Minnesota Law Launches Racial Equity and Justice Milestone Program
Students enter Minnesota Law with widely divergent knowledge and experience with racial injustice and its history in the United States. This often makes it difficult to explore the many ways race and racism interplay with the American legal system and society at large. Seeking to provide all students with a baseline understanding of race and the law, Minnesota Law recently launched the Racial Equity and Justice (REJ) Milestone program.
Through self-study, discussion groups, and experiential learning, students participating in the REJ Milestone program will gain a deeper understanding of the historical and current contexts surrounding racial injustice. The voluntary program aims to widen students’ understanding of the relationship between race and American law, while identifying and working to minimize biases, says Ra’Shya Ghee ’13, assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The milestone’s teachings will make for more productive and profound classroom discussions while preparing students for their legal careers. The program also helps Minnesota Law meet the American Bar Association’s new accreditation standards that provide that all law students have educational opportunities related to cross-cultural competency, bias, and racism.
Minnesota Law embarked on creating the milestone with Ghee last year, while she was teaching a course on Race and American Law at the Law School. Ghee, who has consulted and spoken on cross-racial coaching and racial equity, believes that an essential way for institutions to actualize their racial equity and justice goals starts with providing an entry point for learning and meaningful discussions.
“I really think a shared understanding is so important,” Ghee says. In developing the milestone, “We thought about what it would mean for the Law School to provide some kind of knowledge base for the entire community that we can use as a shared departure point to engage in discussions and questions about race and American law.”
Minnesota Law students have been asking for more education and discussion in the classroom about racial equity, says Jay Wong, assistant dean of students. The 10-module milestone program serves as a primer to introduce students to broad themes about race. It progresses chronologically from the precolonial era and the American Revolution, through the Civil War and Civil Rights era, to today, examining the role and impact of the law on race.
Discussing race and equity can be uncomfortable for people, but participating in the milestone and its discussion groups will provide students with safe spaces to engage, Wong says. The experience also will help future lawyers better relate to their diverse clientele, understand their life experiences, and advocate for them more effectively, he adds.
To earn the milestone, students must complete 10 modules, participate in an in-person dialogue called a debrief, and engage in five electives. Options include leading a student affinity organization, attending an affinity organization event, or participating in a workshop on working in diverse environments. Students who complete the requirements will have the REJ milestone noted on their transcript.
Nubia Esparza, senior coordinator of diversity and student programs, says that the milestone structure also recognizes the time and energy many students from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds invest in affinity group leadership—an important benefit.
“Affinity organization leaders take on a lot of work to educate the student body about different issues that BIPOC and students from marginalized identities experience related to law,” Esparza says. “The milestone also meets students where they are, especially if they are early in their understanding of how race and law intersect and haven’t experienced any of the isms that our marginalized students have.”
Considering the Impact of Policies
Kelli Johnson, 1L, says she is thrilled to have the opportunity to deepen her understanding of how racial disparities are perpetuated in many aspects of law and society. The milestone’s modules and reading materials like the book Fatal Invention got her thinking more deeply about race and law than she ever had before. She is grateful that Minnesota Law now offers the milestone because so much legal education focuses on doctrinal matters.
Johnson previously worked in health care finance, and she sees in retrospect how little attention was paid to serving marginalized communities. She wishes she had been able to take the milestone earlier, deploying its tools and teachings during her previous employment.
“As you go through the milestone, you recognize the power you will have as a lawyer to shape the policies and laws that will govern the people of the future,” Johnson says. “You come to understand that are things you need to take into consideration like the impacts it can have on marginalized groups.”
Making Students Better Lawyers
Esparza notes that one goal of the milestone program is to provide Minnesota Law students the tools they need to serve clients of all backgrounds and work to address racial disparities through the law.
“We are hoping that by providing this opportunity that our students will take their learning forward and be amazing advocates for their clients, to be able to empathize with them, defend them vigorously, and really be a part of the change that many folks are looking for in the legal system,” she says.
With this milestone program, as well as other opportunities such as the new Racial Justice Law Clinic and the Race-Informed Study Experience, a Structured Study Group program introduced in 2021, Minnesota Law is expanding its focus on racial justice work.
“I think the world we say we want, we have to build,” Ghee says. “It requires all of us to participate in the building. This is one of the ways the Law School is doing that.”
—By Suzy Frisch, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer