George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Michael Brown. Eric Garner.
As the nation continues to reel over victims of violence and come to grips with systemic racism, the College of Law is committed to advocating for social justice and equity while leading conversations about inequality and criminal justice reform.
In a year marked by protests, hurt, and frustration, here are five ways the academic legal community is trying to become a part of the solution.
1) Student activism
Like thousands of people across the world, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law student Matthew Nepute was spurred to action while trying to comprehend the horrific video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck.
With emotions running high and clashes between police and protesters making headlines nightly in response to Floyd’s death as well as other cases of police brutality, Nepute wanted to put his passion for social justice and the law to use on the frontlines of the Black Lives Matter movement.
He and fellow College of Law students Helen Lindamood and Shannon Woulfe saw an opportunity to make a difference through reactivating a student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, a progressive association of lawyers, law students, and others in the legal field, focused on issues of social and environmental justice.
The group will join forces with other Utah attorneys to provide legal observer training for volunteers who in turn will attend protests with the organization’s trademarked “legal observer” hats —a signal meant for police that the independent monitors in the crowd are watching for violence and misbehavior. The Utah state chapter of the National Lawyers Guild has also recently been restarted because of current events.
Legal observers help to deter these types of abuses at protests, said Nepute.
“We want to make sure the protesters feel safe and more confident in what they are doing and also make sure that police don’t feel that they can commit abuses without any oversight,” said Nepute.
The concept will be new in Utah. With time, those who are a part of the legal observers’ efforts hope their presence will influence the outcome of protests where tensions between protestors and police escalate.
The National Lawyers Guild student chapter is also working to establish a jail support hotline designed to be a system to keep track of protesters who are arrested, to help ensure their safety in custody and to coordinate bail funds. The hotline will function as a tool for witnesses to report arrests and police abuses, as a way to supplement the work of legal observers.
The group launched its Legal Support Hotline in conjunction with the Juneteenth holiday recently. Support through the hotline is available by calling 801-410-0393.
In addition, those tracked through the hotline can often obtain representation through the National Lawyers Guild if they are in need of legal representation.
“For some, a public defender is not available to them or is not a good option for some other reason. The information gathered on the hotline helps coordinate resources for those less-common situations,” said Nepute.
Local volunteer attorneys will help to staff the effort and advise students on how to connect those in need of legal help with the proper assistance.
Lindamood and Woulfe said they are looking forward to helping to build the chapter as co-chairs, along with Nepute.
“I came to law school because I saw getting my juris doctorate as the key to a career where I would help elevate marginalized persons and leave the world better than I found it. To new law students, student organizations are marketed as an opportunity for us to network, to attend and organize campus events, and find internships and jobs, and this is true of most student groups, including our chapter of National Lawyers Guild. But between learning how to fit all my casebooks in one backpack and engage in the Socratic method in law classes, I put the mission to “save the world” aside because surviving law school seemed like an important prerequisite,” said Lindamood.
“But being a law student is a particular platform and a place of privilege I hadn’t imagined having before finishing law school. I am honored to use this position to help at such an important time and encourage my colleagues to do likewise,” she said.
For Nepute, watching the new student group get off the ground this summer was a case of good timing, despite the difficult circumstances that is bringing new group members together. He originally started working on the idea earlier this spring, when an immigration attorney working with the Pro Bono Initiative of which Nepute is a part of suggested the student group could be a beneficial addition to the College of Law.
Nepute started working with other students to launch the idea when the world shifted. The framework the students started in the spring would prove to be ideal to help with this summer’s protests.
“The state level chapter has been delegating tasks to everyone involved, including law students,” said Nepute. “Where we are at right now is we are putting all the infrastructure in place (so we can help more in the weeks ahead),” he noted.
2) Supporting #Academics4BlackLives
The College of Law joined Academics for Black Survival and Wellness Week‚ a “weeklong personal and professional development initiative for academics to honor the toll of racial trauma on Black people, resist anti-Blackness and white supremacy, and facilitate accountability and collective action” earlier this year, along with main campus.
Academics for Black Survival and Wellness is a call to action. It invites all academics to join in a collective effort to enhance the safety and wellness of black students, staff, faculty and community members. Non-black academics are encouraged to engage in training on anti-black racism and white supremacy while black academics engage in rest and resistance.
