This is my first column as the Monroe County Bar Association President, and I want to thank all of you who have been so kind and generous with your well wishes and thoughts. I hope I can live up to the role. I also want to thank the MCBA Board of Trustees for their willingness to serve.
It is July 5th as I am writing this, at the end of a July 4th weekend that has led me to reflection like no other July 4th I have known. COVID’s restrictions on activities have caused many to devour news and current events more than in the past.
I grew up in New York City, and then eventually Long Island. Even when I lived in New York, we spent summers at the beach on Long Island. July 4th was about sand, ocean, family and fireworks. Uncle Toby and his stash of brightly colored sparkling light show. I remember one of the biggest July 4th events was when the tall ships came to New York harbor to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. My uncle managed to swing bleacher seats, and we watched these magnificent ships sail in. The fireworks lit up the lower Manhattan sky that night.
Later in life, July 4th became family barbecues and fireworks — maybe a trip downtown to hear the RPO play on Main Street, as we sat in lawn chairs on the closed off street, and then watched fireworks.
But, I am embarrassed to write, I never thought of the dissonance of July 4th — a celebration of independence, in a country where so many people were enslaved at the time so many of us were taught our citizens became free from their oppressors in England.
This year was different. With the Black Lives Matter movement urging us, especially those of us who are white, to take a fresh look at the past and present, many media outlets shared Frederick Douglass’ speech about July 4th, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Some played the Ossie Davis or James Earl Jones readings — an excerpt: “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” In his powerful speech, Douglass said. “I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”
(The full speech is linked here: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927t.html)
As I sat down to write this column, I have been thinking about how much I have failed to see through the prism of my white privilege, including this holiday. Literally, as I sat down, I began to think about those tall ships I so fondly remember from the bicentennial, and googled “tall ships slavery.” And sure enough, those ships we admired and feted to celebrate our country’s independence were used as slave ships. Our festivities about the independence of a portion, but not all, of our citizens were honored by boats that carried enslaved people. How did I miss this?
As I try to see things with a better perspective, I have been trying to reimagine how we as a bar association can shift our view as well. How do we begin to “re-see” what we do, and to reimagine our work in ways that enhance racial and social justice? There are surely efforts we can make both big and small. I have some thoughts I’m trying to figure out how to implement, but it seems that there are some that we can do fairly quickly.
There are several committees whose members are selected by the MCBA president. Often, those committee members are recommended by the chairs and those already on the committees. While we value the input of committee members and chairs in their efforts to staff committees, sometimes in organizations the appointment by recommendations of those already involved limits the pool of potential applicants. So, this year, in order to open up the process and enhance and diversify our membership on these committees, we invite you to consider applying for membership. While we cannot assure every applicant a spot, we will do what we can to increase the participation of those who apply. If you would like to be a member of the following committees, please email me and Kevin Ryan at email@example.com.
- Academy of Law
- Commission to Advance & Support Women in the Law
- Fee Arbitration
- President’s Commission on Access to Justice
- Professional Performance
Other changes we are discussing include ensuring that the content of CLEs are reviewed with an eye toward whether they address diversity issues, ensuring that we consider our diverse members not just for diversity panels, but for all CLEs, and conducting a program on anti-racism. These topics will be discussed in our MCBA weekly messages and these columns in the coming months. As we work to enhance our diversity, inclusion and anti-racism, I invite you to reach out to me with suggestions and comments.
Jill Paperno is president of the Monroe County Bar Association. She is First Assistant Public Defender at the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office.