Make Sure You Aren’t the Last

After last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about something I heard our newly-elected Senator Kamala Harris say a few months ago: “My mother always told me ‘you may be the first to do many things, make sure you aren’t the last.”

This message takes on a new urgency in light of recent events. For a long time, the law— in lockstep with tech, finance, and almost every other profession — has professed a steadfast commitment to diversity. Firms funded scholarships, including our own Diversity Scholarship. Conferences were held. Panels were hosted. Books were written.

All of these things mattered. All of these things changed the lives of diverse students of color desperately trying to enter a profession that has remained stubbornly white. Californians came together to support diversity and inclusion — and we should be proud.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves — our work starts anew today.

“We need to work to ensure the leaders reflect the people they are supposed to represent, and until we achieve that full representation, I think we should understand we are falling short of the ideals of this country.”- Senator-elect Kamala Harris, first-ever Black Senator from California & the first-ever Indian-American Senator

With this in mind, here’s what I intend to do:

  1. Support bold ideas. Our Diversity Scholarships have truly changed lives — and we couldn’t be more appreciative of public and private partners who fund this program year after year. But what about an incubator that helps attorneys of color get their solo practices off the ground? After all, solo practitioners have stronger connections to poor and underrepresented communities. What about replicating the impact of Howard University Law School on the West Coast — a mobilization center and support system for Black and Latino students? Howard did it first, but remember Senator Harris’ words: “make sure you aren’t the last.” I’m looking for “out of the box” initiatives to create opportunities for students of color within the California legal community.
  2. Call out the problem, at the highest levels. Why are so few leaders at law firms attorneys of color? Why are 95% of elected prosecutors white? These are not just pipeline issues — there is something systemic going on and we need to call it out. Are these questions uncomfortable? Yes, but these are uncomfortable times.

3. Share stories. We are lucky to be part of a profession that attracts and inspires so many dedicated young people. Just this year, I met a Mexican-American daughter of farmworkers who now represents farmworkers in the Central Valley; a Black ex Marine who will devote his career to representing foster children; and a Muslim-American woman who is working with the ACLU to protect immigrants’ rights. They all see the law as their best shot at a better life. It is up to us to let our country know that we have a whole generation of our best and brightest ready to tackle injustice and bigotry.

Share. Their. Stories. Here are 8 examples to get you started.

Lawyers have a special responsibility to ensure the justice system works for all, not just those who can afford our services.

If you feel the same way, please get involved because I can’t do it alone. California Bar Foundation is planning big investments in the presence and viability of people of color at all levels of the profession and so are many of our grant partners.

This effort will take tremendous resources, so get involved.

Senator-elect Harris was once a young student of color at UC Hastings. We need to clear the path for the next wave of Kamala Harris’. This won’t be easy, but we have a whole pipeline full of eager young people ready to fix our justice system. One day, they will be our leaders. We just need to support them today.

Sonia Gonzales is Executive Director of California Bar Foundation.

visit calbarfoundation.org if you’d like to invest in the presence and viability of divese people in the justice system