PBI’s First Ever Virtual Conference Calls on Pro Bono Attorneys to Advance Racial Justice

[vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” background_animation=”none” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]The year 2020 have been a whirlwind for the entire globe, and specifically for the United States. Beginning in March, the spread of COVID-19 has kept approximately one-third of Americans working from home and the entire nation social distancing from friends and family. During this already historic moment, we arrived at another important chapter in the history of the United States. The murder of George Floyd awakened much of our country to the fight for racial justice and need for police reform. We have watched, and many of us have participated, as protestors take to the streets in cities and towns all across America and the world to demand racial equality, racial justice, and the end of police action that brutalizes Black Americans and people of color.

As pro bono professionals, leaders, and volunteers, we continuously look to the communities in which we live and work to identify issues and individuals in need of legal assistance. Communities across the country need pro bono services to advance racial equity. When PBI began planning its first ever virtual conference in March, the emerging pro bono needs brought on by the pandemic were front and center. After the killing of George Floyd in May, addressing systemic racism  became a vital focus.

Creating opportunities to address racial injustice in this country, PBI was fortunate to present three exceptional keynote speakers to our conference:  Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, political leader and nonprofit CEO Stacey Abrams, and Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Kristen Clarke.

Attorney General Keith Ellison shared his unique perspective and spoke about police brutality, the history of policing and racial disparities, and what pro bono volunteers can do to address these issues. Ellison said that the first question we must ask is, “Do we want liberty and justice for all or not?” He advised us to convene small groups and tackle ways to make sure that we provide equal opportunities for all in large corporations, nonprofits, and small businesses alike.

The attorney general called on lawyers to address public housing, criminal justice reform, and police accountability.  Ellison discussed the need for reform throughout the entire criminal justice system, from arrests, to bail, to courtrooms, to sentencing. These are the kind of changes that can only be made if we as citizens tell our state legislators what we want. Ellison made it clear that in reaching out to our legislators and pushing for legislation reform, we will evoke change.

Bestselling author, social entrepreneur, nonprofit CEO, and political leader, Stacey Abrams, spoke about the need for fair elections. Abrams has started two organizations to combat voter suppression. Fair Fight tackles the issues and challenges of voter suppression throughout the country, and Fair Count focuses on the census to ensure that that the hardest-to-count communities nationwide will be represented. Abrams also launched the Southern Economic Advancement Project, which “partners with policy thinkers and doers to amplify their efforts and bridge gaps in policy infrastructure” in southern America.

Abrams discussed growing up with parents who, despite limited financial resources, encouraged service, believing that regardless of one’s circumstance, we are responsible for ourselves and our community. Her parents also taught her and her siblings the importance of voter engagement, in particular for marginalized communities and those whose vote has been denied. As Abrams started her career as a lawyer, she continued to push for voter engagement and expanded her efforts to include the fight against voter suppression.

Abrams encouraged pro bono attorneys, armed with knowledge about voting rules and regulations, to work with those who are continue to be stripped of their right to vote and help them to register to vote, obtain a ballot, and cast their vote. There is also a need for attorneys on election days to assist voters who might encounter push-back at the polls. Abrams urged pro bono professionals to fight for the rights of low-income voters and voters of color in registration, ballot access, and ballot counting. Click here to learn more about the legal action that Abrams is taking through her organization, Fair Fight.

Kristen Clarke, the President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, spoke about the importance of seizing the moment to truly affect change in our democracy.

Clarke began her remarks by paying respect to lives lost at the hands of police –  George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and so many others – and shared that this moment has brought opportunity to make change. For example, the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in June. Clarke highlighted the importance of changes in legislation such as this, because, “it provides an opportunity for lawyers to plug-in and provide support to lawmakers, officials, and activists who are trying to figure out how we can make our justice system better, more equitable, and reform policing in a way that produces safer outcomes for communities.”

Clarke also discussed the serious issues involving voter suppression in our country, which have been intensified by the pandemic and include acts by state officials who have been restricting access to absentee ballots for voters. Lastly, Clarke addressed the work that the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is doing to make sure that people who are peacefully exercising their first amendment right to speak out, demonstrate, and protest are able to do so. Some peaceful protestors calling for racial justice and police reform have been assaulted and attacked by the military and police. Clarke reminded us that as lawyers, we are uniquely positioned to bring about reform and change, but also that lawyers are not expected to make those changes alone.

In closing, before a robust question and answer portion with PBI’s President and CEO, Eve Runyon, Clarke reminded us that since the 1960s we have made great progress in our nation, but there is still much to be done to make our democracy fair, open, and equitable for all communities.

In addition to inspiring keynote addresses, PBI hosted several programs that addressed racial justice issues. For example, during the “Sustainability and Pro Bono: Learn How to Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk” session for in-house counsel, Pro Bono Counsel Christy Kane discussed Entergy Corporation’s** work developing pro bono projects through a racial justice and equity lens, like addressing systemic inequities with drivers’ license suspensions, fines, and fees, which have a disparate impact on communities of color. Additionally, Laura Holland, Staff Attorney, from North Carolina Justice Center, B. Leigh Wicclair, Senior Staff Attorney of North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center, and Norah Rogers, the firm-wide pro bono administrator at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough*, led a session entitled, “The Poverty Penalty: The Criminalization of Poverty Through Drivers’ License Suspension.” They also discussed how more than 40 states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, authorize the suspension of a driver’s license for unpaid traffic fines, which penalizes economically vulnerable individuals, disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Sessions like these in combination with PBI’s keynote addresses made it possible for PBI’s first ever virtual conference to highlight the need for racial justice and access to justice in the United States. We hope that PBI’s virtual conference amplified the call to action to address racial justice within our country, and we look forward to partnering with our community to contribute to this effort.

*  denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory