By Jan Pudlow
What’s the difference between “special” and “standing”? A whole lot if you’re talking about a Florida Bar committee.
The final meeting of the Special Committee on Diversity and Inclusion was held at the Annual Convention on June 27, and a few days later on July 1, it officially merged with the Equal Opportunities Law Section to become the new Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion.
“The new committee is not going to have any size limitations and there are no dues,” said Chair Kevin McNeill. “We will have a budget from The Florida Bar, so we will be able to do a lot more. So this is a very exciting time.”
While the original special committee’s focus was primarily designed to distribute grants of about $50,000 a year to voluntary bars to put on diversity programs, McNeill said, “Now, we will oversee, direct, promote, and lead” the Bar’s diversity and inclusion efforts that are part of the Bar’s strategic plan.
The Committee on Diversity and Inclusion is a substantive law committee with this mission statement: “To foster diversity and inclusion in the legal profession in Florida. The CDI is dedicated to making leadership roles within the profession and The Florida Bar accessible to minorities, women, members of the LGBT community, and persons with physical and mental challenges. The committee is open to all who are dedicated to achieving a diverse legal profession within Florida.”
The day before he was sworn in as president, Eugene Pettis came to the committee to thank members for their service over the past year and their commitment to stay involved in the Bar’s diversity and inclusion efforts.
“One of the things I am cautioning everybody is just because we have the first African-American president, it doesn’t mean mission accomplished,” Pettis said. “One of the things that was part of the U.S. Supreme Court’s discussion on some landmark decisions they had on civil rights this week was: ‘If you have a black president, what’s the issue?’ That’s just the mentality of some people.
“My presidency will not be the be-all and end-all. I will not resolve all issues of diversity and inclusion by this time next year. It’s important that these are ongoing efforts, ongoing initiatives, so we can truly embrace and incorporate diversity into our profession.
“It’s going to happen with the ability and efforts of folks like you. I call upon and lean on many of you for multiple tasks, such as the Leadership Academy. It’s just that people who really get it and live it are very important in the process. We are combining these committees. Believe me, we are not weakening our efforts in this area.”
Pettis praised a “heartfelt email” he received from Harley Herman, immediate past chair of EOLS, thanking Bar leaders for finding “an effective way of continuing the mission and intent of the Equal Opportunities Law Section.”
“As you know, the issue of committee vs. section has been debated within the section for the past decade,” Herman wrote in the email. “While I deferred to the decision of the majority of our members, I always wondered if there was some type of hybrid between a committee and a section that could be created. The structure of the new standing committee essentially does that, and I will be proud to attend the committee’s first meeting.”
Turning to Herman, Pettis said: “This is a man who has been in the trenches in many different ways. Really, it warmed my heart to see you felt there was some benefit to pull these things together and put our resources in one spot, so that we can have one voice and make a world of difference. I can assure you in my year, and the years of leadership that are following me, that this combined effort is going to be supported. I think it is going to help us really move forward. You have my full commitment.”
A year ago, Pettis said, when he strategized about his term as president, he didn’t want to be “pigeonholed on just diversity issues.”
As he self-reflected, he said he came to this realization: “God brought me to this point for a reason. . . . That’s the reason for my presidency: To lift this issue up. To be a beacon of hope for us all.”
His “Get Involved” campaign, he said, “brought forth more people than ever to apply for standing committees,” and his Leadership Academy “is a beautiful picture of who we are as a Bar.” Additionally, he’s appointed diverse leaders to serve on the Commission 2016 that will study the future practice of law on several critical fronts.
“We are going to make sure there is diversity of every type, in everything we do, particularly in setting up a road map for the future,” Pettis said.
“That’s who I am. It’s not to exclude anybody. It’s to include everybody.”
Promising he will “lean heavily on this committee,” Pettis said: “I’m excited about what the next year holds and the possibilities of what can be accomplished.”
Outgoing Bar President Gwynne Young called it a “monumental year” for the Bar on diversity and inclusion issues, and thanked the committee members for their commitment to “keeping our eye on making the Bar open to all members, whatever their background or diversity may be.”
She recapped how the Board of Governors approved the merger on May 31, following recommendations from its Program Evaluation Committee. Among those recommendations is that each section and division will have an ex-officio member on the new Standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusion, and objective data will be collected to measure success and track diversity within the Bar’s sections and committees, local bars, continuing legal education programs, and judicial nominating commission processes.
The new CDI “will serve as the hub in the wheel of Florida Bar sections, committees, and voluntary bar associations.”
The overarching goal — as communicated via a Prezi presentation on “How to Build a Diverse Florida Bar” by Vice Chair Khurrum Basir Wahid — is to “encourage leadership from diverse backgrounds, together for a common cause, to build a legal community with the highest standards of professionalism for the good of society.”