law, race, power text

Law, Race, Power, and Community

December 3, 2020
Law faculty launch speaker and discussion series

Professor Da Lin recalls a conversation she had with a student years ago that resonates with her to this day. “The student felt that she and other law students have had to teach themselves, in their extracurricular time, about the connections between the law and racial power and to contextualize racial justice and inequality in the law, because most classes pushed this body of work to the margins,” said Lin. This memory was a driving force when Lin and other faculty members came together following the killing of George Floyd and the racial justice protests last summer to launch the Law, Race, and Power Speaker Series at the University of Richmond School of Law. 

“We knew we really wanted to focus this series on race, class, power, privilege, and their intersections with the law,” said Professor Fallon Speaker, one of the planning team members. “The goal, then, was to think through how we could use this not just as another class for students to attend but as something that could really bridge to their practice. They could take this experience they were learning here and take that out into the world,” she added.

The faculty planning group – which also includes Professor Christopher Corts and Professor Rebecca Crootof – also wanted to focus on community building. That meant incorporating student feedback in the programming and “centering the voices of students [and] the needs of students,” while also engaging staff, alumni, and the local community, said Speaker. “We’re all interested in this subject, we’re all students of this subject, even as we have different degrees of personal experience and expertise or knowledge,” explained Corts.

When it came to selecting speakers for the series, said Crootof, “one goal was showcasing individuals who represent different people who address these issues in their daily life as a lawyer, but aren’t necessarily all the same type of person or all in the same type of job.” Speaker agreed: “We recognize that students are going to go into different career paths, but the hope is that they’ll go into these paths as better social justice advocates, being able to take these skills and making these skills transferable,” she said.

In the first session of the speaker series, Judge Carlton Reeves of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi discussed the role of the judiciary in creating, perpetuating, and combating systems of injustice. A second session invited Adeola Ogunkeyede, chief public defender for Travis County, Texas, and Robin Steinberg, founder and CEO of the Bail Project, to discuss effectuating change through policy reform, litigation, and abolition movements. Going forward, the goal is to work with students to “promote voices … that aren’t always a part of the conversation,” said Corts.  

To continue the conversation beyond the speaker series, the faculty team launched a more casual virtual discussion program as a companion to the Law, Race, and Power speaker events. As lawyers and lawyers-in-training, “we are trained to identify and solve problems. That’s a superpower!” said Corts. “But we tend to abandon listening too quickly. An irresistible urge to object, offer a counter-argument, or solve everything can chill difficult conversations,” he added. The spin-off sessions – called “Let’s Talk About It” – give community members “a chance to just speak their heart from personal experience,” without fear of judgment. “Speakers are free to be fully heard without interruption, and listeners are free to hear difficult things without carrying the burden of having to solve every problem that arises,” said Corts.

“We’ve been really grateful for the support that we’ve gotten from students who’ve already given us feedback, from members of the community, from all those who’ve attended the events, and from Dean Perdue and the Law School,” said Crootof. In the months ahead, the team hopes to see the program grow and evolve, as the various stakeholders help shape the series through their feedback and engagement.

In the end, though, the primary focus is the impact on the student experience, Lin explained: “I hope that there are students who feel more like they belong in this law school and in the legal profession.”