A Long-Term Community-Wide Initiative to Achieve Racial Justice
The Penn Law Journal recently had a long conversation with Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean for Equity & Justice, and newly appointed Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer for the Law School, about the school’s efforts to foster increased diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Dean Ted Ruger has written that the Law School has much work to do to help our law school become an anti-racist institution. What does that work entail?
Our efforts involve students, staff, faculty and alumni, as we believe it is our shared responsibility to advance equity and justice. We have to review longstanding programs to make sure we are really drilling down on inequity in how we teach the law and how we as lawyers do the work that we do. It goes to our building, even the images in the spaces that we live and work in every day. The dean has convened a committee, chaired by Professor Sally Gordon, to review all the iconography, some of which has a really troubling history and understandably causes distress to members of our community. We’ll think about how we can instead elevate images that advance equity and inclusion.

In addition, we’ve created new scholarships focused on acknowledging the legacy of Dr. Sadie Mosell Tanner Alexander ED’18, G’21, L’27 the first Black woman to graduate from the Law School. These scholarships will be awarded to members of the Fall 2021 incoming class. We are also increasing financial support for all students who are facing additional hardship, and we have launched really important conversations on advancing racial justice. We announced many of these initiatives this past summer and immediately took steps to start actualizing our vision. We anticipate continuing to take more steps progressively. This is in addition to our continued efforts to increase the diversity of our faculty, staff, and students, as well as our efforts to evaluate ourselves as an employer through an equity and inclusion lens.

What are the metrics for a more diverse staff, faculty and student body?
Metrics matter. We can’t improve upon what we’re not measuring. On the student side, we’ve already come a long way, but we have more work to do. The dean has done incredible work to diversify our faculty. We’re leading the pack among our peer schools. But there is more work to do. Regarding staff, there’s an understandable desire to make sure that we’re the most equitable and inclusive employer that we can be. That means taking a hard look at the diversity of our teams and how we recognize and value staff contributions. We also have to review salary levels across departments and the entire Law School. Our goal is to ensure inclusive excellence as an employer.
Does the Law School intend to develop and offer more seminars on various facets of racial inequality?
Yes. This year there are courses on voting rights, diversity in the legal profession, law and inequality. In addition, former head of the NAACP, Benjamin Jealous, is teaching a course on leadership and Miguel Willis, founder of A2J, is teaching a novel course on leveraging technology to fill gaps in access to justice. Additionally, the Law School is considering a range of ideas on how to make the study of racial justice a requirement for every law student. One idea is to incorporate a racial justice module into the law school’s ongoing — and required — Professional Responsibility course. A committee that will include faculty, staff, students, and alumni will convene this year and release recommendations that we hope to be able to implement in the next school year.

Why is it important for a law school to address the mounting civil rights crisis?

Our society is experiencing a reckoning with racial justice that is nothing like anything many of us have ever seen. And it is of particular note for us in a law school and in the legal profession because, quite frankly, the law has been instrumental in supporting a lot of the inequities that we are trying to dismantle now. We have to acknowledge that the same Constitution that guaranteed individuals a right to a lawyer also propped up slavery. Lawyers need to pay particular attention to how the law can be both a sword and a shield.

We want to be more engaged in helping our students see how they can be advocates to change systems that are unjust, how they absolutely have to understand and appreciate the role that law has played in upholding systems of inequity, and how they have a special responsibility as lawyers to work diligently to disrupt those systems of inequity. Accordingly, orientation this year featured for the first time a discussion on law and inequality. The panel included Professors Karen Tani L’07, PhD’11 and Shaun Ossei-Owusu, who will co-teach a course on Law and Inequality in Spring 2021. We hope to find additional ways for our community to examine and address systemic racism going forward.

Discuss the increased support for high school and college students who aspire to become lawyers.
People of color are historically engaged in the practice of law at far lower numbers proportionately than their white counterparts. For many, it’s a pipeline issue. There are fewer people of color in college and therefore fewer people of color attend law school. What we have to do is reinvigorate that pipeline and help students see that there is a place in the law for them, and that we welcome them to the legal profession by knocking down the many barriers that keep so many members of BIPOC communities out of higher education in general and law school in particular. We have a number of existing programs for both high school and college students. Our goal is to expand those existing initiatives and award scholarships to make it as feasible as possible for more students to participate in those programs.
Please explain the yearlong colloquium titled Achieving Racial Justice.
The colloquium was born out of the crisis, the reckoning that emerged after George Floyd’s killing. We were immediately responsive to the grief and rage that our community felt, hosting an online vigil for our community. We also knew that we as an academic institution needed to devote time and expertise to convening really critical conversations about these issues, not just rehashing old problems, but really diving deeply into solution-oriented conversations on how to advance racial justice. This colloquium has been a wonderful opportunity for collaboration between the Office of Equity & Inclusion, the Toll Public Interest Center, and the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice. In addition, we see this forum as an opportunity to elevate the work of our alumni in this space.
Where do you go from here once the colloquium ends?
Racism is so deeply woven into the complex history of this country that I suspect that the conversations will continue to grow and evolve and change. Advancing anti-racism is hard work. The current systems of inequity and oppression didn’t happen overnight, and they won’t be dismantled overnight. It’s like the Law School’s commitment to social justice. That’s been with us for more than 30 years. Our students have focused on different initiatives over the decades, but it’s deeply woven into the fabric of our institution. The commitment to racial justice lives alongside that, as it is fundamental to the pursuit of justice overall — criminal justice, economic justice, education reform, environmental justice, health equity, and the continued pursuit of civil and political rights.
How will the outside world recognize the ongoing changes taking place at the Law School in this area?
If diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism are part of our core values alongside the pursuit of social justice, it infuses everything we do. It’s in how we talk, how we work, how we learn, who we are, what we look like. And everything we say and do reflects those values. It’s on our website. It’s in the diversity of our class. It’s in the diversity of our faculty and staff. It’s in the educational programs. It’s in the thought leadership. Everything we do in the law school is with the purpose of bringing it out into the world and into the legal profession. Our institution strives to transform the legal profession. When we do better, the professions our students enter do better, and the leaders who launch their careers here make the world a better place.