Excerpted From: Anne D. Gordon, Cleaning up Our Own Houses: Creating Anti-Racist Clinical Programs, 29 Clinical Law Review. 49 (Fall, 2022) (243 Footnotes) (Full Document)


CliniAnneDGordon.jpegcians are used to facing down injustice. Whether by fighting mass incarceration, deportations, or environmental destruction, we are well-acquainted with the forces of oppression and have committed to creating change. When it comes to looking at how our own schools and programs also may be perpetuating racism, however, the inquiry may be more complicated. We may be too quick to cast aspersions onto the “old school” methodologies and histories of the rest of the school while avoiding critique of our own clinics and programs. Sometimes, we even perpetuate racial hierarchies in how we operate, unconsciously (or consciously) preferring the status quo to more substantive change. The title of this article comes from a sentiment I have heard repeated over the past few years at clinical conferences, primarily among clinicians of color: if we want anti-racist law schools, we must “clean up our own houses,” or make change in our own clinics, first.

Law schools (not to mention the law itself) have their foundations in white supremacy. How we teach, what we teach, and what kind of culture we build with each incoming 1L class all have roots in upholding racial (and other concomitant) hierarchies, whether through preserving outmoded teaching methodologies, maintaining inequitable hiring practices, or indoctrinating students about what “can” and “can't” be done to change society through the law. Fortunately, organizations, like individuals, can evolve to become anti-racist. But it takes focused and sustained effort.

Clinics do not counter this culture simply by serving under-served populations or having a comparatively more progressive faculty. Clinics are part of law schools, and we cannot excuse ourselves from the implications of that association. A true commitment to anti-racism means taking an unvarnished look at ourselves and our programs, our support of diverse faculty, and what (and how) we teach our students. Oppressive systems, including white supremacy culture, arise in subtle ways, and can be even more subtle in organizations made up of people that think their progressive values or social justice work insulate them from having to examine their own contributions to racism and oppression. That subtlety can also make it difficult to objectively evaluate our own programs when thinking about where we can make change. Too often, we seize upon short-term or one-off ideas like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) trainings or discussion groups, without taking the time, effort, and discomfort necessary to evaluate our programs and institutions writ large. Simply bringing in more diverse faculty or incorporating diversity language into official statements will not lead to substantive change; we must make institutional commitments to incorporating strategies for diversity - including culture shifts - throughout our schools. Anti-racism cannot exist only at the student-facing level of our clinical programs: how can we create inclusive classrooms that cultivate belonging if our faculty meetings do not do the same? How can we discuss creating the next generation of lawyer-leaders of color if we are not doing our best to cultivate such leaders in our own ranks? And how can we measure our students against goals we set for them if we refuse to do the same for ourselves? This work is difficult, uncomfortable, and time-consuming; it is critical, however, if we are interested in true - not merely performative - change.

The first Part of this article outlines the problem behind this call to action; it details how law schools - including their legal clinics - operate as racially oppressive environments for students and faculty alike. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Bennett Capers and Tema Okun, it points out some of the ways that law schools continue to operate not only as a space for white people, but where white supremacy is baked into the culture and consciousness of everything taught there. This is true both inside the clinical environment and outside it.

The next Part is a call to action for clinics to “clean up our own houses” so that we may more effectively serve our students, our fellow faculty, and our law school communities. It describes why clinics are ideally situated to be anti-racist even within racist institutions, due to the comparative advantage in the clinical teaching environment. It then encourages readers to make the best use of this advantage (and avoid further oppression of faculty, staff, and students) by evaluating and implementing anti-racist practices. This Part also discusses how clinics are ideally situated to be of service to our schools in implementing ABA Standard 303(c) on providing training and education to law students on bias, cross-cultural competency, and racism.

The final Part is implementation: concrete steps for moving toward anti-racism in our own programs, including developing anti-racist mission statements and strategic plans, and articulating the “whys” and “hows” of making specific changes based on research and best practices from public- and private-sector sources. It then suggests four primary categories for change and encourages clinical programs to develop their own plans based on their own institutional priorities, constraints, and realities. These categories are not meant to be exclusive; they should be the starting point for a deeper conversation about institutional change. Each of the categories includes elements that can be implemented by individual clinicians without the requirement of larger program-level change; changing ourselves, after all, is a critical part of the journey toward anti-racism. Finally, there is an Appendix of sample anti-racist goals and outcomes so readers can begin to visualize what such implementation might look like.

A note on the terms used in this paper. First, “clinician,” “professor,” and “faculty.” These terms are meant to encompass everyone who teaches in our clinical, externship, and legal writing programs, regardless of whether they have official faculty status; these descriptors are meant to be a catch-all, although many readers will fall outside these formal categories. Second, this paper will refer to a “clinical program” differently than “a clinic,” the former meant to encompass multiple clinics under the umbrella of the same institution, and the latter as an individual subject-matter clinic (such as a criminal defense clinic or an immigration clinic). Realizing that not all programs operate within this paradigm, the suggestions are general enough to be applicable to multiple structures. Similarly, there are vast differences among clinical programs in our schools. Clinical faculty vary in status (including staff attorneys, those on term-limited contracts, those with tenure or clinical tenure, etc.), funding (soft money vs. hard money) and degree of integration into the broader faculty (including governance power and teaching requirements). The degree of autonomy and power to make change may depend very much on where a given reader falls in these categories. Our schools also vary in the geographic region we serve, the student body we recruit, and our graduates' career prospects. While it would be impossible to acknowledge all these variables in a single paper, it is my goal to include something useful for everyone.

One final note: as a white clinician, I want to acknowledge the decades of work that have been done by academics of color in examining racism in law school. My goal in writing this paper is not to restate or amplify their concerns; their work speaks for itself. My contribution is to import their concerns to the realm of clinical teaching, and to propose concrete solutions for clinicians looking to make change. These solutions come from years of DEI work I have done as part of community organizations, as well as my experience doing strategic planning and organizational development at non-profits. This article is meant not to be the be-all and end-all of anti-racism work in law school, but rather an effort to see the work through a clinical lens and encourage the kind of reflection and reimagining that is critical to the kind of change we wish to see.

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Clinics have an essential role to play in subverting white supremacy culture in our law schools. Doing so is an essential endeavor not only to improve our work with students and clients, but also to ensure an anti-racist work environment for our colleagues. The task can seem overwhelming; fighting the dominant paradigm is always an uphill battle. Clinical leadership and faculty can make meaningful progress toward creating anti-racist clinics by breaking the task into concrete steps: developing a mission statement, articulating a strategic plan, and concentrating on discrete goals. By “cleaning up our own houses,” clinics can be resources to our students, our schools, our legal communities, and our collective struggle to create a more just and equitable world.