Sunday, February 2, 2014

President's Message: Justice For All

By Susan Johnson-Velez

There are many words you could use to describe me. Some people think of me as a female attorney. Others label me half African-American or, on the flip side, half Filipino. Then there are descriptors such as heterosexual, college graduate, and mother of two. It’s difficult to pigeonhole a person into just one category, especially when such a diversity of interests, experiences, and backgrounds collide to make each one of us unique.

Diversity has been a hot topic for many years but will likely continue to be so in light of the rapidly changing demographics in our country. “Embracing Diversity” was the theme of the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s January Membership Luncheon. The HCBA has a Diversity Committee, of which I am a part. Law firms and other companies have internal panels and groups that work toward the goal of inclusion in the workplace. The conversation has been building, and I’m pleased to see it stretching beyond good intentions and into positive actions.

In the Tampa Bay area, the HCBA’s Diversity Committee is spearheading two great events this year to raise awareness about the importance of diversity in the legal community. The first is the annual Diversity Networking Social, which is in its seventh year and is modeled after a similar event in Miami.

The Diversity Committee has invited students from all of the Florida law schools to come to the HCBA on Saturday, February 22,  for a day of networking with representatives from local law firms and other voluntary bar associations. The social aims to highlight the diversity of the local legal community and to help students connect with professionals who may serve as mentors. If your firm would like to participate in this event, we would love to have you. Please contact committee co-chairs Amanda Buffinton ( or Ronnell Robinzine ( for more information.

Less than a week after the social, on February 25, the committee is hosting a CLE featuring Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America.” King’s book recounts in chilling detail the racial injustices that plagued a 1949 rape case in Lake County, Florida. The author will discuss the case and share insights from the book, which fans can get signed copies of at the luncheon. King’s talk will be followed by a panel discussion about the evolution of justice and civil rights. To register, call (813) 221-7777.

Through these two events, the Diversity Committee hopes to provide you with an opportunity to learn from the past and look toward a more inclusive future.

Although headlines of racial injustice may be fading, new tales of immigration challenges and LGBT issues are coming into the spotlight. As we strive to get a better grip on these topics and confront potential injustices, I’d like to leave you with a parting thought: In 1896, the year the Hillsborough County Bar Association was formed, I would not have been able to join because women had not yet been admitted to practice law in Florida. Not to mention the barriers that would have stemmed from the color of my skin. Isn’t it amazing how far we’ve come? Now just imagine how far we can go.