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Bricolage: Share your stories — they matter

Benjamin R. Kwan

Benjamin R. Kwan

Bricolage is the word (French accent obligatory) that sticks with me most from journalism school — loosely defined in that context, it was a call to “do the best with what you’ve got.”  It’s a fitting title for this new Minnesota Lawyer column on diversity in our legal profession — a column I hope will applaud, promote and even question our collective call to better reflect the communities we serve.

Applauding, promoting and questioning happened on one of the last Fridays before school let out for the summer when a couple hundred Minneapolis public high school students piled into the auditorium at William Mitchell College of Law. Whether they knew it or not, they were about to hear about some of the challenges we face in the legal community.

Those teenagers listened in a way that defied the sunshine pouring through the windows that mid-May afternoon, still and perched at the edges of their seats.

A black man on a panel of speakers told them about how, among the 10 in his group of friends growing up in Washington, D.C., he is the lone “survivor.”  The other nine are either dead or in prison.

A young Latina woman described her decision, at 16, to leave an abusive home and support herself.  Working long night shifts left no time for laundry, and that often meant showing up to school without her uniform.  Administrators promptly asked her to leave because she broke the rules.

What those Minneapolis teens learned, whether they realized it or not, is that the challenge we face in the legal community is that there aren’t more Minnesota lawyers and judges who look and sound like the afternoon’s panelists.

“Wow, it’s weird to have this sort of complicated past,” said Lariss Jude, the young Latina woman on the panel that afternoon.  Jude is an associate at Faegre Baker Daniels in Minneapolis.

As Jude told the teens, her path to the Faegre firm began with her eyes glued to the streets of south Texas, scanning for the bus fare that would take her home late at night or to school in the morning.  Beating a few odds, Jude graduated high school and put in two years at a community college, where she proved to herself that she could succeed.  And she sure did, eventually transferring to Smith College and later enrolling at the University of Minnesota Law School in 2009.

The “survivor” from his group of 10 growing up in Washington, D.C., is now on the bench in Hennepin County: Judge Lyonel Norris. The other panelists included Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Wilhelmina Wright, Judge Kevin Ross of the Court of Appeals, Ramsey County District Judge Edward Wilson and me.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael J. Davis invited us to take part in the District of Minnesota’s Open Doors program.  For the second year, the federal bench took the all-too-real historical lesson of Dred and Harriet Scott and the infamous Supreme Court case into classrooms, culminating with the May 16 panel and a play (with Judge Ross playing the part of Fredrick Douglas).

If there were one piece of pithy advice that encapsulated the messages we all had for those city kids that day, Justice Wright had it.

“Don’t let others’ no-expectations or low-expectations hold you back,” she told them.

But there was something remarkably powerful afoot for those of us sitting up on stage that day. Cathartic, even.

The key was getting deeply personal.

“You don’t want to feel like a freak,” Jude told me later after opening up to the audience of 250-plus. “But from a younger person’s perspective, it’s good for them to know it’s not only the people from the great high schools that make it, to see that there are multiple paths to being successful.”

After Jude finished recounting her past, the students applauded, whistled, hooted and hollered.

I watched nearly misty-eyed as one Latina girl approached Jude afterward to tell her she was an “inspiration” and then asked if they could take a photo together.

“It was rewarding and empowering for us,” Jude said of her experience getting personal.  But ultimately, she said, it wasn’t about her.

“If you have a complicated past or come from a disenfranchised community or a humble background — you owe [something], I feel a sense of obligation to make some contribution and give something back.”

We talk a lot among ourselves about the lack of diversity in the legal community.  Part of the solution is always focused on the so-called diversity “pipeline,” where we can influence tomorrow’s lawyers — maybe some of those Minneapolis teens — today.

What I observed as I listened to my fellow panelists and watched the diverse faces in the crowd react is that our stories — those of us already at the bar and on the bench today — have the profound power to make a difference in a very simple way.

To do it, we need to go face-to-face with the people whose lives we hope to influence.  And we have to open up, shedding the generic pretense about how to become a lawyer for the tale about how you became you.  Show them the way, in other words.

“It’s hard to go down that path if you can’t see someone else like you on that same path,” Jude said.

Judge Davis and his colleagues on the federal bench, including Judge Donovan Frank, have a rare tenacity for this issue, evidenced by their many years driving the Open Doors program.  With that in mind, something tells me there will be dozens more classrooms that need volunteers to tell their stories next spring. Think about it.

Ben Kwan, a former television reporter and anchor, joined Winthrop & Weinstine in 2013.  His practice focuses on assorted commercial litigation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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