By David Berry, President, SCBA
An important goal for my term as SCBA President is opening a conversation about the role of race, gender and identity in the delivery of justice in Sonoma County. To forward that goal, the SCBA is forming a working committee focused on discussing these issues. The purpose of this article is to introduce the topic, and set a tone for respectful discussion of issues that can cause conflict, mistrust, and intense reactions.
I will introduce the topic by explaining a template I invite the Bar Association to consider using to address these issues. It is called “what/so what / now what.” I learned of it by hearing the story of an amazing 90-year-old Black man named Dr. Dudley E. Flood. He has used the technique to improve race relations. An aspect of Dr. Flood’s life is the subject of “The Boycott” episode of a podcast called Criminal. The episode tells the story of his experience with race relations, including how he played a critical role in desegregating every public school in North Carolina. He speaks unvarnished truths, including how his work taught him that everyone has important points of view that should be considered. He understood that law cannot force change. Change, if it is to come, must follow conversation, understanding, and a willingness to do something different. A theme underpinning Dr. Flood’s thoughts is changing the conversation from “us and them” to “you and me.”
Dr. Flood believes any problem can be solved by answering three questions: (1) what? (2) so what? and (3) now what? The “what” simply identifies and names the problem. The “so what” answers why it is a problem by asking how big an issue it is and to whom, since different problems can affect individuals and groups in different ways. The “now what” is the solution: what do we do differently now to fix the problem? Dr. Flood talks about the mistake of identifying the problem (what) and immediately seeking to solve it (now what), thereby missing an understanding of the texture of the problem (so what). Skipping “so what” tends to make solutions less durable.
Dr. Flood used the “what /so what /now what” system to identify and solve many issues he faced in combining neighboring Black and White schools. He learned that each community in North Carolina had separate problems with integration, and his system was able to adapt accordingly. One example involved new school colors. Each school had established colors and did not want to use the other school’s prior colors for the new school because it felt like subjugation. The solution? Students from each school picked one of their old school’s colors, a third “neutral” color was selected, and those three became the new school’s colors. This solution worked because it did not leap from “what” (we need to pick school colors) to “now what” (just reuse colors from one of the prior schools) based on something less important (for example, not needing to repaint the gym). Rather it addressed the all-important “so what”: No one felt subjugated by the new color choice. The result: a process—and new school colors— that the students embraced. Dr. Flood believes that the “what / so what / now what” system has universal application. To learn more about Dr. Flood and the system, find the 35-minutes-long “The Boycott” episode here.
How could application of “what / so what / now what” work for us? Each of us undoubtedly has different responses when we hear the stories about (a) race, gender and identity, or (b) diversity, equity and inclusion. That is the “what.” Examine your visceral reaction as you read snippets of four true stories of people I know.
Story one. A woman worked with a male boss for a huge company. Their job was fixing troubled projects and teams, often by firing people (mostly men). They were great at their jobs and were repeatedly promoted together. An untrue rumor explained her success: She was sleeping with her boss.
Story two. A woman grew up knowing she is lesbian. Early on she understood that openly identifying as lesbian would mean rejection by many in her community and her family. Even now, she finds that many people judge her based on her identity as lesbian, as opposed to who she is as a person.
Story three. Someone told an aging White man that White privilege explains his success. He had a tough childhood that he turned around by enlisting in the military. He served in Vietnam, where racism was not part of his experience. Financial success only followed early repeated failure. Hearing White privilege explain his success strikes him as an unfair oversimplification.
Story four. A minority-race male lawyer, while making a court appearance, had to prove he was a lawyer by showing his bar card (an experience most lawyers never face). This strikes him as the product of racial bias.
Some of those stories may hit close to home. Others may not. The stories cause different reactions depending on the listener’s perspective. A common thread for these stories is that preconceptions and biases surrounding race, gender and identity can cause harm through prejudice and misunderstanding. That is part of the “so what.” A conversation on the topic is sure to find more “so what.” To effectively talk about these topics, we can make the choice to open ourselves up to sharing and hearing stories that are different from our experiences, which may be unsettling or even upsetting.
As President of the Bar Association, I want to facilitate a conversation about diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in the delivery of justice in Sonoma County using the “what / so what / now what” system. Obviously, such a process will take buy-in from diverse populations within our community, and a willingness to try something different and perhaps uncomfortable. If Dr. Flood’s confidence in the system is well-placed, using it may lead the SCBA towards a better system of delivering justice for our community. The first step in this process is the creation of the working group to address the issue. As it is just forming, I do not have details to share. However, I have the commitment of our leadership to seek to have this effort span years, so that we may make a meaningful impact. Please stay tuned, as I hope there will be much to report—including a request for your involvement—as we go forward