I am a lifelong Minnesotan. I have lived in the Twin Cities since infancy. I went to public schools in a large suburban district. Almost everyone in my world looked like me and spoke English—my relatives, my neighbors, my friends, my teachers, the folks who worked in the gas station, stores and restaurants, the political leaders, the police, the fire department, everyone. I thought of myself as an “American.” No one ever told me that my family originally came from another country, continent and culture, or explained our troubled history with American Indians. The Minnesota of my youth had a population of about 3.4 million. It was almost entirely like me too: The census reported that people of color comprised 1 percent of the population. Only one religious faith and one type of sexual orientation seemed to exist, and everything else was shunned, denied or stigmatized.
Today the population of the Twin Cities metro area is greater than that of the entire state of Minnesota at the time of my youth. In today’s Twin Cities, the percentage of people of color is about 22 percent and demographers predict it will reach 40 percent in a couple more decades. My extended family now includes married and unmarried LGBTQ persons, persons of different faiths or no faith, and a Spanish-speaking immigrant who just became a citizen a few years ago. Not only has my small corner of the world changed around me, but I too have changed in countless ways that have been good. The diversity of people in my little corner today has greatly enriched my life. It has made me a better lawyer as well. My practice brings me in touch with a wider array of humanity now. Moving beyond my cocooned childhood existence has made my work more enjoyable and more effective.
I am glad to say that MSBA itself is making a similar journey. I have no doubt that the MSBA will be a stronger resource to its members and a more effective leader in our profession as it works to amplify the voices and integrate the perspectives that have been historically missing from our profession. My experience has taught me that this is a change to embrace.
It is growth.
MSBA diversity initiatives
Although we still have a long way to go for MSBA to be a model of diversity and inclusion, let me share a few of the things we have been doing to improve our diversity and inclusiveness. I invite your support, ideas and involvement.
Just a few years ago, we upgraded our staff commitment to improving diversity and inclusion by creating a director-level position to address our goals. This has enabled us to attract and apply additional talent to our efforts. Our first director made great strides in reaching out to affinity bars and to other segments of the community. She helped to rebuild our relations with lawyers of color, women lawyers, LGBTQ lawyers, disabled lawyers and others. Our current Diversity Director, Ti O’Konek, has been building on the strong start of her predecessor. She is now taking our efforts to the next level.
We have also created a new high-level volunteer structure to support our efforts. The Diversity and Inclusion Council, which is nearing completion of its first full year of operation, consists of some highly effective and thoughtful members of our bar who share the commitment to diversity. Council members include our diversity director, Ivan Fong, Pete Glass, Judge Nicole Starr, Phil Duran, Justin Page, Pam Rochlin, Adebisi Wilson, Tom Nelson, Bryan Browning, and the MSBA president. This council has been engaged in a thorough strategic planning process that is being ably facilitated by Judge Peter Reyes, who is generously volunteering his time and expertise. The council is developing some great and concrete ideas for improving MSBA’s movement toward a more diverse and inclusive association and I expect it will complete this planning process in the next month.
We have also been reaching out to our friends and colleagues in the affinity bars, and we have co-sponsored some excellent programming dealing with relevant issues of diversity today. These programs have been terrific. Examples included a “listening party” during the Supreme Court arguments on the same-sex marriage case, a discussion of the rights of the Black Lives Matter protesters at the Mall of America, and most recently, a presentation on the issues of affirmative action being revisited by the Supreme Court in the pending case involving the University of Texas admissions policies.
Last year, together with the affinity bars, we urged the Minnesota Supreme Court to begin to gather demographic data during the lawyer registration process. The Court has added voluntary, confidential questions to the process of lawyer registration that we hope may lead to a better understanding of the diversity of our own profession. Our own membership renewal process also now seeks voluntary information, including demographic data, so we may better understand the composition of our own membership. These efforts will require determined follow-up to generate the kind of information that could be truly helpful in measuring our progress or setting our goals.
Under President-Elect Robin Wolpert’s guidance, we are starting to consider meaningful training in diversity for many of our key staff and volunteers in the coming year. I think this is an initiative that will bear much fruit, and I look for good things to come under Robin’s leadership next year.
Like the world around us, the MSBA is changing. We hope to help guide and foster that change, to assure we do a better job as a profession in serving today’s community. Equal justice requires us to serve all members of our community, not just some. Our community has a right to
expect no less from us.
Michael W. Unger is President of the Minnesota State Bar Association. He is a Certified Civil Trial Specialist at Unger Law Office in Minneapolis, representing negligence victims for serious injuries and wrongful death. He is also on the adjunct faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School.