The event, held in conjunction with the observance of Juneteenth, included readings, lectures, personal reflections and group dialogue with academics around the world. Participants were invited to share their experiences and invite colleagues to join using #Academics4BlackLives.
3) Shaping tomorrow’s future attorneys
The annual Utah Minority Bar Association Scholarship and Awards, held virtually in November, had a strong presence from the S.J. Quinney College of Law. The event is a chance to support students of color who are pursuing a law degree.
Students Zachary Scott, Sarah Martinez, Ana Amitay Flores and Kari James were honored with scholarships. Tsutomu Johnson and Heather Tanana, both alumni of the College of Law, were honored with achievement awards. Keynote speaker Judge Ray Uno, a graduate of the U and namesake of an UMBA award, was also on hand for the event.
Two of the honorees share their stories here:
2L Zachary Scott dedicates his extra time to removing barriers for other diverse students
For Zachary Scott, 2L at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, the highlight of his law school experience has been his class – the class of 2022.
“Even though half our law school experience has been remote, the relationships that I’ve built with my peers will last forever,” said Scott.
Scott has also enjoyed the relationships he has developed with his professors.
“Before COVID-19, I would regularly stop by my professor’s offices to just say hello or get their insight about what may be going on that day. It was great. Everyone is bright and has different ideas. That’s what makes law school so rewarding for me. You really get to see how other people see the world,” he said.
As a first-generation African American college graduate who grew up in a single-parent household, there were few expectations placed upon Scott to succeed. Yet, despite this, Scott has attended college with both academic and athletic scholarships, graduated early with two bachelor’s degrees, received a master’s degree, and is now pursuing a legal education at the S.J. Quinney College of Law.
Despite these impressive accomplishments, Scott recounts that he did not learn to apply himself effectively until the end of his undergraduate studies.
The change, he said, was a result of having a few of the right people in his corner at the right time. These people eventually helped Scott decide to attend law school and specifically, the S.J. Quinney College of Law.
“Knowing that I could receive a top tier education with the comfort of being around people I love. It was a no brainer,” remarked Scott.
And even though Scott finds most of his time occupied with his studies, he is actively involved outside the classroom as well.
For example, Scott has held leadership positions in the Minority Law Caucus, First-Generation Student Organization, and the Social Justice Student Initiative. Through these student organizations, Scott has been able to support and advocate for his diverse colleagues, an experience he describes as empowering.
Beyond Scott’s activities with student organizations, he also dedicates his extra time to promoting diversity in the law school and in the graduate schools.
“Diverse representation of all races, genders, and ethnicities promotes a more effective and impactful atmosphere. Because I believe in this, I advocate for Utah’s ethnic communities,” Scott said.
Scott serves on the University of Utah’s Graduate School Diversity Council, a group seeking to improve the graduate school experience for diverse individuals. Scott is also a member of the Utah Center of Legal Inclusions’ Progress Tracking Committee which dedicates itself to advancing the goals of equity and inclusion in Utah’s legal profession.
Scott’s main purpose in participating in these groups is to improve the education experience for others.
“There are a lot of barriers for diverse students. I have felt the direct benefit of Utah’s minority centric organizations and I want to pay it forward. I feel that in Utah, and especially in Salt Lake, I can have an impact and help remove those barriers for others,” he said.
Scott also volunteers his time at the University’s “Famtorship” program. The program pairs diverse undergraduate students with recent graduates and graduate students. Through the program, Scott has been able to mentor both first-generation and minority students who aspire to attend graduate school.
Scott’s impressive work resulted in a scholarship award from the Utah Minority Bar Association. He was recognized at a virtual banquet in November, along with U students Ana Amitay Flores, Kari James and Sarah Martinez.
Reflecting on his scholarship award, Scott encouraged other diverse students to attend the S.J. Quinney College of Law.
“Law school is a smart move. Law school makes you think in different ways that you can’t learn in any other program. If there are any diverse individuals seeking to apply to law school or even graduate school, please call me because I’d love to help and get you squared away.”
3L Sarah Martinez aspires to help minority communities and the environment
2020 has been a difficult year for everyone but one thing that 3L Sarah Martinez has learned this year is that she is exactly where she needs to be.
“I am so committed to this,” she said about finishing her J.D. at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. “Environmental justice is my passion.”
