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Black Law Students Association Banquet
Feb. 28, 2018
SMC Campus Center
Good evening. I’m so honored to be with you tonight for this celebration of legal scholarship, service, and activism. I thank your co-chairs Taylor Nichols and Chukwukpee Nzegwu for inviting me.
I’ve admired the work of BLSA for many years. I’ve admired your advocacy on important issues of equity and opportunity—both in the bar and in the communities you serve. You’ve put yourselves on the front lines of the issues that I believe will come to define us as a people—issues of civil rights and social justice, of fairness and accountability — and I thank you.
A couple of years ago, you invited Angela Alsobrooks to this banquet as your keynote speaker. Ms. Alsobrooks was then the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney, and it was the first time I had met her in person. She spoke eloquently about the need for more diversity in the bar and the bench, the need for more inclusion in public life.
And then a few weeks ago, Ms. Alsobrooks was back on campus. This time she came in her capacity as Prince George’s County Executive, and she spoke at our annual Martin Luther King Jr. Diversity Awards celebration.
During her remarks, she said that knowledge alone is insufficient. That knowing THINGS isn’t enough, that we have to understand PEOPLE. And of course that’s true. We can’t provide effective care and counsel unless we understand the people we’re serving, unless we know their neighborhoods, their backgrounds, their circumstances—and how all these things influence their perspective and their behavior. It’s why you leave the shelter of your classrooms and go out into our communities to meet the people served—and under-served—by our justice system.
Ms. Alsobrooks acknowledged how difficult understanding really is. How you’ll be called to represent people who disagree with you, people who don’t want to know you, people who hate you.
But especially now, she said, when the deficit of understanding in this country is so vast, when the chasms that separate us are so wide, when the incivility is so great, that’s when we need to try even harder.
And I thought about my own responsibility in terms of diversity and inclusion here at UMB. I thought about what the those twin ideals—diversity and inclusion—gloss over, and that’s the very hard work that underpins them: the hard work of understanding.
Understanding forces you to cede control, to give up on “being right.” It forces you to listen deeply, eagerly, energetically, patiently. It forces you to submit to times of tension and difficulty as we work our way across to one another—as we bridge that gap of understanding.
I’m committed to that, and I know you are too. And I know that’s why you’re the leaders we’re looking for. You are the leaders who will deliver the justice and the hope and the unity we’re after. You are the leaders who will fight for fair treatment under the law—for everyone. You are the leaders whose courage and compassion will lift up others. You are the leaders who will reject the politics of division and fear and hate. You are the leaders who will speak truth to power. And you are the leaders who will become that power yourselves.
What we need so desperately in this country are the perspective and humanity of people like you, who will build better systems and better protections and a better country than we’ve been capable of building thus far. And that’s something to celebrate.
I thank you and I congratulate all of tonight’s worthy honorees.