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  • October 07, 2021

    Diversity and Inclusion is a Top Priority of the Elder Law and Special Needs Section

    Our section is not diverse – yet. We want to do more to change that reality. Iris Christenson, past section chairperson and the new diversity and inclusion liaison for the section, talks about the section’s immediate and proactive steps toward improving the section’s diversity.

    Iris M. Christenson

    The Elder Law and Special Needs Section is a very collegial and welcoming section of the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    I know this from personal experience. I have served on committees and in a leadership position with the section for seven years. I personally witnessed that the members of the section and the board go above and beyond when it comes to sharing their expertise with new members and attorneys who are striving to expand their practice of law into the areas of elder law and/or special needs law.

    That said, we realize that we cannot say that we are a diverse section. Our demographic numbers just do not support that conclusion.

    Why? That is the question we hope to answer over this next year, by reaching out to the other sections and groups of the State Bar, including the leaders of local and affinity bar associations, and offering a new way for interested attorneys to join our section and take on leadership roles.

    Iris M. Christenson Iris M. Christenson, U.W. 1990, is a volunteer attorney with the Catholic Multicultural Center’s Immigration Program, where she focuses on assisting clients with obtaining green cards, completing the naturalization process, and adjusting immigration status.

    We have informally made contacts with these groups in the past and invited participation in section committees and meetings. The difference now will be that we have more to offer new section members, since our Advisor Policy has changed significantly. I will explain.

    Our New Advisor Policy Is a Game Changer

    The advisor policy adopted at a recent section board meeting (July 23, 2021) is truly a game changer. An interested attorney who would like to become a section board member as a nonvoting advisor can apply to fill this role, without having to first serve as an elected board member for several terms or be elected to fill an officer role.

    More specifically, the policy says:

    An Advisor shall be an Elder Law and Special Needs Section member who agrees to participate in one or more committees and agrees to actively participate in section activities, including but not limited to attending Board meetings on a regular basis.

    Factors that will be considered in appointing an advisor include “… membership in an underrepresented demographic group (for example, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, career in public interest law, etc.).”

    Potential advisors may apply for appointment at any time by submitting their application to the section liaison, Jane Corkery via email. If the section has an open advisor position, the application will be reviewed at the subsequent board meeting. The new advisor who is approved by the board shall then be notified, and will start their 1-3 year term at the next board meeting. See the section’s complete Advisor Policy on the State Bar website (section membership and log in required).

    Following the Action Plan

    While I believe that this policy change is a game changer, I realize that simply adding several more advisors without proactively engaging in outreach efforts will not necessarily alter our demographics.

    We intend to follow the lead of the State Bar, by employing the methods included in the State Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. We will begin by educating ourselves about intersectionality and privilege.

    We will participate in forums offered by the State Bar or other educators who can help us identify our section’s strengths and weaknesses regarding diversity.

    On Using Intersectionality

    We need to challenge ourselves to adopt intersectionality as a theory and a practice. “Intersectionality” is a term coined by race theorist and civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. She wrote about how race and gender intertwine to impact the lives of black women, and this idea has been expanded to include race, class, ability, and sexuality. Ijeoma Oluo writes about this in her 2019 book, So You Want to Talk About Race:

    Intersectionality helps us stay true to our values of justice and equality by helping to keep our privilege from getting in our way. Intersectionality makes our systems more effective and more fair.

    Taking a hard look at ourselves and confronting our privilege will undoubtedly be uncomfortable, but after we take that step we will be able to provide a safe space for underrepresented attorneys to trust us to value and respect their input.

    Then, when we reach out to local and affinity bar associations and invite them to partner with us, attorneys who may be interested in joining our section and perhaps also seeking a leadership role will see that we sincerely want to become long-term allies.

    As the newly appointed diversity and inclusion liaison for our section, I am personally committed to regularly reporting to the board about our outreach efforts and recommending changes that will “create a culture that embraces people from the widest range of talent and experience and promotes understanding and respect for all people and different points of view in the legal profession” – the State Bar’s goal as expressed in its Diversity Statement – especially in the areas of elder and special needs law.

    Numbers Are Not Enough

    I am convinced by the momentum I have seen on the part of our section and the State Bar to address the lack of diversity within our organization(s) that mere claimed or perceived diversity will not be enough.

    Boosting our demographic numbers in the short term is not our ultimate goal. On the contrary, creating a new and vibrant culture of diversity is our leadership’s vision for the future. Achieving this goal will require constant attention and a willingness to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

    The initial phase of this work is already underway, with plans to hold a diversity and inclusion training session for our section’s leaders as soon as possible. The next phase will involve outreach to local and affinity bar associations. If you are a member of one of these groups, I look forward to talking with you. If you want to contact me, please reach out via email.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Elder Law and Special Needs Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Elder Law and Special Needs Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Elder Law and Special Needs Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Greg Banchy and Ryan Long and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Elder Law and Special Needs Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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