PLLIP Inaugural Diversity Summit: Keynote Explores Challenges and Steps to Achieving Genuine Equity and Inclusion

By Douglas Southard, Research and Reference Services Manager at WilmerHale

The Private Law Librarians and Information Professionals Special Interest Section of AALL held their inaugural Diversity Summit on Friday, February 26th.  The below post summarizes and reflects upon the keynote address, and we’ll follow up with more coverage of this insightful and thought-provoking program.  Many thanks to the Summit Committee for planning this well-received event.

Michelle Silverthorn kicked off the AALL Diversity Summit for 2021 with a powerful keynote speech, exploring the challenges we face in achieving equity and inclusion in the workplace. Silverthorn is the Founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation, a diversity consulting firm based in Chicago. Silverthorn spoke for 60 minutes on the prevalence of unconscious bias and how it blocks us from achieving equity in our society. 

Michelle opened her talk by identifying the obstacles to racial equity in the workplace and in society. She argued persuasively that racism and unconscious bias continue to be prevalent in our society, resulting in the numerous microaggressions that people of color encounter in their daily lives. Unconscious biases are rooted in the ways we think; we look at the world through two systems of thought: Stage One thinking and Stage Two thinking.  Stage One thinking is automatic and unconscious, while Stage Two is slower and more rational. We spend most of our time in Stage One thinking, which is when our unconscious biases take over, and we are at risk of accepting stereotypes at face value. 

The speaker demonstrated the power and prevalence of bias using powerful personal stories and thought-provoking exercises, though I did find the exercises difficult to complete in the Zoom environment. She related her life history, coming to the US from the Caribbean. Her effective storytelling really held the audience’s interest. She spoke, for example, about the countless times that she has taken her children to playgrounds on Chicago’s North Side and been mistaken for a nanny by white mothers at the playground. She drove home how painful and exhausting it is to face these microaggressions on a daily basis. This section of the talk really resonated with participants, judging from the comments in the chat window.

Silverthorn explained why diversity matters, showing a slide with detailed statistics on how the country has changed demographically. The Depression and WWII-era generation, who she refers to as “traditionalists,” was 80% white. Each succeeding generation has been more racially diverse; The Baby Boomer cohort was 72% white, Generation X was 61% white, and Generation Z (which includes those born in the 21st century) is only 44% white. For children growing up right now, the US has already become a white-minority country. She also emphasized other ways the country has become more diverse, for example the increasing number of people identifying as nonbinary. This is the world of our clients, and we need to embrace it if we are to serve them effectively.

A diverse workplace is not just an inevitability, though, it is a positive good; people from different backgrounds process information in different ways and have different perspectives. These differences can produce tension and discomfort when we come together, but Silverthorn urged us to face that awkwardness and work through it honestly. We will not make progress in equity and inclusion unless we talk honestly about race, and stop pretending we are color-blind. This type of honest exchange will help us to think differently, adopt new perspectives, and solve problems more effectively. A diverse and inclusive group will perform better than a homogenous group.

Silverthorn closed her talk by offering practical suggestions for achieving change. She identified ten techniques we can use to bring about change and help achieve racial equity. She refers to these techniques as “bias interrupters.” I liked the way she did not simply emphasize the need for equity, but provided these specific suggestions for reaching the desired change.  These bias interrupters are specific action items the audience could take in their own lives right away. She reminded everyone that it is easy to say that you want change, but we must all be willing to step up and lead the change.

The first technique is respect; to combat racism and bias we must start with respect, recognizing that other people’s lives have value. As Silverthorn put it, “Respect someone because of who you are, not who they are.” Respect requires that we do not deny people’s lived experiences. Intentionality is also crucial in combating unconscious bias. Being intentional about inclusion requires mindfulness and level two, as opposed to level one thinking. When we fall into old habits of automatic thinking, we will be controlled by our biases and stereotypes.

An equally valuable technique is “perspective taking,” making the effort to empathize with other people. For example, if you see that a staff member is late for a meeting, don’t assume the worst. Just observe what is happening in the moment.  Don’t immediately judge the person negatively, but instead try to default to empathy.

You must have a plan for success, for how to work for increasing diversity and inclusion. An important but neglected question to ask yourself is, what resources can you commit to this effort? We must recognize that this work requires resources. We need to consider what resources we can access. This really struck a chord with participants in the chat window, as resources are such a concern for law libraries, both in the academic and the firm environment. Law libraries are often under-resourced.

Silverthorn pointed out that retention can be as big a problem as recruiting in ensuring diversity. That is why it is so important to show people how they can succeed in the job – use competencies. Be as clear and transparent as possible about expectations for the position. Identify for new recruits the path to success. She also exhorted us to speak up, where you see your organization falling short of their ideals. Stand up and do something about it. Set the norm for what actions are expected.

Finally, she talked about the need to let people be their authentic selves at work. When we are creating a working environment where people can be their authentic selves, we will begin to achieve genuine equity and inclusion. I found her speech to be very helpful, particularly the “bias interrupters,” which were very practical and can be used to change your mindset right away.

Keynote Speaker: Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle’s Tedx Talk, How to stop talking about implicit bias and start talking about race.

Authentic Diversity: How to Change the Workplace for Good

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