|Oregon State Bar Bulletin AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 2011|
Fifty-six years ago in a western suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, I heard urgent knocking at our front door. Almost breathless beloved neighbors wanted my parents to sign a petition to advise potential buyers of a neighborhood home that they were not welcome. They were not welcome because they were Asian American. My parents refused to sign the petition, but other neighbors did. The potential buyers heard the message loud and clear. Our neighborhood lost an opportunity to be respectful and welcoming of people who were seen as different, and our neighborhood was diminished.
That moment helped me at a young age understand that diversity exists, even if we try to ignore it. The real question is not “what is diversity?” but rather, “how do we treat people who are different from ourselves?”
Early Oregonians chose to deal with people of different ancestry by passing exclusion laws to prevent African Americans from living in Oregon, and even enshrined that concept in the 1857 Oregon Constitution. I do not recall this history to condemn, but to remind us that how we view, respect and include each other makes a difference. It is easy for us to deny personal prejudice, but have underlying unconscious negative feelings and beliefs that may well be communicated. This results often not in overt discrimination, but in unintentional behavior that impacts others. History and such unintentional acts often exclude and diminish our colleagues, neighbors and affect how the rule of law is observed.
All of us have similar dreams, hopes, aspirations and dilemmas. We also have different expectations, lived experiences and cultural programming. It is important that we as lawyers learn to appreciate and honor the differences that shape the way each of us sees the world. This is essential to our profession, our justice system and society. As our executive director Sylvia Stevens recognized in her Bulletin article “Cultural Competency” (January 2009, “(p)eople who are culturally competent are aware of their own cultural background; they also recognize that culture influences behaviors, thoughts, ways of communicating, values, traditions and institutions.” She concluded that cultural competence is a “… practical necessity in modern law practice if we are committed to equal justice and high quality client service.” Simply because something is fundamental to some of us, it may not be understood or even recognized by others of us. Then when cultural values differ, the same comment or concept may be understood differently.
Our state bar more than 30 years ago recognized the importance of the issues of diversity, equality and inclusiveness in beginning the bar’s affirmative action program. Past bar leaders such as Dick Brownstein and Sid Lezak helped us see that being intentionally inclusive results in improved laws, better lawyers and judges, and a confidence by all in our justice system.
Ten years ago the first “Convocation on Equality” was held. Dennis Archer, the first African American president of the American Bar Association, spoke and inspired all who attended the convocation. That convocation of 10 years ago helped us to understand that diversity, inclusiveness, equality and justice must be both goals and accomplishments of our bar. We became aware of some of our stereotypes and prejudices and how those change over time. We engaged in self-reflection. We discovered how the experiences of the majority of us in practicing law in Oregon were very different from the experiences of people of color and other underrepresented groups.
Since that time significant progress has been made. The Oregon State Bar Diversity Section was created and diversity became part of the OSB’s mission and values statements. The Opportunities for Law in Oregon (OLIO) program took root, providing opportunities for diverse law students, judges, practitioners and others to come together to reflect on the practice of law in our state and to begin building a welcoming community for law students and lawyers of color. OLIO helps students anticipate the experience of being in law school, taking the bar exam and practicing law. Our bar, state and justice system have all been improved by the OLIO program as participants in OLIO and the other bar programs have remained in Oregon.
There have been an increasing number of Oregon attorneys who belong to various underrepresented groups. The state bench, prosecutors’ offices and public defenders have become more diverse. The Oregon Asian Pacific American Bar Association was recently founded, and within its second year sponsored a successful Western Regional Conference of the National Association of Pacific and Asian Lawyers. This is another benefit of our years of commitment to intentional inclusiveness. It also shows why it is necessary to have a second convocation on equality to appreciate and celebrate these many changes, including those described above to our state and bar.
I, along with all of the other members of the steering committee for the convocation, have been inspired by Akira Heshiki, Emilie Edling and Diane Schwartz Sykes, who are leading the planning for the upcoming convocation. These three energetic young lawyers developed a vision for a program that will celebrate the success of practitioners of underrepresented groups, recognize those who have given so much to the bar and our communities, give practical advice and counsel to those care about justice and equity, help develop some practical tools to motivate and maintain our bar’s and communities’ being intentionally inclusive, and energize our bar to make a greater commitment to these issues. In addition to these inspiring leaders the convocation is being co-sponsored by the Oregon State Bar, the Multnomah Bar Association, Oregon Women Lawyers, the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association, OGALLA: The LGBT Bar Association, and the Oregon Asian Pacific American Bar Association.
Although this convocation, as the last, is being held in Portland, the issues of diversity and intentional inclusiveness are important in all parts of our state. In many parts of our state the low number of people of unrepresented population could argue for the position that this issue is not important in any specific locale. Yet it is in these locales where specific underrepresented group numbers may be small where we must ensure that all citizens have confidence that our judicial system and our legal practitioners will be culturally competent and available to ensure the rights and claims of all. A willingness to examine ourselves and how various parts of our communities view the justice system is extremely important to the practice of law. Communities like Eugene where I practice continue to demographically diversify and, as lawyers, we must continue to find ways to welcome our neighbors and not chase them away as happened in my home town.
One of the goals of this year’s convocation is to recognize that all members of the bar can contribute to, and gain from, the common goal of having a legal system that honors diversity and inclusion. At the convocation we will recognize the everyday contributions of people who work toward this effort — every hour spent on a committee, giving an access-to-justice CLE presentation, advising a board that supports diversity, and all the other efforts toward inclusion that have helped move the bar closer toward its goal. To that end, you can, and should, nominate your colleagues in Eugene, Klamath Falls, Baker City or wherever this work is performed and which might otherwise go unnoticed.
I have already named a few of the people I consider champions for diversity. To get you thinking I have some more to offer. From the bench: Darleen Ortega, Cynthia Carlson, Janice Wilson and Edwin Peterson. From the private bar and bar leadership: J.B. Kim, Dennis Karnopp, Tom Kranovich and Linda Meng. And some folks who have inspired me as I watched them direct the work of the OSB Affirmative Action Program over the past 10 years: Stella Manabe, award-winning innovator of OLIO; Frank Garcia, now leading Gov. Kitzhaber’s diversity efforts; and Mariann Hyland, who took over the helm of the OSB diversity efforts in June. Who are your heroes? Please fill out a nomination form (available at http://www.osbar.org/_docs/aap/11Convonequality.pdf) and let us help you thank them publicly.
My remembered experience of 56 years ago outside of Cleveland continues to trouble and inspire me to ensure that others will not have that uncomfortable feeling of inequality and injustice. Each of us forgets at times the impact that our actions have on others and how our actions, biases, understanding, patience and listening skills impact how the justice system is viewed in each of our communities.
The convocation on Nov. 4, 2011, is an opportunity for those who wish to continue to elevate the rule of law, to improve it, and to ensure that it is understood and respected by all. I hope that many of you can come celebrate, learn and continue this journey.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gerry Gaydos was a member of the OSB Board of Governors from 2002 to 2009. He served as president of the bar in 2009.
© 2011 Gerry Gaydos