Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Diversity Committee: A Consequence of Conscience

By Larry D. Smith,
Vice-Chair of The Florida Bar Standing Committee on Diversity & Inclusion,
2013 American Bar Association’s Diversity Leadership Award winner,
2013 Florida Bar Henry Latimer Diversity Award winner

“You’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” So began my introduction and commitment to diversity and inclusion efforts at The Florida Bar.
In March 1999, Justice Harry Lee Anstead was featured in The Florida Bar News, addressing professionalism and diversity. Justice Anstead advocated for greater recognition of diversity as a part of our professional obligation to one another and the public we serve. He mentioned race, gender, and ethnicity as areas where the Bar could improve. It was, I would tell him in an 11-page footnoted letter, fine as far as it went. However, I challenged him to include sexual orientation in the efforts. That letter was the first time I ever remember writing to any “public” person about the issue. It was both education for the justice and a cathartic release for me. My letter concluded:
I realize that there are limitations to what we can do. While we may be able to “lead a horse to water but not make it drink,” we can do better than suggesting politely to the herd that even mavericks really ought not to starve then turn away to gaze into the sunset pretending all is well.
A few days later, my phone rang, and it was Justice Anstead on the line. I gulped and gave one long, last pensive look at my Bar Admission Certificate on the wall and picked up the telephone.

Justice Anstead was gracious. He told me about working as a mover whose African-American co-workers were not allowed to go inside the same restaurant when they took a lunch break. He acknowledged that he didn’t fully understand my perspective but said I had one that ought to be shared. “If,” he challenged, “you want to be a part of the solution, I’ll walk down the hall and ask the chief justice to appoint you to the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.”

“But,” he added, “if you aren’t willing to be part of that solution, then you wrote a very nice letter.”

I was worried about what my firm, colleagues, and clients would think about me, but something inside me couldn’t turn away from an opportunity to make a difference; a consequence of conscience. Nature abhors a vacuum, and I am convinced that so does human nature. Oppression comes in many forms, some wrapped in otherwise patriotic, religious, or popular guise. So, while most people agree with the adage that “evil thrives when good people do nothing,” they seldom view the status quo or their support of it as oppressive. Apathy and complacency feed oppression. When we fail to take a stand or get involved, oppression comes rushing back in to fill the void. We must constantly learn, grow, and educate so that does not happen.

I accepted Justice Anstead’s challenge and the appointment. It changed my life. We are not finished. So, let me ask you the same question: Are you part of the solution, or are you a part of the problem?