Martinez came to law school with a desire to pursue environmental law, but law school wasn’t always in her plans. In fact, Martinez was committed to joining the Peace Corps upon completion of her undergraduate studies. Those plans changed, however, as Martinez studied environmental law and realized the need to advocate for minority communities to have the privilege of enjoying the outdoors and the equal protection of environmental laws.
Martinez decided to attend the College of Law, motivated in part by her love for the Rocky Mountains and the many opportunities she saw emerging in the area. She also was impressed by the school’s top-ranked environmental law program.
“I couldn’t pass up the value and the proximity to the mountains,” Martinez said. “The state of Utah has a unique geographical history and a unique city-rural environment. In the end, SJQ was too good to pass up.”
Martinez hasn’t regretted her choice. “Environmental law at SJQ has been a dream for me,” she said. But law school hasn’t been exactly easy either.
“Overall, I’ve experienced my highest highs and lowest lows during my law school experience. I’ve met the most incredible people, but it’s been the biggest challenge. COVID-19 and law school have forced me to grow in different ways than I could have imagined,” she said.
Like many students, Martinez met unexpected challenges in 2020. After securing a notable out-of-state summer internship, she learned the internship would be canceled due to unforeseen COVID-19 circumstances. So when the opportunity came to apply for a scholarship with the Utah Minority Bar Association recently, Martinez was hopeful to turn around her difficult situation.
She reflected on all the lessons she’s learned over the past year in her scholarship essay.
“Despite all the challenges that came in the last 8 months, I realized I’ve gained some massive life lessons and learned a lot about my ability to persevere and be patient. I recognized while writing my paper that I’ve really grown in my self-worth and already pulled on all of the lessons that I’ve learned throughout law school,” Martinez said.
Martinez’s essay resulted in a scholarship award from the UMBA and proved to be a silver lining in a chaotic year. She was recognized at a virtual banquet earlier this month, along with U students Ana Amitay Flores, Kari James and Zachary Scott.
“The scholarship was a great validation that I am on the right path,” Martinez said.
The scholarship award has also further motivated Martinez to continue on her path of exploring environmental justice. More specifically, she would like to explore how the lack of enforcement of environmental law adversely affects humans and especially people of color.
“I want to be a light in my community and use my skill set as a lawyer to better the lives of minority communities across the country,” she said.
4) Statements on Diversity
The College of Law has actively tried to put its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion into words. Several statements, including support of the Black Lives Matter movement and support of indigenous people, have been released in recent months and serve as a roadmap for creating a more inclusive environment at the U.
Indigenous Peoples’ Day
In recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Native American Heritage Month, the University of Utah formally launched its Indigenous Land Acknowledgement on Oct.12. As many colleges and departments across campus began crafting their own land acknowledgements on websites and during events, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dan Reed, chartered a committee to develop a statement that could be adopted by all at the U. For about a year, this committee engaged in meaningful conversations around what should be included in a university-wide Indigenous Land Acknowledgement.
“As the flagship institution of higher education in Utah, we certainly have a role to play in honoring and recognizing the many contributions of Indigenous peoples’ in our state,” said Mary Ann Villarreal, vice president for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and co-chair of the Native American Land Use Committee. “We hope this statement will be shared and recited often as a reminder of our gratitude and commitment to serving and partnering with Native Nations.”
The U operates on the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute and Ute Tribes, and Utah is home to eight distinct tribal nations.
“Our land acknowledgement is an important gesture of recognition and respect to the Indigenous peoples’ of Utah,” said Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the College of Law and co-chair of the committee. “We are grateful to be able to gather on this land and for the valuable contributions of our Native students, staff and faculty to the living, working, and learning environment at the U.”
Committee members, many of whom are tribal members, created a long and short version of the land acknowledgement so it may be posted, distributed and recited by campus partners as appropriate. The long version of the statement acknowledges that:
“The University of Utah has both historical and contemporary relationships with Indigenous peoples. Given that the Salt Lake Valley has always been a gathering place for Indigenous peoples, we acknowledge that this land, which is named for the Ute Tribe, is the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes and is a crossroad for Indigenous peoples. The University of Utah recognizes the enduring relationships between many Indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands. We are grateful for the territory upon which we gather today; we respect Utah’s Indigenous peoples, the original stewards of this land; and we value the sovereign relationships that exist between tribal governments, state governments, and the federal government. Today, approximately 60,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native peoples live in Utah. As a state institution, the University of Utah is committed to serving Native communities throughout Utah in partnership with Native Nations and our Urban Indian communities through research, education, and community outreach activities.”
