Institutionalizing Racial Justice – A DIY Guide

Lawyers and lawyers are very familiar with the importance of institutions. Law itself is an institution that can be used for good or evil. Laws and other legal institutions have justified great damage, but they can also be the scene of transformative changes. The difference between the two lies not only in the individual commitment to principles, but also in the institutional milieu and the cultural norms with which people surround themselves. To change these norms and allow the law to serve all people more justly by addressing racial inequalities, we need to change our institutions.

Fortunately, each of us has the power to make change in the institutions of which we belong. Indeed, this work is critical to creating an anti-racist and just society. Toni Morrison says that “the function of freedom is to set someone else free”. In other words, there is a duty to foster the capacity of those who lack it, a duty to strengthen those who are marginalized. In the context of racial justice, this means that those of us with relative security and the ability to express ourselves and make change must do so. As attorneys, attorneys and lawyers have a special responsibility because they are indeed capable of making a difference.

Organizing change within institutions is not an easy task as its real function is to maintain continuity over time. They are designed to withstand change and have an intrinsic immune system that will fight transformation, regardless of whether the change imagined is good or bad. Overcoming this resistance is easiest when institutional leadership supports change and is willing to commit to concrete changes to better embody inclusive values. But even those without formal authority can join in efforts to change the organization for the better. To aid in these efforts, With a Lever is a DIY guide that outlines six steps on the road to creating institutional change for racial justice.

Step 1: Assess the starting conditions

Changing an institution, changing it on the basis of racial justice, requires understanding the institution: its pressure points, its values, how people have tried to change them in the past. Anyone who belongs to an institution already has the most important tool to understand all of this: the connection with other people within it. Institutional knowledge resides in the individuals that make up an institution, and understanding their past and failures is an important part of preparing to move them towards greater equity and inclusion.

Step two: set expectations

Pushing for institutional change can be exhausting. It is important to be ready to face opposition from the institution and expect both boredom and conflict. Even when the leaders of an institution seek change and understand the value of promoting racial justice, the structures and cultural norms that exacerbate existing inequalities are not easily addressed.

Step 3: Form a coalition and get support for your goals

Institutions are made up of people, so a diverse team is required to enable joint action and inclusive decision-making. Gather a coalition of people interested in making change by starting discussions with as many people as possible about how the institution can improve racial justice issues. These discussions are not easy and sometimes uncomfortable, but that is a sign that they are necessary.

Step four: make a plan and stay organized

Once a coalition comes together, it should agree on a plan and set up basic logistics. This means that you have a rough schedule of action, set up structure, and hold effective meetings. All of this is important for accountability and for focusing energy on concrete action to address inequalities.

Step five: avoid common pitfalls

It is important to understand why past efforts to change institutions and improve representation and inclusion have stalled, as it can help the coalition avoid the same mistakes. With a Lever presents some common challenges to watch out for.

Step six: keep your momentum going

The final step is simply to keep the mood up by acknowledging the need to settle in in the long run while celebrating small wins. This is precisely because promoting institutional change is not easy.

The DIY guide, which is available both as a PDF and as a series of articles, addresses each of these steps and expands them with specific tips for the critical work of transforming our institutions to anchor and normalize racial justice. Of course, every institution is different and so their path to racial justice needs to be tailored individually, but the information in the DIY guide is intended to provide practical advice. With a Lever wants to guide everyone who wants to get involved in their institutions for justice and inclusion, because transformative social change is only possible if we all work together.

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