SADO Takes Internal and External Action on Race and Diversity

In July 2020, SADO staff got together for yet another Zoom meeting. But this was no ordinary meeting. It was the first gathering of SADO’s Racial Justice Initiative (RJI)—a space dedicated to open dialogue about how race and racism operate within the walls of our office and in the criminal legal system. 

RJI was launched by Deputy Director Marilena David and Managing Attorney Jessica Zimbelman. The motivation was to improve understanding amongst colleagues on issues of race and belonging within the office, to encourage colleagues to engage in self-reflection and growth, to address the lack of diversity in attorney positions, to discuss implicit biases that may be affecting the way we represent our clients, and to begin more aggressively litigating issues of racial injustice and systemic racism for our clients. 

At the first few meetings, staff talked openly about what was on their minds when it came to race inside of our office and in the legal system. We also discussed our previous 2018 Recruitment and Diversity Plan and looked at it with a critical lens aimed at identifying areas of improvement. In small group breakout sessions, people worked together to generate priority areas of concern and suggestions for improving our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and our workplace. 

After several meetings, we developed an “Action Plan” broken down into several broad categories. Some of these categories included: (1) recruitment, (2) retention, (3) screening and hiring, (4) student pipeline cultivation, (4) racial injustice litigation, (5) funding and resource distribution, (6) workplace improvements, and (7) anti-racism and racial justice dialogue. 

Under each of these categories were several more narrow and specific action items that had been identified in prior meetings with staff. On a volunteer basis, staff signed up to lead or to work on action items that piqued their interest. This approach will allow us to tackle some of these issues by steadily working together toward common goals. 

In the eight months we have been meeting as a group, RJI has led to many positive outcomes. 
  • We have heard shared personal experiences from our Black colleagues about experiences they have had while working in our office or while out in the community. These stories were shared with true vulnerability, and our staff made a commitment to honor that by engaging in introspection and personal growth. 
  • We have engaged in several training programs and conversations around anti-racism, race, and cultural humility, and are implementing several more for the upcoming year. 
  • We have worked together as an office to improve our job postings to attract the most diverse and qualified job applicants. 
  • We are reviewing our internal operating procedures to ensure they are equitable and fair. 
  • We are strategizing around racial litigation, collecting resources, and brainstorming ways in which racial challenges can be made for our clients of color who are disproportionately impacted by the system. 
  • We have developed an "Action Plan" and are implementing it through individual and sub-committee efforts. 
  • We are engaging in a diversity audit with an outside contractor who will assess our operations and provide recommendations for improvement.
We would be remiss if we did not address the fact that the RJI is something SADO should have launched a long time ago. We are not proud that it took the murder of George Floyd and a national racial awakening for us to prioritize this important effort. But it did. Now that RJI is an established group within our office, we depend on the motivation of our staff and leadership to carry it forward to tangible positive results for our colleagues, clients, and the community. 

SADO has a long way to go, but we are on our way. 

By: Marilena David, 
March 25, 2021