Lawyers and legal professionals are intimately familiar with the importance of institutions. Law itself is an institution, one that can be used for good or ill. Law and other legal institutions have justified great harms but can also be the venue for transformative change. The difference between the two comes down not only to individual commitment to principles but also the institutional milieu and the cultural norms people surround themselves with. To shift those norms, and to allow the law to more equitably serve all people by confronting racial inequities, we must change our institutions.
Luckily, each of us has the power to create change in the institutions we belong to. Indeed, doing this work is crucial to creating an anti-racist and just society. Toni Morrison says that the “function of freedom is to free someone else.” In other words, there is a duty to promote the agency of those who lack it, a duty to empower those who are marginalized. In the context of racial equity, that means those of us with relative safety and the ability to speak out and create change must do so. As advocates, lawyers and legal professionals have a special responsibility because they are in fact well placed to make a difference.
Organizing for change within institutions is no easy task because their very function is to maintain continuity over time. They are designed to resist change and possess an intrinsic immune system that fights transformation, regardless of whether the shift imagined is good or bad. Overcoming that resistance is easiest when institutional leadership supports the change and is prepared to commit to concrete modifications to better embody inclusive values. However, even those without formal authority can participate in efforts to change the organization for the better. To aid in those efforts, With a Lever is a DIY guide that identifies six steps on the path toward creating institutional change for racial equity.
Step One: Evaluate Starting Conditions
Changing an institution, shifting it on racial equity, requires understanding the institution: its pressure points, its values, how people have tried to change it in the past. Anyone who belongs to an institution already has the primary tool needed to understand all this: connection to other people within it. Institutional knowledge resides within the individuals who make up an institution, and understanding its past and missteps is an important part of preparing to shift it toward greater equity and inclusion.
Step Two: Set Expectations
Pushing for institutional change can be exhausting. It is key to be prepared to face resistance from the institution, and to expect both tedium and conflict. Even when the leaders of an institution are eager to embrace change and understand the value of promoting racial equity, the structures and cultural norms that reinforce existing inequalities are not easy to address.
Step Three: Build a Coalition and Get Buy-in on Goals
Institutions are made up of people and so a diverse team is necessary to make collective action and inclusive decision-making possible. Gather a coalition of people interested in creating change by starting discussions with as many people as possible about how the institution can improve racial equity issues. These discussions are not easy, and are sometimes uncomfortable, but that is a sign that they are necessary.
Step Four: Make a Plan and Stay Organized
Once a coalition comes together, it should agree on a plan and establish basic logistics. This means having a rough timeline for action, setting up structure, and running effective meetings. These are all important for accountability and for focusing energy on concrete actions to address inequities.
Step Five: Avoid Common Pitfalls
Understanding why efforts to change institutions and improve representation as well as inclusiveness stalled in the past is important because it can help the coalition to avoid the same mistakes. With a Lever offers some common challenges to watch out for.
Step Six: Maintain Momentum
The last step is simply to keep spirits up by acknowledging the need to settle in for the long haul while also celebrating small victories. This is true precisely because promoting institutional change is not easy.
The DIY guide, available both as a PDF and as a series of articles, delves into each of these steps and expands upon them with concrete tips for doing the critical work of transforming our institutions to entrench and normalize racial equity. Of course, each institution is different and so its path toward racial equity must be individually tailored but the information contained within the DIY guide is meant to provide practical advice. With a Lever aims to guide anyone who wishes to engage with equity and inclusion work at their institutions because transformative societal change is only possible when all of us work together.