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Traveling the road to greater equality

11/24/2021

By Marcia M. Meis, Director and guest columnist Deanie Brown, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

When the Supreme Court issued its June 2020 press release referenced below, it did so with the desire to not only make a statement about racial justice but also put those words into action. Among other things, the Court created the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer position within its AOIC. Last November, the Illinois Supreme Court and the AOIC were extremely fortunate to welcome Deanie Brown as the Judicial Branch’s first statewide Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Since that time, Deanie has provided comprehensive, strategic, and programmatic leadership and vision that advances and promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). As a longtime DEI leader in higher education, Deanie now focuses her legal, educational and organizational experience and expertise on supporting these concepts in the court system. On the one-year anniversary of her appointment, I invited Deanie to provide an update on her efforts so far and plans for the coming year.

By Deanie Brown, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer

Greetings to all! As I sat down to write this, my first thought was I am always so inspired by Chief Justice Burke, including her words in the last issue of Illinois Courts Connect, with her reflections on where we have been and where we are going. Chief Justice Burke used the advent of autumn as a metaphor for change and ongoing growth and progress. In highlighting the arrival of fall and the hopeful retreat of the worst of the pandemic, Chief Justice Burke reminded us that the community health crisis which ushered in emergency measures to access the courts has evolved to transform access to justice and court services in a way that is profound and affirming and everlasting. With urgency comes innovation!

In that spirit of transformation, the Court issued its Statement on Racial Justice last June 22, 2020, calling for steps to deepen the public’s trust in procedural fairness and equitable access and outcomes. In making this call to action the Court took steps of its own by creating the new position Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. I have the great privilege and distinct joy of having been selected to fill that position to help fulfill the Court’s vision of justice that is accessible, fair, and equitable.

At the one year-anniversary of my assumption of this inaugural role, I am pleased to report progress and plans ahead. When I joined the court last November 2020, I was thrilled with the opportunity to serve my life goal of justice and fairness, which began for me as a middle child between two brothers, so I’m a natural advocate and negotiator!

But seriously, my prior experience in higher education administration and volunteer and appointed positions promoting nondiscrimination and ADA compliance, access to compete, gender equity, employee relations, anti-bias education, mediation, community policing, and the rights of people of diverse sexuality all culminate in this grand opportunity to link my legal training with equality goals in service to the collective good. I am very grateful to the Court and our wonderful Director Marcia Meis for valuing my experience and interests, and for the many important opportunities to support the work of the Courts, Illinois Judicial Branch Administrative Divisions, and appointed Court entities, including:

Support for the creation of diversity statements and strategic plans; support for the adoption of diversity hiring strategies; support for the opportunity to hear from community advocates and academic experts regarding disparate impacts and outcomes in justice encounters; direct involvement in panels to discuss legislative reforms impacting the criminal justice system and the systems of pre- and post-trial services and family and juvenile justice; consideration of demographic data collection to assess and address representational shortfalls and opportunities and access to greater diversity on the bench; reviews of jury and probation practices; and support for the development of programming and content to identify and address unconscious assumptions and unexamined contexts which might be contributing factors in justice outcomes.

I have also had opportunities to share observations and propose recommendations and action steps to the Court to enhance equity and inclusion practices within its administrative offices, as well as strategic steps within the Committees, Commissions, and other entities appointed by the Court to advise the Court and serve the interests of the public and secure its trust. Access for input by judges, attorneys, and court users is also vital. A key fundamental ideal is to render diversity itself fundamental throughout the work of the Judiciary, even in matters traditionally considered diversity neutral. Because all people and their circumstances and stories are diverse, the avowed and singular attention to detail that is synonymous with law and justice could also be applied to regard diversity and inclusion as foundational.

Much has been undertaken and much lies ahead, to fully realize and respond to the needs of the residents of our state who are diverse as to ability, language access, gender identity, sexual identity, culture, social and economic status, color and physical attributes, race, nationality, ethnicity, and more, within histories and contexts that may operate to measure humanity and vulnerability on a value scale.

For some officials, colleagues, and communities, the consideration of history and its lingering effects is itself divisive. So, as we seek to apply efforts to become more inclusive by acknowledging impacts and recommending remedies we must also seek to engage with and acknowledge diverse voices, and I am diligently attuned to diverse viewpoints, and to dialogue, discovery, and discourse in service to all.

For other officials, colleagues, and communities, in matters of procedural fairness and equal justice, the time is always now, and the call to action is ever urgent. Thus, the deliberation and collaboration inherent to the obligations of an impartial judiciary can seem like inertia in the face of calls for progress.

Please be assured, on this one-year anniversary of my assumption of this role, that I am all in and fully committed. I am excited to partner with, support, advise, and guide our collective response to the Court’s call to recognize, acknowledge, and seek to rectify any injustice or frailties in the disposition of justice which exist. As a civil rights lawyer observed about a court proceeding in another state, we have the opportunity to “…pull back the curtain on the … cracks in our justice system.” This work is ongoing.

As Chief Justice Burke observed in her October Illinois Courts Connect column, virtual technology and the ability to hold proceedings and meetings remotely has benefitted the bench, the bar, and all court users. Although I hear often on various virtual platforms how good it will be to return to in-person events, I always advocate for the continuation of virtual or at least hybrid opportunities to interact and achieve.

Virtual interactions, given adequate and equitable access to technological devices and wireless connectivity for individuals and communities, can be more inclusive, as virtual events eliminate the need for travel and mitigate against other in-person variables. For me, virtual interactions mean I can be with you all over the state via our computer screens, microphones, and telephones, and I am eager to be there for you and with you in this work. I look forward to traveling the road to greater equality with you.

Thank you for welcoming me aboard!