Breaking Down our Silos: Building Relationship, Community & Solidarity Across Bar Associations brought the entire legal community from different sectors and ethnicities together to show solidarity in dismantling racism and hate. Spearheaded by Asian American Bar Association of Greater Chicago (AABA Chicago), the virtual forum discussed personal experiences of attorneys of color and minority bar associations. They also shared how they overcome barriers of systemic inequities.

Greeted by the president of AABA Chicago, Kristy Gonowan, the forum began as she welcomed all attendees from the Illinois legal community. She thanked all bar associations who partnered with them and helped make the event possible.

Screenshot from Breaking Down our Silos Virtual Forum

Chicago Mayor Atty. Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul gave their opening remarks, showing their support for the event. They both thanked everyone who participated and hoped that the discussions will create new and powerful ideas to create a more inclusive legal community.

Screenshot from Breaking Down our Silos Virtual Forum

AABA Chicago board member Sang Yup Lee mediated the forum of ten speakers from different bar associations with each having their own stories and messages for the attendees, starting with Chinese American Bar Association board member Ann Chen. She highlighted the long history of racism and hate toward Asian Americans. Despite being in the country for centuries, they are still viewed as “perpetual foreigners.” The model minority myth was also addressed. Although it may sound good, it is actually harmful to the community saying that it “ignores or discounts the barriers different groups of Asians face in housing, healthcare, education, and employment.”

Next, Former President of South Asian American Bar Association Avanti Bakane shared the story of her personal growth—how she thought she has seamlessly fit in the American culture, only to realize that she has lost her own voice. She eventually understood that we must use our voice to showcase and educate others about our cultures. “It takes courage to speak up and avoid falling into submissive stereotypes, whether model minority or otherwise,” she said. 

Arab American Bar Association board member and co-founder retired Judge Bill Haddad was also delighted to see so many familiar faces in the event who have stood with the bar associations for many years. He enumerated occurrences that showed the association’s solidarity throughout the years. To encourage everyone to stay true to their roles as concerned citizens, he said that they need to “continue to stand up for the rule of law and of human rights, not just in the United States but around the world.”

Cook County Bar Association Vice President Natasha Jenkins emphasized the “paradox the nation was built on.” America fought for freedom from the British, but maintained slavery and structural racism. “We need to learn as well as teach each other about the impact of racism on black and brown bodies in our country.” She believes that we must keep marching toward an equitable and inclusive society.

Hispanic Lawyers Association representative Griselda Vega Samuel vowed HLAI’s commitment to working with everyone and all affiliated associations as “we continue to raise our collective voices and fight alongside each other and work to end this hate.” Meanwhile, Puerto Rican Bar Association board member Judge Joanne Rosado told the audience to look at the numbers of the minority individuals on the bench today. There is still a great disparity despite the created subcircuits to even that out. Like Samuel, Rosado also stands in “solidarity for our brothers and sisters to make our voices heard to fight hate and to educate people about the issues we face as professionals.”

Decalogue Society of Lawyers past President Mitchell Goldberg expresses his appreciation in working with fellow bar associations to combat hate. He promises that Decalogue Society will always stand together for all minority groups and fight against all discriminatory practices. On the other hand, AABA Chicago board member Sonni Choi Williams gave light to the oversexualization and objectification of AAPI women. “It is easier to kill or inflict violence against objects rather than individuals viewed as human beings. We need to educate ourselves and others of the history behind these racist misogynistic views on AAPI women and we need to unite to stand against them,” she pointed out.

LAGBAC, Chicago’s LGBTQ+ Bar Association board member Deidre Bailmann stressed that there are various forms of inequality that often operate together. “We cannot continue to talk about inequality and discrimnation by isolating one silos or factor such as black, white, gay straight, rich, or poor.” She deems that this is why it is important for bar associations and other organizations to work in collaborations. Additionally, fellow board member Azar Alexander also took this opportunity to talk about the fact that LGBTQ+ legal community is often left out of the same opportunities to succeed. “LBTQ+ professionals often traverse their legal careers due to others discomfort and phobias despite being used in professional promotional materials.”

Although they have raised diverse problems in their communities, all remained positive and assured of the affinity the associations share. They are confident that through unity, they can accomplish their goal.

This was followed by two pair discussions of personal stories showing collaborative actions that could be mirrored in bar association level. First were Stacy Walker and Kristy Gonowan who said that when they met, there were only three attorneys of color in the firm, and they were already two of them. Walker shared that they have to overcome invisibility, “a kind of a barrier where you could get siloed or where your value is just not seen.”

They coached and worked with each other on how they could leap over that invisibility. Gonowan highlighted that their duo’s collaborative effort of helping where the other was weak was what helped them overcome their difficulties.

Next were Korean American Bar Association Vice President Jaz Park and County Cook Bar Association past President Jerrod Williams. They talked about the Minority Bar CLE Conference which was a collaborative effort of bar associations showcasing the skills of minority attorneys. Touching last year’s topic of the conference, “Define Defund: Legislative Solutions to the Problem of Over-policing and Under-serving,” Williams shared the one thing they were able to take away was that there’s no one solution for these varied problems. “We do not share a homogenous view of what the solutions to these issues are or even what the issues are themselves. I believe that in the past, groups seeking to collaborate with one another have attempted to run away from their differences. We believe that the opposite is the best solution, that we should embrace our differences and find solutions that work best for everyone.”

To end the first half of the event, Sonni Choi Williams gave the closing remarks, thanking everyone who participated and listened. She also delightfully shared that she is now the Third Vice-President of the Illinois State Bar Association (ISBA), being the first female lawyer of color, first Asian American, and first Korean American. With this, she hopes to inspire more to do the same and that she won’t be the last. “We still have to continue working to educate, collaborate, and strive toward our mutual goal of dismantling racism and uniting against the rise of hate crime. This program is an important step to that goal and I hope that with my historic win, we are on our way.”

With hope that these perspectives and conversations had helped set a good foundation for the second leg of the event, the small group discussions began which remained anonymous and unrecorded.

There must have been more unrestricted conversations in the small virtual groups. However, seeing leaders and representatives openly share their own stories of racism and hate and how they continue to rise above is a testimony that it is not impossible to dismantle these barriers.

Although they have inferred that there is no one solution to the diverse problem of these different ethnicities, one thing remains true and it is a promise that every representative echoed again and again throughout the event: it is through solidarity with one another can a more inclusive legal community be achieved.

By gathering different bar associations in one place, the forum offered perspectives that oversee the whole Venn diagram—the differences and similarities. In seeing as many perspectives as we can, we are a lot closer to a path of equality, inclusion, and camaraderie. We can appreciate the entirety of the forum through this link.

Jun 14, 2021

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