Chief Justice Cheri Beasley struck a hopeful note as the keynote speaker at Friday’s Second Annual NCAJ Diversity & Inclusion Conference, saying the unrest that has rocked the nation in recent months has also opened doors to more powerful and meaningful conversations about race and gender.
“It’s been really important for all of us to seek a different kind of resolve for issues that we don’t want to talk about and that we don’t want to address,” she said. “I think it’s been really important that as we move through these issues, we come together. We really are a profession that through the history of this nation, regardless of what the challenges are, we’ve come together and we’ve led through these challenges. We’ve changed the course of history before, and I believe we can change the course of history now. I believe all of us have a desire to do better and be better, and I’m really excited about that.”
Beasley followed a slate of speakers who addressed issues of historical racism, implicit bias and workplace diversity and inclusion. North Carolina Central University School of Law Professor Irving Joyner kicked off the morning with a thorough and thoughtful overview of race and the law in North Carolina, drawing a bright line between Reconstruction era laws and the systemic inequities in North Carolina’s modern justice system. Jessica L. Whitney, Ph.D, who teaches at UNC-Wilmington and is an experienced diversity and inclusion instructor, outlined the dangers of professing that we live in a post-racial society. She offered practical advice for professionals to follow in being intentional in their diversity and inclusion efforts.
A panel of three attorneys — Andre Mura of Gibbs Law Group, LLP and LGBT Caucus Chair for the American Association for Justice; Holly Stiles, litigation counsel with Disability Rights North Carolina: and Nina Pirrotti of Garrison, Levin-Epstein, Fitzgerald & Pirotti, P.C. — addressed issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
Pirrotti described the challenges that small plaintiffs’ firms face in making diverse hires. Opportunities to hire new attorneys are few because staff changes are rare, she said, but that means that small firms have to lay the groundwork and show potential hires their commitment to diversity and inclusion when the time to hire does arrive. Those efforts can include making the firm’s public-facing media, including the website, explicitly states the firm’s commitment to diversity.
Stiles shared the results of a recent decision in her case Taliaferro et al v. North Carolina State Board of Elections et al in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. The decision will allow blind voters the right to cast their own electronic ballots for the first time in state history. Chief Judge Terrence Boyle granted a motion for preliminary injunction against the Board of Elections, ordering them to make their absentee voting program accessible to voters with disabilities by the November election.
“This would allow people who are blind full access to the absentee voting system in North Carolina, which they have not had, ever in the history of absentee voting,” Stiles said.
Mura encouraged lawyers to educate themselves about the developments in the language that minority groups choose to describe themselves. An easy way to do this is to indicate which pronouns you would like others to use when referring to you.
“Prononuns may be an approachable way to signal that you’ve thought about these issues and that you’re open to using the language that makes someone else feel comfortable. I’ve had individuals who are straight ask me ‘Why should I use the pronouns if the default is correct for me?’ And I say it provides an openness to someone else … it shows that you’ve given some thought to these issues.”
NCAJ members Kristen Dewar, of The Law Office of Marc T. Joyner, PLLC, in Charlotte, and Anna Pishko Kalarites, of the Law Office of David Pishko, PA, Raleigh, served as program chairs for conference.
Both emphasized that intentionality was the watchword that guided their curation of the program.
“Our goal is to shine a light on the way lawyers can recognize where we are falling short of making this a diverse and inclusive profession, and to give you concrete tips you can use in your everyday life,” Kalarites said. “If we really mean it when we say want a diverse and inclusive profession, we must be intentional. Our goal is to provide you all with the tools to act with that intentionality.”