screenshot of decorative diversity flag.

Racial justice and diversity initiatives continue to expand

Amid ongoing issues of racial injustice in our society, the law school’s faculty, students, administrators and alumni are fully investing in meaningful efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion for all.

Their recent work has included changes to the law school’s curriculum, anti-racism programming, community engagement, new fundraising initiatives, and long-term study – an extraordinary range of efforts to ensure justice is done in the school, in the legal community, and for those we serve.

One major move is the law school’s new faculty-led Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which will develop initiatives such as academic and professional programming, curriculum planning, student support, recruitment and retention, community outreach, and faculty and staff recruiting.

The committee will be chaired by Professor Michael Boucai for the fall semester, and by co-chairs, Professors Christine Bartholomew and Luis Chiesa, in the spring. Additional faculty members include Anya Bernstein, Bernadette Gargano, Athena MutuaKate Rowan and Matthew Steilen, and administrators include Ilene Fleischmann, Lisa Patterson and Melinda Saran.

Tolu Odunsi, the law school’s assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, also sits on the committee, ​​which will coordinate closely with her office and its growing portfolio. Odunsi says listening sessions held in the past couple months with UB School of Law faculty, staff and students surfaced ideas around how students can advocate for racial issues, police reform and crisis communications.

photo of Odunsi.

In addition to her role in the law school, Odunsi has been appointed by UB President Satish Tripathi to the University’s Advisory Council on Race, which she says will address similar issues such as student and faculty recruitment and curriculum planning on a wider basis. She’s part of a working group looking at UB’s impact on communities of color in Western New York. [Read More]

As the nation grapples with a new consciousness of systemic racism, one immediate change at O’Brian Hall is a significant reformation of the Legal Analysis, Writing and Research curriculum. LAWR instructors, including Odunsi, are looking at ways to help students understand the historical and legal context of systemic racism in the United States.

Toward that end, incoming 1L students got a present in the mail this summer: along with their orientation packet, a copy of Devil in the Grove, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about a 1949 criminal case against four wrongly accused Black defendants, the “Groveland Boys.” The book also explores future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s role as an NAACP lawyer in the Groveland case. The students were expected to read the book before orientation began and wrestle with some provided discussion questions.

“In addition to talking about lawyering and advocacy, the book highlights how race has historically intersected with the legal system,” Odunsi says. “It focuses on the criminal justice system, but it also discusses landmark civil rights cases on issues such as desegregation, housing, and how the economic interests of the United States have impacted people of color, particularly Black people.”

The book’s author, journalist Gilbert King, will also engage the students in late September when he makes a virtual appearance before the LAWR classes – responding to an invitation extended by Shakierah Smith, a second-year student and a writing fellow in the LAWR program.

School of Law faculty also convened an academic panel discussion, via Zoom, on the issue of defunding police departments. Moderated by Professor Anthony O’Rourke, director of the Advocacy Institute, the Aug. 12 event included panelists from the law schools of Yale, Georgetown and the University of Connecticut, as well as former UB Law Professor Rick Su, now on the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of Law. [Read More]

The UB Law Alumni Association has joined these amplified efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal community. The UB Law Alumni Association, including the GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) Group, has formed an active Social Justice and Racial Equity Committee, with the intent of creating programming in conjunction with the Bar Association of Erie County, the WNY Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, and the Minority Bar Association of Western New York.

“We have to do whatever we can to make the opportunities and the benefits of our society accessible to all,” says Ilene Fleischmann, vice dean for alumni and executive director of the Law Alumni Association. “Our Law Alumni Association is committed to working with the law school and with others in the legal community to lead our efforts.”

“Our goal is to support the law school,” says LAA President Anne Joynt ’05, “and we can be a partner in these necessary discussions that are happening. This is a time that’s really ripe for looking inward and trying to turn our thoughts into action, to consider what we should be doing to promote diversity, and then turn around and do it.”

Toward that end, the alumni groups enlisted Odunsi to present an intensive training for members of the LAA and GOLD Group boards, as well as the Dean’s Advisory Council – 54 people in all. Titled “How to Build an Anti-Racist Culture,” the presentation challenged participants to rethink their views on racism and learn to recognize it in, for example, hiring practices, tokenism and racial microaggressions. The goal, Odunsi says, was to give the participants tools to advocate for a more open and inclusive workplace, and to better support their colleagues of color.

Fleischmann says the Social Justice and Racial Equity Committee are already planning two community outreach programs: a session with Paulette Brown, the first African-American woman president of the American Bar Association, in September; and in October, a session on prison reform with John Major Eason, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is currently a visiting scholar at UB.

Alumni members of the Social Justice and Racial Equity Committee include Anne Joynt ’05, Jason Ulatowski ’07, Sarah Washington ’16, Marianne Mariano ’94, Tiffany Perry ’00, Ericka Bennett ’05, and Robert Neill ’20.