Sara Scott was named executive director of the Center for Legal Inclusiveness on April 28.
Diversity and inclusion have been part of Scott’s life from birth, as she tells it, and she has continued to play a role in D&I efforts throughout her career.
Scott was born to one black parent and one white parent, she said, both from Oklahoma, “it took a while for the grandparents to accept us as grandchildren,” she said. “When they finally did, it was in the spirit of inclusiveness, if you will, and that was sort of my first introduction to what it means to include people and not to exclude people.”
She was in the first class of students to major in comparative studies in race and ethnicity from Stanford, she received a law degree from George Washington Law School and has worked as an attorney at the D.C. Children’s Law Center as well as in private practice at a law firm she started in Washington, D.C., and in solo practice in Denver.
Scott talked with Law Week reporter Jessica Folker about her goals at CLI, her take on the state of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and how leaders can keep diversity in mind even in a time where their organizations might be shrinking due to coronavirus-related layoffs or furloughs.
The following Q&A has been edited for length, style and clarity.
LAW WEEK: What big goals or initiatives are on the horizon for CLI right now? And do you have any pet projects you plan to get started on in this new role?
SCOTT: I want to be careful taking on pet projects and jumping into what things are exactly going to look like until I really understand who our members are, who our stakeholders are and who our advocates are. So, I am spending my first 90 days essentially going on a listening tour. I have a list of people — and the list keeps getting longer — who I want to speak with about CLI [and] about their own experiences in diversity and inclusion in Denver, learn from them with respect to their experiences being members, if they’re members of CLI, and really, really get a sense of where we are, so that I can then take that and run with it. I believe I have to be deeply grounded in who we are.
LAW WEEK:What’s your assessment of the state of diversity in the legal profession right now,and perhaps in Denver in particular?
SCOTT: In the legal professional profession it’s horrible, and in Denver, in particular, it’s worse.
It is so incredibly important for law firms or government entities, for people who hire lawyers, for the University of Denver and the University of Colorado law schools to understand that when we talk about diversity, we’re also talking about inclusivity. It doesn’t matter how many people you have at the table if they don’t have a voice. And it’s incredibly important that we really embrace that.
I was amazed when I did my certificate with Cornell at how much time the professors spent on the inclusivity part and how you ensure that people’s voices are heard, starting with how do you make sure that they’re engaged from the beginning? As the legal teaching pedagogy is changing, I think diversity and inclusiveness need to play a major role in those changes.
I think that Denver certainly has a lot of various efforts. I think that we need to sit down and look at what we’re all doing and see if there are opportunities to collaborate so we can better serve the attorneys in this area, the law students in this area and those who are more at a senior level who are looking to be the managers [to] ensure they are being inclusive and they’re not leaving people out inadvertently.
LAW WEEK: Where are the big bottlenecks or barriers in a legal career? Are they at the law school level? Are they throughout? Can you elaborate on that?
SCOTT: I would say this: The biggest barrier is the way the universities have taught law, frankly. I think there’s a time and a place for the Socratic method. I think there’s a time and a place for learning the way that we all did, you know, 20 years ago. But I also think that those constructs are old.
We see that those type of pedagogies disproportionately impact students of color, who might be five or so in a room and not so eager to raise their hand. I think that until we can have a real conversation about what’s going on at the university level, we are going to run into some roadblocks.
I also believe that we have to have a serious conversation about what happens with our students once they graduate and how to ensure that their leap from graduation into their first jobs and into their careers is seamless. I think that offering some partnerships between the various organizations that exist like CLI, some sort of an ambassador program… [and] really taking on mentorship roles is going to be very important.
And the truth is, it’s going to be very difficult to change the law the way that it needs to be changed until we can all recognize what privilege is.
In her essay on white privilege, activist and educator Peggy McIntosh uses the metaphor of an invisible, weightless knapsack of “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.”
So I think that until we really, as legal professionals, understand and are willing to at least investigate white privilege, as well as unconscious bias, as well as micro- and macro-aggressions, it’s going to take some time.
But I believe that organizations like CLI have always been at the forefront of these issues. And it’s time for us to reclaim our birthright, so to speak, and get back to basics and become the organization that we have always been seen as in leading the pack.
LAW WEEK: Are there any areas or aspects of the profession where you think there has been improvement since you entered it?
SCOTT: Let me be clear, there has been a lot of improvement. People are understanding that diversity and inclusivity go together like peanut butter and jelly. There is a general, in my view, adoption of those two things. So, I definitely believe that there’s been a ton of progress made.
When I said that I was worried about Denver and worried about what was going on in the legal realm more generally, it was about the numbers. The number of minorities who live in Denver have become less and less.
And the other thing that we really need to do, is we need to expand our notions of inclusivity to include not only the stereotypical kind of disenfranchised groups that we always seem to look at, but look at ageism and looking at disability, look at expanding what it is that we’re talking about here, because that’s what inclusivity is. It’s not just about black people, brown people — it’s bigger than that. And it’s bigger than that in that it includes white people. And in fact, having white people at the table as stakeholders is paramount to getting our message out to making any sort of progress and to being ambassadors to what it is that we’re trying to do here.
LAW WEEK: What sort of role do you want white people or people with privilege to play in helping CLI reach its goals?
SCOTT: Well, first of all, I want them to know that they have a seat at the table. And that not only do they have a seat at the table, but we want them to speak. And we want them to not be afraid to raise their voices, and we need to create a safe place, from a psychological perspective, where they are able to talk about these difficult issues. So, with respect to white people, I want them to be a part of our organization just as much as I want people of color to be part of our organization. The Civil Rights Movement couldn’t do it without the Jewish community and other white allies, and we certainly can’t and don’t want to do it just as people of color, and I certainly don’t want an organization that is not inclusive in that way.
LAW WEEK: As we face potentially another period of cuts in jobs, or even just hiring freezes, do you have any thoughts or advice on fostering diversity and inclusiveness while law firms or companies might be more worried about their bottom line and not prioritizing those things?
SCOTT: When you’re looking at who you may have to furlough or may have to lay off, I think that looking at those individuals from an inclusive perspective is really, really important.
Many times we have what someone would call a big job or managerial position, and they might stereotypically — and not even knowing that they’re doing it but do it in an unconscious way —think oh, this job is best fit for a white male and perhaps may not be thinking of a black woman who may better fill that role. And so, I think really looking at individuals as individuals and not as groups, I think, is very, very, very important when you’re looking at who to let go of if in fact you have to do that. It would be very sad if we saw a disproportionate number of diverse employees let go as part of what may happen with the coronavirus.
So what advice do I have? First is looking at these individuals through an inclusivity lens, and when you do that, you look at the whole picture.
And the other thing is, let’s not lose the diversity gains that we have made over the past few decades because of this virus. Let’s not do that. So then there needs to be serious consideration given to — when you may be looking at firing a person of color — that you’re going to have to rebuild in that area, and … potentially work twice as hard to do so. And it’s a huge loss, not only to that individual, but it’s a huge loss to the organization because we know that when we have diversity within our employee groups and inclusivity as part of that diversity, meaning that people are speaking up at the table that they’re invited to, we do see an increase in the bottom line. And so [I’d advise them] to think really strategically and carefully as to when those decisions and how those decisions are being made.