Listening begets listening

Thanks to Professors Alexa Chew and O.J. Salinas for their guest post below on fostering an open dialogue on diversity and inclusion in law schools. They will be presenting on these issues this week at the Association of Legal Writing Directors’ 2017 conference.

Law schools throughout the country continue to face issues related to diversity and inclusion. Students may feel unwelcome or marginalized at their law schools, and these feelings can impact their academic performance. This isn’t news, and most people want to foster a more inclusive law school environment.

chewBut what might be news are the details of these students’ individual experiences or the scope of these negative experiences within a student body. This matters because a precursor to making a law school more inclusive is understanding how students are feeling excluded. It also matters because if you’re not hearing those details, you might think that your school doesn’t have an inclusion problem. Or worse, you might be unknowingly contributing to it.

Whether you know it or not, your school probably does have an inclusion problem.

There is likely a group of faculty and staff at your school who know this well because they hear more than their share of students’ unhappy stories. Being one of those “go-to” folks is a blessing and a burden. It is a gift to be trusted with the intimate details of someone’s misery, to be present with another person’s vulnerability, to hear things before they need to be shouted. But it can also take an emotional toll on the listener. This is especially true when the student’s experience overlaps with the listener’s—for example because both are racial minorities or the first in their family to attend college.

A thing about burdens, though, is they get lighter when more people take them on. Not only that, but sharing burdens builds community.

salinasResearch suggests that the differences or misunderstandings that divide us can be lessened when we speak to each other and get to know each other a little more. Inviting students to share their stories and listening to those stories can improve those students’ well-being, especially if they feel that they haven’t been listened to in the past.

Here are some ideas for helping to invite these conversations:

  • In an individual conference or office hours, you might ask a student open-ended questions about how school is going. Listen to the answers non-judgmentally. Observe the student’s body language. Put on your lawyer hat and ask follow-up questions based on what you’ve heard and seen. (But remember it’s not an interrogation!)
  • In class, you could share a personal anecdote that suggests you have some experience with feeling like you don’t fit in. Explain that it’s common for law students to feel like they don’t belong. The reasons might be diverse, but the feeling of being an outsider is shared. This common ground can form the foundation for further conversation.
  • In class, you could issue a more explicit invitation to students–let them know that you are genuinely interested in their law school experience. Let them know that they can feel free to talk with you about non-academic concerns. (But be aware of reporting requirements at your institution. If you get the sense that a student might want to disclose information that must be reported, for example to your institution’s Title IX office, you’ll need to stop the conversation and advise the student of your duty to report certain information. This might be welcome news to the student, or it might not. The student can then make an informed choice about what else to share with you.)
  • Host a forum where students share their stories related to diversity and inclusion. A physical forum can foster real-time dialogue about students’ experiences and potential actions to address their concerns. The presence of faculty, staff, and administrators at a forum can expand the conversation by signaling that these issues matter and should be taken up by the whole community.

As readers of this blog surely know:

Listening begets listening—the more you practice, the better you get.

When it comes to conversations about diversity and inclusion, you might be afraid of saying the wrong thing. That’s a reasonable fear, and we’ve both said the wrong things during these conversations. It doesn’t feel great. But sometimes there isn’t a right thing to say. Sometimes the best you can offer is your time, your attention, and your ear.

If you are attending the ALWD Conference this week, we invite you to attend our session on Wednesday afternoon at 2 pm, where we will be hosting a conversation about these issues. The 2017 ALWD Conference is dedicated to discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion, as reflected by its theme: Acknowledging Lines: Talking About What Unites and Divides Us.

Thanks again to Alexa Chew and O.J. Salinas of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:

Alexa Chew is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at UNC Law. You can also find her on twitter at @aznchew.

O.J. Salinas is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at UNC Law. You can also find him on twitter at @ojsalinas.

 

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