful change. When I am done with this job, I want this institution to feel different than it did when I started. It is clear to me that the ways in which I am responding to this moment are completely different from all the people who had this job before me. I’m the first woman. I’m the first queer person. I’m the first person of color to have this job.

Danielle Holley-Walker:
In six years as dean, I have not written a single one of these statements because to me, Howard Law School is about the work of racial justice. I was not sure how these statements fit into racial justice work.

I put a lot of things in my statement about what Howard Law was doing, and that those things are not new. This is the consistent work of our law school. I was hoping other deans would talk about the work they are doing.

Kim Mutcherson: A lot of our profession wants to see a difference being made in racial justice work. There are questions about who is supposed to do this work. How is the work done? Are we going to put resources behind the work? Is this putting more of a burden on our Black professors, administrators, and students? The listening phase of this project was so important because it can give people the initiative to say that not only should they start this work, but they must start this work. Leaders at law schools cannot ignore these issues.

Carla D. Pratt: The listening phase has revealed to people just how insulated they are from these issues. I think when they read and listen to the statements of Black deans, their own racial privilege is revealed to them in terms of not having to carry the emotional burden of racial oppression.

After the killing of George Floyd, many law schools held listening sessions to hear students concerns and address issues of racism and police violence in their own campuses and communities. What is your perspective on these efforts and how can law schools sustain a focus on these issues?

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: We’re in a moment where students of color are more likely to be heard, so they are speaking out more. People who write about race, gender, and class are being listened to more.

Three women of color, myself included, and a white male ally, are leading the charge to push for an ABA requirement on anti-bias and antiracism education and training. We owe it to our society, to our students of all races who have been asking for such training, to people like George Floyd, and to people who are more vulnerable to continue to speak—particularly if we have a platform from which others will hear and listen to us.

Danielle Conway: Sustaining this movement and disseminating accurate information is important. George Floyd gave us a window in time to see the continuing cascade of racial oppression, and my dean colleagues have provided us the strength to stand up against it. One of the reasons why this project is having such an impact is that the pandemic is revealing this sub-plague of racism. We must seize this opportunity to eradicate the racial oppression that is coursing through the veins of society, and we must act together to do it.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig:
Law schools can hire more racially diverse faculties and admit and recruit more racially diverse student bodies to ensure we are no longer among the least diverse professions despite our professed commitment to equality and justice. Schools can engage in collaborations with high schools and colleges so that the pipeline of diverse students coming to law school is as diverse as those who are interested. The AALS Before the JD study showed that interest in law starts at a very early age, particularly among African American students, but we lose so many of those interested students along the way.

Kim Mutcherson: If people are not willing to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations, no change happens. People must be willing to confront their own privilege. The project is asking people to be very public if they are going to take positions. People are watching, which holds schools accountable for the changes they say they are going to make.

Carla D. Pratt: By taking these steps, law schools can create structural institutional change. Hopefully, we can make some institutional changes that will outlast our tenure and be meaningfully integrated in the future of our law schools.

The learning phase of the clearinghouse contains links to scholarship, art, literature, music and other information to help law school deans and faculty understand the complex issues entangled in racism from several angles. How did you decide which works to include? What have some of these works meant to you personally?

Danielle Conway: I wanted to include works such as music, art, and poetry. These are works that help us think more broadly about our identity and existence. Scholars, artists, poets, and musicians help us see things in a different way. You could call it faith when you hear a song or recall a poem and imagine what the artist or poet was thinking when engaging in the act of creation. Black people have the soul of America in the art they produce. It is important for people who do not identify as Black or African American to be aware that this is how many of our ancestors were able to survive.

We, as a country, have not been very open to talking about race, racism, and antiracist work. To have the ability to approach the topic through music, art, or storytelling makes the content more accessible than with scholarship alone.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: With respect to what work meant the most to me personally, Derrick Bell’s short story, Space Traders, is the piece that kept me in law school. When I read it in my first few days of law school, I thought, “If this guy is a lawyer, there is a place in law school for me.” We all learn in different ways. While music may speak to one person, poetry may speak to another.

Carla D. Pratt: It’s important to expose law students to a range of legal literature, including critical race theory literature. That invites them to think critically about the legal principles that we teach them as law. Just because it is in the law doesn’t make it moral. Slavery was law at one point in time. Literature and music can engage people with this tough conversation in a more relaxed, less threatening medium.

