By DarKenya W. Waller
Executive Director, Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands
Juneteenth celebrates a watershed moment in our country’s history — the end of slavery for all Americans, nearly 78 years after the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
Today, as we commemorate Juneteenth, we have an opportunity to consider the day’s deeper meaning and ongoing significance. At its heart, Juneteenth is about freedom, and freedom can be constrained in more ways than physical.
At Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, where I’m executive director, many of our clients come from marginalized communities and confront a host of issues that frequently involve inclusion, diversity and fairness. Our nonprofit law firm’s mission is to provide our clients equal access to justice — that is, to give them meaningful legal representation in order to overcome economic and societal hurdles that might impede their success in the legal system.
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 deeply affected many Americans. In the years since, we’ve seen growing support for a number of civil rights movements, including Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate. Each of those movements speaks to our shared need to be more accepting and to have more cultural humility — that is, acknowledging what we don’t know about other cultures and being curious enough to learn more.
Within Legal Aid Society, this tragedy led to a series of conversations that galvanized our resolve to achieve greater racial equity in our work in the community, but also caused us to look more deeply at how we could better achieve diversity and inclusion within our own organization.
Since 2020, we’ve worked to modify our community outreach to ensure we’re targeting and befriending minority and immigrant communities, with the goal of creating real relationships. We don’t want to just deliver services in those areas, but to make genuine connections with residents and organizations.
Over the last two years, Legal Aid Society has had over 50 different trainings and learning opportunities across our organization on various aspects of diversity, equity and inclusion. But learning is just the first step. Once you learn, you have to move forward and take action.
As part of our hiring practices, we’ve been conscious to have minority representation on our hiring committees. Becoming a culture of inclusion goes beyond hiring diverse staff and involves creating opportunities for the advancement of minority employees.
Among our senior leadership, 50 percent of our executive team are minorities and the majority of our managers are women. And in our Nashville office, 50 percent of our four legal practice groups are led by minorities.
Many businesses and organizations struggle with turnover, and we’re no different. Even in a good market, nonprofits have to work hard to compete salary-wise with other organizations. Among our minority staff in particular, the luxury of working in an organization that feeds their souls sometimes takes a back seat to meeting their basic needs.
We’ve been actively working to measure where we are in terms of hiring diverse staff, the promotion of diverse staff into leadership and the turnover of diverse staff. We can’t be afraid to measure these things so we can see where we’re coming up short and where we need to go.
As Denzel Washington once said to explain why he, as a Black man, advocated to direct “Fences,” an adaptation of August Wilson’s play about an African-American family in the 1950s: “It’s not color, it’s culture.” By that he meant it’s not only about having the right number of diverse people in the room (color) but accepting and incorporating the lived experiences of that diversity into every aspect of the work so that nuances are respected and honored (culture).
It’s the same way for our organization and others. Creating a culture of inclusion makes us more effective because we’re able to directly relate to the experiences of our clients. And internally, it gives us greater awareness and empathy for our individual differences.
I encourage the leaders of other organizations to look at their own spheres of influence and examine the unique opportunities they have to be inclusive. In doing so, they can help build a more fair and just community while honoring the spirit of freedom and inclusivity that Juneteenth represents.
About the Author
DarKenya W. Waller is executive director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal assistance to low-income and elderly people in 48 Tennessee counties. Learn more at www.las.org or by following the firm on Facebook.