A Long and Bumpy Road: Adventures in Sustained Dialogue

By Shannon P. Bartlett

NALP Bulletin, November 2020

In the aftermath of the horrific killing of George Floyd, institutions and organizations across the country reflected on the ways systemic racism impacts their organizations. As part of that reflection, a cohort of faculty and staff leaders at my institution took part in a 16-hour program focused on fostering a shared understanding of the experience of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) members of our community. The program was led by two excellent external facilitators. Over the course of six weeks, we gathered via Zoom and were assigned "accountability partners" with whom we would meet and discuss issues in between our facilitated sessions. Having completed the program a few weeks ago, I now find myself reflecting on the journey with my colleagues, and I appreciate the opportunity this article presents for me to share some of what I learned through that experience.

First, I am sure some of you gasped out loud when you read that our program was 16 hours long. Nevertheless, I will tell you that my biggest takeaway is that 16 hours simply is not enough. And how could it be? Racial supremacy and anti-Blackness were embedded in our country's founding documents; can we really expect a diverse group of people to fully examine and reflect on the subtle ways in which deeply embedded notions of anti-Blackness manifest around us in hours totaling less than a single day? In retrospect, I realize how absurd it is to think we can fully plumb the depths of systemic racism in a series of one-hour or two-hour trainings, programs, and workshops. The sustained dialogue format of our program helped us to get these conversations started, but the reality is that many of us still have miles to go in our personal journeys to understand how we can navigate similar spaces and yet experience those spaces so very differently.

Second, although my role is one in diversity, equity, and inclusion and I spend much of my time connecting with members of our community on topics of race and other kinds of diversity, it was nevertheless still remarkable to see the stark difference between the lived experiences of BIPOC colleagues within and outside of our community and the lived experiences of our non-BIPOC colleagues.

Third, as you consider organizing training sessions for your community, be prepared for the conflict that may arise from the increased honest and raw candor that develops as BIPOC members of the community begin to be more candid about their experiences within your organization. Inevitably, some of that raw candor and honesty will involve interactions with their peers and colleagues, and it can be difficult for all involved not to react from a place of defensiveness or personal hurt. As a certified mediator with the Center for Conflict Resolution, I know that conflict in and of itself is not negative.

Indeed, persevering through the conflict allows for real growth and change. That said, if not managed effectively, diversity-related conflict can undermine organizations and fray relationships, so organizations looking for transformational change after diversity trainings will need to make sure that they have a plan for moving healthy conflict in a positive direction and not allowing community members to wallow in their cynicism and defensiveness.

Finally, for those who may be tempted to avoid these kinds of sustained dialogue programs because of the time commitment, outlay of resources, and the risk of conflict, I leave you with a reminder that, in most of our legal institutions and organizations — whether on the educational or employer side of things — diversity-related friction already is rampant. That friction largely goes unnoticed and unaddressed by organizational leadership, and often is the reason BIPOC people leave our organizations at such high rates. The question for your organization is whether you are ready to bring everyone to the table for real and authentic conversations, instead of allowing the burden of that diversity-related friction to be carried solely on the shoulders of the BIPOC members of your organization.

On the other side of our sustained dialogue training journey, the disconnect between our profession's stated values and its persistent and systemic exclusion of BIPOC people from our spaces is clearer to me than ever. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that the ongoing conversations happening in our organizations — conversations like the ones that my colleagues and I began to engage in over the past few weeks — finally represent a turn from cosmetic diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts toward a real commitment to actual change. As Coretta Scott King once said, "Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won." BIPOC people didn't create racism, and we can't end it. It's time for all members of our organizations — and our profession — to join the struggle for full equality, instead of leaving the hard work of cultural change to our BIPOC colleagues. Sustained intergroup dialogue is an important first step in the right direction, but the road to an inclusive legal profession is long, bumpy, and definitely requires far more than 16 hours.

About the Author
Shannon P. Bartlett ([email protected]) is Associate Dean, Inclusion & Engagement at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

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