Law School Celebrates Diversity Month with Broad Array of Speakers

The Law School student body isn’t big in number, but it’s broad in its diversity. Our students are incredibly diverse in color, nationality, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and religious and philosophical convictions. This environment is especially ripe for rich discussions about diversity and the law, and more broadly, diversity in our society. That’s what Diversity Month, observed at the Law School in January, is all about.

To inspire this dialogue, the Office of the Dean of Students and a collection of student groups brought in several guest speakers. Here is just a sampling of the more than a dozen programs offered during Diversity Month:

“Being a Minority and a Conservative,” organized by the Federalist Society and the Black Law Students Association. Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, gained fame for her rousing speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Love, as a black woman, a conservative, and a Mormon, defies stereotypes. During her speech, Love talked about her political and fiscal conservatism as a reflection of her parents’ work ethic. They emigrated from Haiti with just dollars to their name and ended up sending all their children to college. Love said when her father dropped her off at school, he told her, “You will not be a burden to society. You will give back.” That, Love said, is a big part of why she believes government services need to be scaled back and people need to be given the opportunity to work hard and make it on their own. “Hard work, education, and thrift will take you far beyond what any government program can promise,” she said.

“Race and Mass Incarceration in Chicago,” organized by the Criminal Law Society, the Black Law Students Association, and the American Constitution Society. Civil rights attorney Standish Willis talked to students about his long crusade to get justice for men, most of them minorities, who were tortured by Chicago police. Willis, who earned an undergraduate and a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and his JD from Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law, said he remembers being viewed with suspicion by University of Chicago police in the 1970s because of his color. In the late 1980s, as a working attorney, Willis took the case of an inmate who claimed to have been brutalized under police Commander Jon Burge. Police informants and inmates told Willis the torture methods used by police – near-suffocation, waterboarding, and electric shocks, to name a few – had been standard practice in that district for decades. Police who used these tactics often did so to coerce confessions that landed men on death row or in prison for life. Willis found that his efforts to expose these atrocities were ignored for years. So, starting in 2005, he took on a two-pronged approach: He presented the evidence to international human rights groups and founded a grassroots activist group here in Chicago to raise awareness via town hall meetings and advocacy in Springfield. It worked; in 2008, Burge was charged in a federal indictment, and in 2009, Willis drafted a bill creating a commission of civilians to review the cases of those who reported torture under Burge and remain in prison. Governor Pat Quinn signed the bill into law that same year, but the commission remains unfunded. Willis continues his activism to change that.  

“Women’s Lives in the Law,” organized by the Law Women’s Caucus, and sponsored by Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz. Four women attorneys with very different career paths spoke about the unique challenges for women in the law, and the difficulties both genders face in trying to balance work and family. The panel featured Alison M. Zieske, ’06, an Associate at Wachtell, Lisa A. Brown, ’95, a Partner at Schiff Hardin, Marci A. Rolnik, Legal Director at Lawyers for the Creative Arts, and Carolyn Aberman, Managing Director at McCormack Schreiber Legal Search. The attorneys offered advice to students as they embark on legal careers. The panelists encouraged the law students to demonstrate interest in a specific field of law, whether through writing journal articles or attending bar association conferences. Once employed, young attorneys should request cases that interest them and do pro bono work to gain early court experience. They also told them to find mentors, volunteer for difficult tasks to demonstrate their dedication, and set some boundaries for their personal time as early as possible. Finally, the panelists cautioned against obsessing over creating the perfect “work-life balance.” That goal is often elusive, and each professional must find what works for him or her, they said.

“The Impact of Gangs on the Criminal Justice System,” organized by Neighbors, the South Asian Law Students Association, and the Criminal Law Society. This panel featured a line-up that was incredibly diverse in experience and perspective: a clinical professor, a former citywide commander of the Chicago Police Department’s Homicide Division, and a reformed gang leader. Ulysses “U.S.” Floyd spoke candidly about spending four decades in gangs, and his work today trying to curb violence on the South Side as part of the Cure Violence/CeaseFire movement. Floyd talked about joining a gang at 15, which Rudy Nimocks, the former homicide commander, pointed out is a very common story. Nimocks is now Director of University Partnerships for the University of Chicago, but before that was chief of the university police department for 20 years, after spending 33 years in the Chicago police force. Young kids in difficult neighborhoods, Nimocks said, think gangs are their way to make it in the world. The answer, he said, is to offer opportunities to at-risk kids extremely early, at around age three. Professor Herschella Conyers, of the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Project in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, offered a historical perspective of the changing racial make-up of gangs in Chicago from the 1920s and ‘30s to now. From the turn of the century through the '20s and '30s, gangs were predominantly white, she said. Then, as the white, immigrant gang members assimilated into society, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the complexion of gangs changed to the black and Latino predominance we see today. Some of these gangs formed, she added, after those minorities were chased out of white neighborhoods. Conyers also discussed how the criminal justice system’s response to gangs has evolved over the years.