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Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot Headlines Firm’s First Virtual and 19th Annual Diversity Dinner Discussion
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot – the first openly gay, African American, female mayor in the United States – discussed race, struggle, success, and the importance of speaking up as the featured speaker at Jenner & Block’s first virtual and 19th annual Diversity Dinner.
Each year, the firm’s Diversity Dinner provides a forum for diverse public officials, C-suite executives, in-house counsel, and other notable figures to inspire with their personal stories and advance efforts to create a more equitable society.
In a moderated conversation with Partner Wade Thomson, Mayor Lightfoot discussed how the complexities of being raised in Ohio by parents who grew up in the 1920s segregated south – parents who struggled financially and one with a disability – led to her storied career as a trailblazing lawyer turned first openly gay African American woman to be elected mayor of any major city in the United States. Her life, she said, has been marked by being an “only” throughout her career. That is often the only woman, often the only person of color, and often the only LGBTQ person. In her rise to positions of power, including at the US Attorney’s office and the law firm Mayer Brown, she was able to make a difference. She has since made it her mission to foster balanced justice in the city of Chicago and in our world.
“What made the difference for me and why I am sitting here today is because of the emphasis my parents placed on education, and particularly my mother,” she said. “The thing she preached to me over and over throughout my youth was to not let my race, my gender, or our financial status keep me from pursuing opportunities.”
Mayor Lightfoot noted that the values she learned as a child about the importance of fairness and respect stayed with her through law school at the University of Chicago, where – as one of only nine Black students – she felt more conscious about her race than she ever had in her life. Though she described the university as “a tough place for Black people during that time,” Mayor Lightfoot was inspired to lead change. She became student body president and led a movement to ban a law firm from recruiting on campus after a recruiter made racist and sexist remarks towards a student. “The desire to right this wrong caught fire among the student organizations, and we were able to push the administration. This wasn’t going to be buried under the rug,” Mayor Lightfoot said. This fire helped light the path for her continued fight against disparate treatment of minorities.
After law school, Mayor Lightfoot practiced law at Mayor Brown before spending several years as a federal prosecutor at the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. While there were people who did not agree with her decisions to work in these institutions, Mayor Lightfoot clearly saw them as opportunities to bring a unique perspective to matters from violent crimes and drug cases to public corruption. “Having someone who looks like me – with my sensibilities and my life experiences – actually being in the room was really important...I’m confident that I made a difference,” she said. These experiences taught her about criminal justice and fairness as well as the “ins-and outs” of the city of Chicago, a famously political environment.
Mayor Lightfoot noted that seeing people all over the city stepping up in profound ways – especially during this heightened period of police misconduct and racism – has given her a sense of hope and inspiration. “We have the opportunity to be bold and think about how we can overcome hurdles,” she said, noting that everyone should be empowered to speak out against injustice. Building bridges and listening to others are important ways to advance the work of social and racial justice, she said.
During the Q&A portion of the conversation, Mayor Lightfoot offered her views on issues such as dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline for Black and Brown students by removing police officers from schools; school reopening plans during COVID-19; and her thoughts on returning to what she called “civil conversation and respect” in both dialogues and politics. “You don’t persuade by villainizing someone who has a different view point. You don’t persuade by making demands that people pledge allegiance to your values without any dialogue around what their values are. You don’t create discourse by discord,” she said.
The full discussion is available to view here.
Diversity Speaker Series
The Diversity & Inclusion Speakers Series, hosted by the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, invites guests from all offices to speak about contemporary issues related to diversity. On March 22, the Washington, DC office hosted the first Diversity Speaker Series of 2019, featuring Judge Robert L. Wilkins of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Judge Wilkins spoke on the topics covered in his book, Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100-Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He described the endless obstacles and pervasive intolerance that supporters faced, starting with the fight to create a monument to honor the history and achievement of African-American soldiers at the end of the Civil War and ending with the museum’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2012 by our first African-American president, Barack Obama.
In 2000, Judge Wilkins quit his job at the Public Defender Service to focus full time on creating the national museum. He eventually served as chair of the Presidential Commission’s Site and Building Committee. In 2003, after a long and arduous journey, the bill finally passed allowing the creation of the museum. Judge Wilkins then battled to achieve the commission’s initial dream of having the museum located on the National Mall—a mission he eventually accomplished and describes as “one of the most important tasks I had undertaken in my life.”
On June 4, the firm continued its 2019 Diversity Speaker Series, featuring Human Rights Campaign Press Secretary Sarah McBride. Sarah spoke about her struggle with gender identity, how others stories have helped shape her work and what lies ahead in the fight for equality. She also discussed stories from her book, Tomorrow Will be Different: Love, Loss, and the Fight for Trans Equality. Sarah describes her experiences coming out as transgender to her family and classmates, falling in love and speaking at the 2016 Democratic National Convention where her speech marked the first time a transgender person addressed a national convention.
In her daily work, she is an advocate for a wide variety of LGBT issues, including the legislation around gender-equal bathrooms. During her discussion, Sarah pointed out that bathrooms have been at the center of every civil rights battle over the last 70 years. “If they can legislate, legalize and, in some cases, mandate discrimination in restrooms, it becomes the closest thing to a silver bullet to legislating that particular community out of public life,” she said. Sarah also discussed the importance of ally-ship, both within the LGBT community and with other marginalized communities. Sarah hopes that progress for LGBT individuals in the United States continues on so that children like Stella, a thirteen-year-old transgender girl, can fulfill her dream of becoming the first transgender president of the United States.
Sarah has a long history of LGBT advocacy including interning in 2012 at the White House, where she was the first openly transgender woman to work there in any capacity. She worked in the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, where she advanced LGBT issues. She also served on the steering committee of Trans United for Hillary, an effort to educate and mobilize transgender people and their allies in support of Hillary Clinton.
Previous speakers included:
The winning team of partners and new and lateral associates at the “Evening of Inclusion” event in November 2019.
Partner Randy Mehrberg (right) joins his team of new and lateral associates to identify notable people, including historical figures and civil rights pioneers, at the “Evening of Inclusion” event in November 2019.
New and lateral associates celebrate “An Evening of Inclusion”networking reception, hosted by Chicago members of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the Associate Board of the D&I Committee in November 2019.
Guest speaker Tony West (left) discusses diversity in the legal profession with Partner Katya Jestin in 2019.
Partner Reid Schar (left) interviews keynote speaker Tina Tchen at the 17th Annual Diversity Dinner in 2018.
Former Partner Scott Wilkens (left) discusses First Amendment rights with guest speaker Jameel Jaffer in 2017.
Guest speaker Ruby Bridges (right) talks with Partner Reginald Hill in 2013.
Guest speaker Kenji Yoshino (left) talks with former partner Paul Smith at the Annual Diversity Dinner in 2015.