Pharoah Sutton-Jackson, CSJ President
I humbly write this outgoing address to you with some final reflections that I hope will be of some value to you heading into the summer and onward. I apologize if this become lengthy, I will try to balance completeness and brevity. I know that no one is any mood to do any more extensive non-recreational reading.
I first want to express my immense gratitude for the opportunity to have led this organization this year. I am grateful to last year’s E-Board for appointing me to leadership. Additionally, I am eternally grateful to this year’s E-Board for trusting in my leadership. Finally, I am deeply grateful for you all being responsive to my leadership. All the great work this organization has performed this year is equally attributable to your responsiveness to our approach as it is to the approach itself.
Our ability to persevere through the virtual circumstances of this academic year and to be as active as we may have ever been as an organization was incredibly inspiring. From the Student Organization Contract, the Full Report, and our new website, to our several Dialogues and Workshops, our partnerships with other orgs, and our mentorship of a young French student organization. In short, it was a great year, even though in many ways it was an awful year. Thank you all for remaining committed to doing the work of social justice at a time where resting and self-care were needed more than ever.
I am confident that the momentum we created this year will persist, largely because I am exceedingly confident in next year’s E-Board. It is another talented, diverse, passionate, and aspirational group. Once again, a healthy mix of new fresh voices, and continuity from the year past. Particularly, I am extremely proud and encouraged that they will be led by brother Jourden Taylor. You all – E-Board and membership – will do great things together.
At this time, I would like to offer the final concerns and aspirations for the SJU Law community that I can express from a “current student” perspective. These are issues that I personally have mulled over but that I have also oft discussed with my peers over the years and as recently as a few weeks ago at our Town Hall.
There needs to be consequences for Faculty members who consistently create inequitable, exclusive, repressive, and insensitive classroom environments.
The are professors who numerous students have witnessed use offensive language and these students feel like there is no outlet to report those specific incidents without having to participate in the investigative process. There needs to be an anonymous reporting system for DEI related issues. Some students feel the EOS Surveys are insufficient for this purpose because they have yet to see year to year improvement. There is low confidence that any of their comments are being addresses.
In addition to refraining from insensitive at best – and blatantly offensive at worst – comments, Faculty need to set norms in the classroom during certain discussions, and overall improve their ability to facilitate such conversations. Particularly when teaching nuanced topics that involve delicate topics and “isms.”
Furthermore, the administration needs to consider observing lectures to both keep professors honest and develop first-hand accounts to reference in conversations around improvement and strategic planning for more anti-racist instruction. There needs to be a serious audit of anti-racist teaching moving forward, giving professors an opportunity to review with the observer or an external resource. SJU needs to go further than just a one size fits all incidental training. Bring these DEI resources and references to be more hands on. In many conversations I have had with Professors both at this school and others, so many of them have expressed the need for assistance in this area.
We need to create distinctions between humanity and the law.
There is a robust conversation occurring in legal academia about how we teach law. I would love to see St. John’s step to the forefront in making changes. Law needs to be taught from a more interdisciplinary perspective. I understand the pressures of accurately preparing students for the Bar. However, an interdisciplinary approach need not even require the sacrifice of class time. Students highly appreciate when Professors send supplemental articles or include interdisciplinary articles as optional reading on the syllabus. Not further explanatory materials delving deeper in legal principles, but materials that help to contextualize the law. So many law students desperately yearn for context and acknowledgment of circumstances. The Law School Anti-Racist Consortium has held plenary sessions the last few months bringing in professors from across the country who are leading in this form of legal instruction, organized by subject. I highly recommend the administration and faculty review these workshops and develop implementation strategies.
The sessions are available here.
The importance of this shift in legal education cannot be overstated. So many of my peers have expressed the rigid and reductionist approach of legal education is something they have struggled deeply not to internalize. Abstracting the humanity from people and turning them into P’s and D’s is a tendency that students note persists outside of the classroom. Many students are acutely aware of the difficulty they experience in attempting to maintain an empathetic perspective, and of their peers that have failed to do so. My peers have expressed, and I agree, that it feels like law school trains us to accept injustices because they are legitimized statutorily. There are many experiences that occur in law school that foster the energy and intentions to do the opposite, I have benefited from many in my time at SJU. Almost none of these experiences take place in the classroom. That needs to change.
We need to allow for more debate and criticism of law. Such discourse will not detract from the learning and understanding of the law as it is, quit the opposite. In my opinion, most of the time some of the people that know a given law the best are those who seek to change it…
We need to improve Student Development.
We must continue to update the Lawyering and practical course curriculums to include training in Vicarious Trauma, and how to deal with traumatized clients.
We need to provide more direct and instructive access to Wellness and Stress Management strategies. There needs to be direct introduction to counseling resources and wellness activities, not just the recommendation and contact information.
If SJU Law is to truly be an Anti-Racist institution, then there needs to be more introduction to Movement Lawyering and practical professional responsibility guidance.
We need to strengthen Student Support.
SJU Law needs to make students feel more seen.
The limitations of non-binary space in the law school building needs to be addressed.
Professors need to make themselves feel more accessible. Their accessibility and responsiveness contribute to students feeling seen.
We must continue to be diverse in our marketing/communications storytelling. This does not mean just highlighting the diversity that exists in the school. It also means highlighting what makes these diverse individuals unique other than the fact that they represent an underrepresented identity.