Black Lives Matter statement
In addition to playing an important role in the University of Utah’s tribal land acknowledgement statement, the College of Law also issued a statement in response to the anti-racist protests across the country this summer. The statement provided:
Dear S.J. Quinney College of Law community:
We are writing to acknowledge the profound moment we find ourselves in. If you are like us, you may be struggling to manage feelings of grief, anger, and impotence that have arisen in response to the events of the last several weeks. After experiencing a sense of foreboding and fear occasioned by a pandemic and an earthquake, we now find ourselves in the midst of sometimes violent nationwide protests over the unjust killing of Black people on the anniversary of the Tulsa massacre of 1921. Racial unrest is firmly entrenched in our American past and present, and in these past weeks, the news has offered heartbreaking images and stories.
- Breonna Taylor, a Black woman and an EMT in Kentucky, shot dead in her home by police officers executing a no-knock warrant and wearing no body cams.
- Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, killed on video by two white men purporting to carry out a citizen’s arrest.
- George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in the course of an arrest for alleged forgery.
We have also seen the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman now made famous for her 911 call feigning terror at being attacked by a Black man. That Black man, Chris Cooper (no relation), was guilty of nothing more than asking her to leash her dog in an area of Central Park in which all dogs are required to be leashed. Ms. Cooper’s instinct to weaponize the police showed her own callousness and disregard for Mr. Cooper’s safety.
In the wake of these events, our cities are experiencing unrest. Our country, our community, and our campus are suffering, convulsed by grief and frustrated by a seemingly endless cycle of injustice and indifference, for a dream deferred is a dream denied.
Each of these deaths touches us personally. As John Donne aptly wrote centuries ago:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
It is not enough to lament what we are seeing with the expectation that justice may eventually prevail. We must find hope in this crisis and that is what we have been doing. Like others, we cling to some fundamental beliefs to help us move forward with hope during these moments. We believe that we, as members and future members of the legal profession, all have a distinct role to play in making America’s future better than its past. We believe that ignoring institutional racism and wide-spread societal inequities gets us nowhere. We know that the law and lawyers will be an integral part of making a better world for us and our children. We also stand with our campus leaders in calling for a compassionate, equitable, and just society: https://law.utah.edu/news/statement-from-college-of-law-administrators-in-support-of-black-lives-matter/
As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We prominently display this profound statement in our moot courtroom because of our belief in its prophecy, but we know the bending of the arc will not be a passive occurrence. There is work to be done in pursuit of a just society.
At the same time, we also want to acknowledge concerns recently raised by our community leaders, such as Mayor Mendenhall, Rev. France Davis, and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera.
We are family, and we must do what family does – support and comfort one another during times of suffering. However, we must do more than that. We must recommit ourselves to making this world and this institution an even more welcoming and inclusive place. That is the true meaning of One Utah.
For those of you who would like to connect as a community, the faculty and staff diversity, equity, and inclusion committee will be hosting office hours on June 2 at 4 p.m. We look forward to talking to those of you who wish to do so.
Also, we want to remind you of resources available to support you. If it would be helpful, please remember that our counselor, Luana Nan, is available to help you. Current students can email her directly to set up regular intake or stabilization appointments at LNan@sa.utah.edu (even if they are not enrolled in summer classes).
These additional resources may be of interest to you:
FAQ’s on Bias/Hate Incident at the U
Elizabeth Kronk Warner, Dean
5) Launching the Dean’s Book Review
Every month, Dean Kronk Warner hosts a discussion about a book (and occasionally a movie) that relates to themes of inclusivity. These conversations geared at diversity, equity and inclusion through examining literature have taken place as part of the Dean’s Book Review and related webinars, launched last year. Discussions have explored everything from policing, race and racism to bystander awareness and the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. (Learn more about these book reviews and other notable webinars that are free and open to the public at https://law.utah.edu/events).
The College of Law, however, is not stopping here and continues to incorporate anti-racist values throughout its community. Recently the faculty adopted the anti-racist statement below, and the community plans to start work in the new year on implementing the goals of the statement.