The following remarks were made by Dean Epps in acceptance of the American Bar Association Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession’s 2016 Spirit of Excellence Award. Dean Epps was one of four recipients selected nationwide for the award.
The Spirit of Excellence Award celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of lawyers who work to promote a more racially and ethnically diverse legal profession. Awards are presented to lawyers who excel in their professional settings; who personify excellence on the national, state, or local level; and who have demonstrated a commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession. To learn more about Dean Epps’ Spirit of Excellence award, click here.
Thank you, to the ABA Commission on Racial & Ethnic Diversity for this recognition, and congratulations to my fellow honorees. I also want to thank my friends in the audience in support of me, including good friends from Philadelphia: Steph, Bobbie, Nelson and colleague Jonathan. And thank you Ron, the other Philadelphia Bobbi and Kim for putting together a truly humbling nomination package and for all of you, many here, who supported my nomination.
They gave us only a few minutes, so I want to say a few words about why I think the struggle for diversity still matters. Let me start with a positive observation. This country should be applauded for a half century of improvement in diversity. Heck, there are black and brown people everywhere: flying planes, performing surgery, running businesses – leading the ABA. We’re everywhere – but not everywhere we should be. Almost everywhere you look – except the NBA and US prisons – minority participation and opportunities are flatlining or dwindling. In the legal profession, the numbers of minority partners, associates, and law students are stuck, with only minor change over the last decade. This would be fine if these numbers matched the population numbers. But we know they do not. We have a numbers problem that starts with a pipeline problem.
Among the solutions? We must make sure that a child’s zip code doesn’t define the quality of education that child receives. I borrowed the zip code reference from Philadelphia’s recently elected Mayor Jim Kenney, but he is right. In too many places, public education is inadequate. And that’s not right – because you can only take advantage of opportunity if you’re prepared. And education is key to being prepared.
Second, incivility is on the increase. I’m sorry; you do not get to publicly say whatever you think – and to defend that incivility by saying you’re rejecting political correctness. Islam is a religion and not a political manifesto. And Mexicans and others of Hispanic heritage enrich this country every day. The First Amendment has on many occasions been a sword in favor of liberty and a shield against repression. But just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should say it. I know I sound as if I think I made it to the presidential debate stage. I know where I am and I am grateful. But incivility has been unleashed in this country. And we must label it for what it is. And call it wrong.
Third, when we think about diversity, we must ask ourselves what diversity really means and why we care about it. Diversity is not just “not a white male”. Those who are physically disabled can be seen, but are too often overlooked. Many of our differences, however, are hard to “see”. Those fighting depression, survivors of sexual assault, those who must decide every day whether to come out as LGBTQ, or a first generation college student who must balance gratitude against the crushing weight of expectations. These are people who offer valid perspectives – if we are open to receiving them. My point is that when you think about “other”, compared to the person next to us, we are all “an” “other”. We are all different. We are all, in some form or fashion, diverse.
Fourth, why is it important to force yourself to understand “other”? Because implicit bias is everywhere. And the only way to combat implicit bias is through awareness. Those of you who know me know that I am usually a calm person. But inside there is a growing turmoil. I am angry and I am sad. I am sick and tired, and I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. And one of the reasons is the proliferation of suggestions that, as a person of color, I am equated with all that is wrong and bad in the world. Stay with me for a minute. Black Sheep, black mark, black cloud, here’s one of my favorites; angel’s food cake – devil’s food cake. We’ve all seen the ads for Star Wars, the Force Awakens. What color is Luke Skywalker (hero) wearing? Darth Vader? Oh, I could go on and on and on and on.
Some days I am angry. More often I am sad. But not for me. I’ve had an unbelievably blessed life – richer and more fulfilling than I could have imagined or dreamed. I am sad for America’s young people growing up in a world where they see themselves – or others, victimized – at best marginalized and at worst, maligned – explicitly through incivility and implicitly through a relentless source of subliminal messages – that “other” is unworthy.
We can do better. We are a better country than this. So I work because diversity is a goal worth celebrating. Commenting on this year’s Oscar nominations, actor and native Philadelphian Will Smith said “Our diversity is this country’s greatest strength”. I think he’s right.
So in fighting for diversity, I am fighting to ensure that young people have – and feel they have – equal opportunity. I am fighting for them to believe they can live their dream. I am fighting to make sure this is a country where differences, of all sorts, are acknowledged and respected, even if not admired. I am optimistic. Dr. Martin Luther King, who in two years will have been gone 50 years, said this: “it’s only when it’s dark enough that you can see the stars.” The motto of the Spirit of Excellence Awards is “To the Stars Through Difficulty”. I believe we can make the stars reachable for everyone. But it will not happen without commitment and effort. I’m in. Won’t you join me?
Pictured (L-R): Victor M. Marquez, Sarah Deer, JoAnne A. Epps, and Hugo Chaviano.
Photo credit: American Bar Association