I am proud to be a part of the recent initiative by DRI to change its approach to diversity and inclusion. DRI has a proud tradition of leadership in this area. In past years, during its annual Asbestos Medicine Seminar, DRI always held a lunch event devoted to the topic of diversity. But this year, organizers moved the conversation to a main stage plenary session instead of a side luncheon. Also, rather than a general exposition of all diverse groups, DRI decided to take a deep dive into the experience of black defense attorneys, specifically.
Tackling Missing Conversations Head On
The resulting panel discussion took place on Nov. 3. It was titled “I Don’t Want to be Tide Down: Diversity Initiative: First Installment – Missing Conversations About Diversity and Moving the Discussion to the Main Stage.” I was honored to be a co-moderator along with Mahsa Kashani Tippins of DCo LLC.
The session consisted of short presentations by panelists, who shared their experiences as black defense lawyers and their journeys to success: Jeanette Riggins of MG+M LLP; Vanessa Merassaint of Bowman and Brooke LLP; Anthony L. Springfield of Polsinelli; and Ben Thames of GRSM.
Afterwards, there was an honest discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of various diversity initiatives as well as questions from both the moderators and the audience.
The results were encouraging. Panel members received positive feedback around the approach we had taken and the conversations that ensued.
Be Not Afraid
As I began my opening remarks, I noted that I was an old, British, white man on a panel of four black attorneys and a Persian co-facilitator. Guess who was the odd person out? While I made a light joke out of it, the point is an important one. Members of the majority race need to be in the conversation, yet we are all too often missing from it. Why? The majority race, in my experience, typically has great goodwill but fears causing offense by jumping into conversations about racial differences. More so, in today's hyper-sensitized racial politics, people fear being accused of racial insensitivity, or worse.
We covered a lot of important ground on the panel, but the single most critical point made to the majority race was this: BE NOT AFRAID.
Over the years, I have posed a question to numerous black professionals: What would you say to the majority race to encourage us to enter into the conversation? The answers have been remarkably similar, along the lines of: “We see you. We see where you are coming from. If you are approaching the conversation from a place of goodwill, so will we.”
Some of us worry a lot about vocabulary—whether it is preferred to say “black” or “African American” or “person of color.” There is a good chance one of us will misstep from time to time. But the message of encouragement from the panel was the same. Don’t worry. We see where you are coming from. Jump in!
Why is this important? Because the status quo in our society has not achieved the level of diversity and inclusion that we hoped for decades ago. While great progress has been made, it is equally true that much remains to be done. The lifeblood of any relationship is the small conversations. Ordinary conversations about race and differences build a foundation of trust— and once you get going, the subject is very interesting, too!
Another big theme of our panel was around mentorship. Anyone who has been a first—the first black attorney or the first black partner in a firm or office—has been the beneficiary of mentorship. But the interesting lesson I learned is that anyone can be a mentor, and the panelists had received important mentorship across racial and gender lines.
In her recent memoir, “The Wind at My Back,” Misty Copeland—the first African American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre—pays tribute to her mentor. I find Copeland’s evocative metaphor for mentorship quite powerful. I call on us all to be the wind at someone’s back.
Many Ways of Being Black
A final theme I would like to highlight—and the panel actually lead with this thought—is that there are all sorts of ways of being black. While there is a tendency to generalize about the black American experience, there is tremendous diversity within the black community.
Black attorneys may be first-generation immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean or South America. They may be from educated, wealthy family backgrounds, or the reverse. And their skin tone may vary from the darkest hues to almost indistinguishable from white Americans. While society tends to lump all together in a single classification, with many attendant assumptions, the truth is that there is great diversity for us to learn about just within the black racial classification.
I am so incredibly grateful for the warmth and generous invitation extended to me by my fellow panelists. This DRI initiative will expand in the years to come to other diverse groups that deserve their own featured panel.
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Jonathan Terrell is the Founder and President of KCIC. He has more than 30 years of international financial services experience with a multi-disciplinary background in accounting, finance and insurance. Prior to founding KCIC in 2002, he worked at Zurich Financial Services, JP Morgan, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers.Learn More About Jonathan