Danielle Holley-Walker: I taught race in the law, and at one time, I was the only Black person in the room. When some of my students read critical race theory for the first time, they felt very betrayed by their teachers, school boards, parents, and families because they had never been exposed to these perspectives.

One of the powerful things about the learning phase is there are a lot of deans, professors, and law students who feel they have come this far in life and have never experienced any of the things that are in the learning phase. It is necessary to read Black literature and experience Black art if you are going to do this work. You will never come to a place where you’re going to do racial justice work if you don’t understand the beauty, the majesty, and the incredible nature of Black culture, our contributions, and the history of what we’ve done in the United States.

Kim Mutcherson: In several of my classes, I use materials outside of the casebook because a casebook is inadequate for what I’m trying to achieve with my students. It is good to remind ourselves and other people that having students only read cases and the notes isn’t necessarily going to get into the conversations that they should be having about how our criminal justice system is deeply flawed. This is partially because many law school professors are not comfortable having those conversations. I remember in law school when students would walk out of the classroom and gather with their classmates to discuss all that the professor did not talk about in a case. That should happen inside the classroom. Sometimes a professor needs literature, a law review article, or a piece of music to bring in as part of that learning.

A number of law schools have passed faculty resolutions in the past couple months where schools have committed to plans to address racism and inequality. The clearinghouse has archived these resolutions in the leading phase of the project. Can you talk about your schools’ resolutions and how they may serve as a model for other institutions?

Danielle Conway: After George Floyd’s death, I had this feeling of being paralyzed by another Black person being killed by police. When my son was born, I whispered into his ear, “I’ll always be here, and I’ll always protect you.” After George Floyd was killed, it resonated in me that I lied to my son. I confided in my sister deans, and I also confided in my faculty that I could not write a letter to my community because I was struggling and suffering with this realization. My faculty said they had to do something about this and they resolved to show me and other Black people their support. The resolution that they unanimously passed was brilliant. It was so amazing that other schools reached out to me about using the resolution as a model. I immediately directed these requests to my faculty colleagues because the statement came from them.

Carla D. Pratt: The first resolution was from Penn State Dickinson Law. It was bold. It was unanimous, and that made it even more impactful. I immediately shared it with my faculty and said that we should work on developing our own faculty resolution. One of our faculty members suggested that we should adopt Penn State Dickinson Law ’s statement in total. Our faculty made a slight modification to the resolution to add language from our diversity strategic plan to make the resolution more specific to Washburn and to keep us accountable.

Kim Mutcherson: Our process was contentious, and our statement is deeply radical for a law school. We had some people who objected that we used the phrase white supremacy and talked about how there are people in our faculty who benefit from white supremacy. We talked about the murder of George Floyd as an execution. There’s very strong language in it, so I knew it was not going to pass unanimously. We felt strongly that there needed to be action items within the statement, such as a commitment to reviewing our curriculum. We are committed to reviewing our practices within the institution in terms of hiring faculty, staff, and administration. There are very complicated and difficult issues that are inherent in our law school model and we talked about these things in our statement.

We are now working through the audit to deal with those questions and get students involved in dealing with those questions. This is going to be hard work. There are going to be things discussed in the law school that were typically kept quiet. The goal is to emerge from this period as a different institution.

The audit reporting phase of the clearing house has important questions for law schools to reflect on their own institutions. What has been the reaction to these questions? Have you seen interesting ways schools have addressed the questions in the audit?

Danielle Holley-Walker: In the audit phase, we learned that many people do not know if they have ever seen a report from a law school that covers all of these questions. One of the most critical things that we heard was that students said even if they have one or two Black faculty members, the staff does not reflect them. Students have a hard time going to career services, for example, because they do not feel like they are looking out for them. I’ve encouraged students around the country to hold us accountable. This can become an accountability mechanism where your school releases a DNI report every year. We tend to absolve ourselves as academics sometimes from doing that kind of reporting. I hope we see some actual reports.

Carla D. Pratt: I’ve heard that several schools are planning to do climate surveys, which was one of the recommendations in the audit. As deans, we can be quite separated from what is happening in terms of the student and staff experience. We have created a new dean’s council that will be inclusive of every constituent of the law school, so that I can hear the concerns and viewpoints of those various constituent groups. We need to listen to everyone in the community and get everyone’s input in this work.

