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

Communities of color and the law: We must be bold

If you are a Hmong woman and your husband has beaten you repeatedly, working up the courage to come to the Domestic Abuse Service Center at the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office for help is not easy. But walking in the door and being introduced to one of our advocates, who also is Hmong, must be a big relief.

Too many African-Americans distrust the police or the justice system. If one of the first meetings a black crime victim has with the county attorney’s office is with an African-American victim advocate or an African-American prosecutor, perhaps this can help establish trust.

If you are an immigrant from Somalia, where the rule of law was whatever a warlord said it was, it is difficult to understand why we won’t charge a suspect in a murder of a Somali man when some in that community believe he pulled the trigger. But our Somali attorneys and advocates, and sometimes me, are able to explain that in order to bring a charge, we must have evidence, not merely rumors.

Those are just three examples of why I have advocated strongly for diversity and inclusion within the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. Having people working for our office who reflect the changing population within Hennepin County can only enhance the cause of justice and the residents’ respect for the law.

If we truly are going to improve race relations between communities of color and the legal community, we must be bold. That is especially true of public lawyers because our reach is broad. We must be brave and name the problem. Then we must have the courage to seek solutions that address the problem. To be successful, we must include the community, all of our employees, and outside resources to help us develop best approaches.

At the largest public law office in Minnesota, working in the largest and most diverse county, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office must reflect the makeup of our county. When our work depends so much on people cooperating with us, sometimes at their most vulnerable or tragic moments, we need people who can empathize with them and, at least, share some common understanding or background.

Hiring a diverse workforce is a critical first step. Since 1991, we have raised the percentage of our lawyers that are non-white from 3 percent to 18 percent. Our goal is to raise that percentage even more.

Next we know diversity must be an integral part of all the work we do, beginning with hiring and mentoring and continuing on to policies and community relations. These themes must be intertwined, not as a separate division, but as part of our core work every day. We must be brave and question our processes to make sure that justice is served. This may require changes in historical practices and policies—such as no longer using the grand jury for officer-involved shootings. This may require difficult, uncomfortable conversations. But in the end, it will ensure a level of accountability that we need to build and maintain trust.

Three years ago we established our Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce and sought volunteers to serve on committees, each one chaired by at least one senior attorney. Our working theory was first, we want every employee using his or her special talent for the betterment of the office and, second, we want to make sure the systems in place enhance, rather than hinder, our diversity efforts.

The five committees were Recruiting, Hiring and Retention; Training and Development; Performance Management; Technology; and Community Relations. The committees produced dozens of recommendations and we quickly implemented many of them. In addition, we continue to question how we are doing. In a recent survey, we learned some of our employees believe that their colleagues are not held sufficiently accountable for work quality. Others reported that their supervisor has not had a timely discussion with them about their strengths and weaknesses. We are addressing those problems now.

We are unaware of any method for measuring whether having a work force that reflects the county actually makes a difference in the trust citizens have with our office. But common sense tells us that a diverse law office is stronger because of enhanced perspectives and experiences. The strength is external, as residents deal with people who can more readily identify with their story. The strength also is internal, as our employees bring their unique talents, cultures, and insights to work every day and share them with their colleagues and managers and with me. It keeps us from making insensitive mistakes and prods us to change some of our antiquated practices. We believe this elevates the level of the work we do so as to better serve justice and public safety.

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