Because We Believe: Law, Justice and Changemaking

February 16. 2022

By Dr. Mary L. Milano and Kenya A. Jenkins-Wright,

Co-Chairs of the ISBA Steering Committee on Racial Inequality

In June of 2020, the Assembly of the Illinois State Bar Association overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for an Association wide effort to examine the places and ways in which systemic racism might be reflected in the wide range of Illinois law. The resolution evoked both the past commitments and history of the ISBA as a leader in promoting justice in the legal system and in society, while at the same time presenting a challenge to all of us as members to move forward in the light which began to shine on our institutions and assumptions by the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 at the hands of police, that is, of those civil society commended with protecting the rights and welfare of its citizens. That murder represents the first frame of what has become an Association wide project which joins contemporaneous efforts to address racism and injustice most intentionally and to examine the ways in which the ISBA looks at itself, pursues the transformative energy of diversity and inclusion and at the same time effects change in the systems of law and society in which we live, from which we benefit, and to which we owe the duty of our loyal but critical engagement. These efforts include the formation of the ISBA Steering Committee on Racial Inequality, outreach to and cooperation with affinity bars, and the efforts of President Anna Krolikowska and our leadership to incorporate and institutionalize the threefold concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion into the Association’s life and direction.

The Steering Committee is moving toward the completion of two years of work. This work really began with outreach to a wide and itself diverse group of members. To date, 24 ISBA members and/or affiliates have participated on the Steering Committee with demonstrated commitments to the advancement of social justice and equity in the legal system, has devolved in two related directions, both of which have been supported by the kind of exchange of ideas and progress from those ideas to actions, some with immediate impact and some of a long range nature. The most tangible of the Steering Committee’s efforts came together in support of the agenda for reform advanced by the Black Caucus of the State of Illinois Legislature, which crafted reasoned and long needed reforms in areas of the criminal justice system which have long had a disproportionate and unjust impact on those from communities of color. The ISBA and the Steering Committee were able to provide additional research in a timely manner to support initiatives of the Black Caucus, as well as support in advocacy, spearheaded at the Capitol by Jim Covington, ISBA Director of Legislative Affairs. As the Black Caucus crafted what became known as the Safe-T Act, the ISBA was proud of those in the Black Caucus and State of Illinois Legislature who are association members, very notably Senator Elgie Simms, whose views can in part be read in the December 2021 issue of the IBJ.

While criminal justice reform took center stage, the Steering Committee is also at work on areas of the law that are less obvious in their impact, including lending practices, real estate taxation and property assessment practices, and nursing home reform. The Steering Committee is reaching out to ISBA Section Councils and Standing Committees to extend and deepen focus and expertise.

The second emphasis of the Steering Committee is in the area of public education. The Committee created materials around election participation and procedures. Also, the Steering Committee is in the process of production of video resources educating the public on the Safe-T Act overall with specific information on bail reform in an attempt to clarify any inaccurate information in the press and other forums.  Finally, the Steering Committee is collaborating with other ISBA Section Councils and Standing Committees as well as affiliate bar associations to reach groups typically overlooked – including the elderly and students in alternative schools.

The murder of George Floyd was the first frame or door into this work. Sadly, there is a second frame now, which looks very much like the first. On February 2, 2022, Amir Locke was killed by Minneapolis police while he slept, wrapped in a blanket on his couch. Locke was neither guilty of nor even a suspect of any crime. The question raised for us is whether the work we are doing matters in light of what seems to be a changeless world in which liberty interests and life itself are constantly at risk from the system that as lawyers we want to believe in. The answer perhaps is that while change comes slowly – too often too slowly for those whose lives are in the balance – we as lawyers have no choice but to believe. It is who we are and if we cannot make change, it can never happen.

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