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: Progress on items in the audit will vary from school to school. Some of us are already engaged in this work, and some are still in the education phase and learning about what it means to be an antiracist and how racism is embedded within the law and in law schools. We’re all at different stages, and we’re each being pushed by different constituencies. The questions in the audit phase help people to focus on issues that they should uniquely be concerned about.

In the iterative phase, the project urges law school leaders to embed Antiracist Action into their programs of legal education. How can schools turn statements of solidarity into action plans to combat racism?

Danielle Holley-Walker: One of the differences we see in this moment is that there are people of all different ages, all different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and all different religions protesting. Schools should not create a diversity council made up of all Black faculty and put that on their ever-growing to-do lists. I hope that we will see in the iterative phase that there is a concern to everyone of undermining of the rule of law to have state sanctioned violence. Whether you want to be a corporate lawyer, be a real estate lawyer, etc., it is very hard to go out and call yourself an officer of the court while believing that your entire system is embedded with a racial infection. We cannot allow our law students of any race to continue to graduate in this atmosphere. This is the work of everyone. This is not just the work of your Black staff and students, who already feel isolated and over-burdened. Hopefully, the learning phase can make people come out of their shell, so they can be less afraid of saying the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing.

Kim Mutcherson: There is continued cooperation on a range of different issues. For example, 150 deans signed a letter to the ABA about embedding an anti-bias course in the law school curriculum. There is a greater number of deans talking about both the racist past and future of the bar exam. There are so many opportunities for cooperation, and cooperation is more likely to lead to good outcomes as opposed to one person here and there doing the work. This is a different kind of moment that has huge potential. There is always a question of whether that potential gets played out, but I think there is a chance for us to do extraordinary things as a collective.

Carla D. Pratt: Several schools have said that they are going to investigate curricular change. I hope the ABA provides more guidance in the standards regarding the need to teach about structural racism and the system of justice. I think it is encouraging to see deans leading their law schools through the process of examining the curriculum. There are many lawyers who believe there is no systemic racism in our system of justice because they were not taught about it in their legal education.

The clearinghouse is a living project that has already been updated with new statements and information since its launch since early-June. What plans do you have for the clearinghouse in the months to come? How can deans and faculty get more involved with the project?

Angela Onwuachi-Willig: We’re still exploring. Right now, we’re thinking about curriculum. Historically, the law school curriculum has centered certain experiences and groups and marginalized others. Professors from various AALS Sections have been exploring and talking about how they can incorporate more teaching materials that are critical of legal doctrine or more scholarly works that raise underexplored questions about race, socioeconomic class, and other factors. We’ve been discussing whether we should try to compile these materials on the clearinghouse website and incorporate this work by members of the different AALS Sections.

We have also discussed highlighting innovative programs or initiatives so schools can get different ideas of things that might work at their own institutions. At the same time, schools can be recognized for their work, which may help sustain this work.

Kim Mutcherson: We want people to start talking about their audits, including reporting on the audit and taking the next steps. We want schools to recognize what they have been doing poorly and to have public accountability.

Carla D. Pratt: I would like to see an annual diversity report from law schools become the norm, so we have an institutional practice of holding ourselves accountable on these issues. The ABA diversity standard has not mandated that schools do an in-depth analysis like the clearinghouse is asking deans to do. I hope we see very detailed audits and reports so that schools can learn from one another.

Danielle Holley-Walker: Reporting on changes in curriculum would be great. It would be great if schools are able to address questions about the way that law school is funded and the differentials in terms of our students. I would love to see us report our collaborative efforts. We have law schools that only have two or three Black students, perhaps partly because of where they are located. If we have collaborations that increase, the pipeline can increase those numbers. We have been able to help as a collective. For example, if 150 law deans sign the statement that says the ABA should have a new curriculum standard including anti-bias classes, it could be put into the clearinghouse when it is adopted. Hopefully, we will have a whole section of things that law schools have accomplished in the iterative phase.

Danielle Conway: Another thing I would like to do is feature the antiracist work of our dean colleagues on a regular and rotating basis.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Carla D. Pratt: I would like to thank AALS for creating the platform for the clearinghouse because none of us would have been able to do this without the support of AALS.