(Left to Right) Tolulope F. Odunsi, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, and Arrianna Hart ’20, 2019-2020 president of the Black Law Students Association at the law school’s 2019 Students of Color Brunch.

(Left to Right) Tolulope F. Odunsi, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion, and Arrianna Hart ’20, 2019-2020 president of the Black Law Students Association at the law school’s 2019 Students of Color Brunch.

Using the tools of law to advocate for racial justice

At a time of high emotion nationwide over racial injustice and violence, the School of Law is reinforcing its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Building and maintaining a welcoming environment for students, staff and faculty is a top priority at the law school. Now, as the nation reckons with what may be a societal tipping point in racial equity, UB Law is part of the conversation – and bringing a roster of legal skills and knowledge to the challenge.

“We ask that all members of our law school community join us by taking the time to truly understand individuals’ very real struggle for justice,” Dean Aviva Abramovsky said in a message to the School of Law community.  “And by openly and unequivocally rejecting any and all forms of systematic racism and transphobia.”

Turning that stance into action, the school has organized several events and initiatives. At the helm of much of this work is Tolulope Odunsi, assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Everyone is feeling the emotional toll of this,” Odunsi says. “But it has had a greater impact on our Black students, our Latinx students and our students of color generally, because of their personal experiences with racism. It’s important for all of us to take a moment to deal with our emotions, but it’s also inspiring to see people not give up on doing this work and continuing to advocate for racial justice.”

In a broader context, Odunsi says the School of Law is working on a strategic plan that will, among other things, revamp academic programming to include courses on the legal and historical context for racial inequality, and provide additional training for faculty and staff to ensure their understanding of these issues and promote cultural competency.

In addition, a new section on the school’s website (law.buffalo.edu/dei) provides information and support for students from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds, including an online support group for students of color.

But the urgency of the national debate also prompted a series of immediate opportunities to learn and listen. They have included:

  • A June 11 academic panel, “George Floyd, Policing and Race,” open to the entire UB community. The presenters – Professor Luis Chiesa, director of the Buffalo Criminal Law Center; Professor Athena Mutua; and Professor Anthony O’Rourke, director of the Advocacy Institute – looked at the ways in which law, policing and race intersect, especially in the context of the use of force by police against people of color. The event drew over 150 participants.
  • A Zoom “listening session” held June 16 where students, faculty and staff were invited to share their thoughts and discuss how the School of Law can better support its students. Facilitated by Odunsi, the discussion also included Dean Abramovsky; Professor S. Todd Brown, vice dean for academic affairs; and Professor Teresa A. Miller, senior vice chancellor for strategic initiatives at the State University of New York, as well as several other members of the faculty and staff.

“Although these issues are not new and we do address them regularly, they’re on the forefront of everyone’s mind,” Odunsi says. “We really want the students to be a part of the process in how we can better address these issues at the School of Law, and we wanted them to have a space to discuss this. We also wanted to think about our students’ social justice and racial justice work – what do the students want to be involved in that we can provide resources toward?”

  • Members of the Black Law Students Association have also connected with the office of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. The mayor’s office has solicited input on policing reforms from stakeholders throughout the city. Aldiama Anthony ’21, BLSA’s 2020-2021 president, is working with members of her executive board on legal research to help inform decision-making on policy.

“Our goal is to research laws that could help the Black community, specifically on the use of deadly force by police, as well as collective bargaining laws,” Anthony says. “Combining the community-based approach by our activists, along with utilizing our legal background as law students can bring about the effective change that our society needs.”

Anthony’s contact in the mayor’s office is Shatorah Donovan ’12, the city’s chief diversity officer and herself a former BLSA president. “As law students, you have a unique opportunity to do scholarship,” Donovan advised. “If you want to be involved in helping to advance restorative policing and being a change agent, what we need in the world are more legal scholars and specifically more Black legal scholars.  If you want to lend your ears to any movement, you can do it through scholarship.”

  • Finally, the school has had to cope with the COVID-19 cancellation this summer of the highly successful Discover Law Undergraduate Scholars Program, which brings promising students of color to campus to sample law school life.

To cushion the blow, the school invited all of the program applicants to a day of online programming on June 1 including two sessions that gave the undergraduates a crash course on a long slate of topics: how to navigate the law school admissions process, how to stand out as a law student, common pitfalls, how to balance being in law school with other obligations, what career options are available to lawyers. Presenters included law school faculty, current students and Western New York legal practitioners.

Odunsi says the Discover Law students were then matched with attorney mentors from the local legal community including several UB law alumni. And with the hope that soon the coronavirus will be history, she encouraged the students – many of whom are rising sophomores and juniors – to pursue Discover Law again next summer.