Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

We Are All Related

By Leo I. Brisbois

Boozhoo Niijii; Gdinimikoon.  Hello, Friend; I greet you in a good way.

The Ojibwe/Anishinaabe people traditionally view the world, everything in it (animate and inanimate), and the way for positive interaction to occur among all things as capable of being represented by or within a Circle. Although it is a gross oversimplification, the greater meaning of this belief system might loosely be summarized as we—the land, sea, air, water, plants, birds, fish, animals, man—are all interdependent: Gakina Awiiya—“we are all related.” What we do to any one of our relations will have an effect upon ourselves. The lapel pin I wear daily (a Circle divided into four quadrants by crossed interior lines) is called a Medicine Wheel, and it is a visual representation of this view of the relationship and interrelationships of all things.

Equal opportunity and equal treatment, whether in the greater society, but especially in the law and in our courts, is and ought to be always the essence of what it means when we speak of “freedom.” Racial intolerance and discrimination of any kind can be neither condoned nor endured by those who truly seek to live up to the “ideals” of this republic. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. correctly said, “[i]njustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In another context, Lord Acton observed that “[t]he most certain test by which we judge a country to really be free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities[,]”1 and this is true regardless of the status or classification of any minority, whether it be political or otherwise. Unfortunately, by this latter measure, our nation has not yet truly attained the full measure of “freedom.”

More to Be Done

To be sure, our society has made great strides in eliminating the overt segregation and discrimination previously often codified in state law, and the legal profession and the courts have benefited from these changes as well. Yet, as recently as 20 years ago, gender and racial disparities in the Minnesota legal profession and legal system were respectively described, documented, and acknowledged to exist by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Task Force on Gender Fairness which issued its report in 1989,2 and in the subsequent report of the Supreme Court’s Race Bias Task Force that was convened in 1990.  Despite further gains in the area of diversity within the legal profession and the courts in the intervening years, and the election of our nation’s first African-American president and the confirmation of the first Latina justice to the United States Supreme Court notwithstanding, the Minnesota State Bar Association issued a report on its 2005 “Self-Audit for Gender and Minority Equity” in the Minnesota legal community which showed that perceived and actual disparities in the areas of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and disability still remain. Likewise, data collected during the last decade by the Judicial Council’s Racial Fairness Committee, and others, demonstrate continued disproportionate disparities based upon race and ethnicity in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and in out-of-home placements of children in CHIPS cases.

More work remains to be done to achieve a fully “free” society.  We cannot become complacent, for as immediate past-ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr. said to the “National Summit on Diversity in the Legal Profession” in June 2009, “[m]arching in place can sometimes equate to falling behind[;] [l]et us not allow the genuine advances we have made to cause us to succumb to diversity fatigue.”

Resisting “Diversity Fatigue”

As evidence of the MSBA’s determination to resist “diversity fatigue,” the Minority Bar Summit has been reconstituted and the MSBA has two task forces diligently working: one to get the MSBA’s “Diversity and Gender Equity in the Legal Profession: Best Practices Guide (2008)” out and into greater use by employers in the Minnesota legal market, and the other conducting an internal inventory and efficacy review of all of the diversity-related initiatives that the MSBA presently has in place.

As individuals, we should likewise rededicate ourselves to calling out and standing up to discrimination and intolerance wherever and whenever we may encounter it. The great American attorney, Clarence Darrow, once said, “[y]ou can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other [person]’s freedom[;] [y]ou can only be free if I am free.” Through championing equal treatment and equal opportunity for others, we achieve the same for ourselves and our posterity, because “we are all related”—Gakina Awiiya.

Miigwech bizindawiyeg.  Thank you for listening to me.

LEO I. BRISBOIS is president of the Minnesota State Bar Association, and is senior counsel with the law firm of Stich, Angell, Kreidler & Dodge, PA, Minneapolis, MN. He is engaged in a civil litigation and appellate practice primarily in the areas of personal injury defense, insurance coverage, construction litigation, commercial premises liability, and products liability, as well as, serving as an ADR neutral. He received both his B.A., and J.D. degrees with honors from Hamline University, St. Paul, MN. Mr. Brisbois is the first MSBA President of known American Indian heritage and descent.

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