The law school needs to make more trauma-informed decisions and accommodations. We need better awareness of the cultural and experiential triggers in the curriculum and that may occur in discourse around the law. For example, Sexual Assault units are still not being taught with the requisite sensitivity, nor are the discussion during those units being facilitated with sensitivity (on average). Comments are not corrected; language is not monitored, and the use of problematic hypos and exam questions needs to be eradicated. (Being put in an involuntary position to defend a rapist with no ability to opt out cannot happen again. To make an Evidence analogy, the practical value of such an assignment does not outweigh the potential prejudicial and burdensome effect.)
The law school also needs to institute Trauma and Mental Health accommodations distinct from traditional Disability accommodations. I imagine a system similar to religious accommodations, where there is a removal of interpersonal pressure to always disclose directly to professors whenever you have a trauma or mental health related issue. I am sure there are administrators in the Student Services department that would happily facilitate such accommodations in lieu of such a formal system or before its creation and I urge them to be proactive in offering that to students.
We need to bring closure and decompression to events where the topics are weighty. The practice of featuring social worker and counselor presence at such events needs to become a norm.
We need to step up our particularized First-Generation support, starting early. LSARC has held a session on these needs as well.
Increase investment in the Ron Brown Center and Prep Program.
This center can become the resource of Movement/Social Justice Lawyering Career Pathways, distinct from the Public Interest umbrella.
There needs to be fundraising efforts to create a Fellowship Program, similar to the Mattone Institute, for lawyers interested in Civil Rights Practice. This Civil Rights or Social Justice Fellows Program should be able to provide students selected after an application process a stipend or academic credit to assist the Director of DEI and/or the Center itself in conducting, leading and organizing DEI Programming and Special Events during the academic year or pursuing Social Justice/Civil Rights work outside the school. Other considerations include facilitating externships and coordinating an alumni network.
Create Research Assistant Positions for Administrators that may serve as Student Liaisons.
They should be paid or for credit positions, helping to create more interpersonal relationships and build bridges. Furthermore, these RA’s can research modern equity trends at other schools nationwide (specific to that administrator’s department) and in the field and assist administrators in devising implementation strategies based on their research.
Create Research/Teaching Assistant Positions for Faculty specifically geared for interdisciplinary and inclusivity curriculum development and assistance facilitating nuanced and sensitive subjects in lecture.
Students with social science and other relevant backgrounds and experience can lend their perspectives to teachers in the updating and strategic planning around certain units and can also be present in classes to provided discourse support.
It is important that these are new positions, expanding the number of TA’s/RA’s a professor can carry if necessary. We should not put professors in a position to try and lump this work on top of the work a traditional TA would do, or to have to split the difference amongst the TA’s they carry. Also, the selection criteria for this position would be markedly distinct than that of the traditional TA in a standard 4 credit 1L courses, for example. Thus, these positions would highlight markedly different types of students, again contributing to a range of students feeling seen and having a variety of options for mentorship.
Make Anti-Racism Programming like that of April 6 habitual and more complete.
During April 6, many students felt gaslighted. Several of my peers expressed to me that the program felt unfinished. We attempted to unpack a lot, but there was no closure. The lack of an attendance requirement led to clear absences from people many in the community felt needed the experience the most.
Furthermore, these conversations are often very limited in scope, hyper focused on the Black experience. Obviously, this year our community was being responsive to events of the world, but Anti-Racism needs to be an inclusionary conversation with other marginalized races and identities.
As to my own thoughts on April 6th, I just want to reiterate to the community the priorities that CSJ set with our June 6th event No More Talking. We emphasized that it was not the time for discourse of the problem, but that there was an urgency to discuss and strategize practical solutions. While both forms of community engagement are valuable – candid reflections on the impacts and iterations of racism (and other injustices) and solution-based organizing – we cannot let ourselves sink back into doing more of the former than the latter. All too often the result of that balance will be marginalized folks bearing their pain and trauma to a community and then leaving with the feeling that their experiences fell on deaf ears. The value of the former is intrinsically tied to the performance of the latter. If solutions are never openly discussed and implemented, then discussions of the problem become mere placation.
Expand the use of external DEI resources from just incidental trainings to formal long-term partnerships.
Mentioned before but I wanted to provide a specific example. The Center for Racial Justice in Education has a partnership initiative the Racial Justice in Organizations Program that is something I think SJU should heavily look into, as well as other programs of the like.
My final note will be one of optimism and positivity. For as much as I see vast room for improvement in this community, this year in particular has shown me that there are plenty of people in this community that are committed to that improvement. There are individuals from the top down that are empathetic, receptive, and invested. SJU Law needs to empower more of those people and weed out those in the community who represent the antithesis of those values and traits. That does not mean jettisoning or isolating those with variant viewpoints, perspectives, and ideologies. It does not mean chilling discourse. It means creating a standard and institutional culture that fosters and fiercely protects equity with a foundational understanding of privilege and power. The education of future lawyers is such an immensely important social project. One that must be carried out with a holistic, active, and conscientious approach from everyone involved. SJU Law has the potential to succeed at that project and I look forward to continuing to be a part of this community’s evolution as an alumnus.
Sincerely, with love,