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 Speaker Series, hosted by the Diversity & Inclusion Committee, invites guests to speak about contemporary issues related to diversity.
On June 24, 2021, the firm’s LBGTQ Forum hosted a discussion featuring Avery Belyeu, the Regional Director for the South Central Region of Lambda Legal. The conversation, “Let’s Get Brave Together: Courageous Conversations about Gender Identity and Expression,” was moderated by Associates Sarah Norman, and Manny Possolo. In her presentation, Avery discussed the differences between gender, gender identity, and gender expression; how to be an ally; and how to cultivate a more inclusive environment. Her presentation allowed our firm the opportunity to hear about the unique issues facing the transgender community in the workplace, especially now, in light of the recent surge in anti-LGBTQ+ bills in state legislatures around the nation, many of which have already become law, and an increase in hate crimes against transgender individuals, especially trans women of color.
Avery Belyeu is a trainer and consultant at Lambda Legal, a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary individuals, and those living with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work. Avery’s experience spans higher education, LGBTQ+ civil rights, and public health. She has trained thousands of professionals across the legal, higher education, and corporate sectors to create cultures of bravery and belonging that welcome and affirm all people, including LGBTQ individuals. Pride Month is celebrated in June to honor the 1969 Stonewall riots, and is an opportunity to celebrate LGBTQ+ communities, including the leadership of trailblazers like Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk, and Brenda Howard, and to remind ourselves of the work that still remains to be done to advance equality. Jenner & Block has long been a leader advocating for the civil rights of LGBTQ+ communities, and as we celebrate the values embodied by Pride Month, including the dignity and equality of all gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals, we also recognize that the struggle is not over. Discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ communities continues in many forms, and as a values-driven firm, we will not stand by in silence. We will continue to support LGBTQ+ rights through litigation and other legal work, and remain steadfast in the fight against injustice.
On June 2, 2021, the Diversity and Inclusion team hosted a discussion featuring John C. Yang, President and Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). The virtual event was moderated by Deepthika R. Appuhamy. Partners Ishan K. Bhabha, Carissa Coze, and Shoba Pillay took part in a conversation with Mr. Yang about the work of the AAJC, the unique issues facing AAPI communities, and the strategies to help combat the abhorrent increase in hate crimes targeting these Americans.
Mr. Yang leads the organization’s efforts to fight for civil rights and empower Asian Americans to create a more just America for all through public policy advocacy, education, and litigation. His extensive legal background enables AAJC to address systemic policies, programs, and legislative attempts to discriminate against and marginalize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other minority communities. Because of his expertise, Mr. Yang is regularly asked to speak to media on issues affecting the Asian Pacific American community.
Mr. Yang served in the Obama Administration as Senior Advisor for Trade and Strategic Initiatives at the US Department of Commerce, where he was the principal advisor to Secretary Penny Pritzker on issues related to Asia. Previously, Mr. Yang was a partner with a major Washington, DC law firm, and also worked in Shanghai, China as the legal director for the Asia-Pacific operations of a US Fortune 200 company. A former president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Mr. Yang has held several leadership positions and co-founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center – a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the direct service legal needs of Asian Pacific Americans in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.
Previous speakers included:
Maggie Anderson, who, in 2009, took a radical pledge to buy exclusively from Black-owned businesses for an entire year. Her historic year of buying Black, known as "The Empowerment Experiment," garnered an unprecedented amount of attention from mainstream media and researchers. She spoke at the firm as a 2021 Diversity Speaker Series Speaker on Black business history, economic unity, racial justice, and business diversity.
Michelle King, an expert on gender equality in organizations currently leads UN Women’s Integrated Strategy for Innovation and Global Innovation Coalition for Change. She was previously Director of Inclusion at Netflix and hosts a popular podcast and has a book by the same name, called The Fix.
Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, has devoted his life to advocating for LGBT people and everyone living with HIV, eventually becoming Assistant Secretary of Education for President Obama, after which he led the Arcus Foundation, the world’s largest foundation for LGBT rights organizations, for five years. Kevin also founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
Chief Judge Ruben Castillo spoke of his time growing up in the near west side of Chicago; moonlighting at night court during law school; his involvement with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the US Sentencing Commission; and his ultimate role as chief judge of the Northern District since 2013.
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.
Sarah McBride, Human Rights Campaign Press Secretary. In 2019, 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 described 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
- Sam Mihara, who spoke about his experience in Japanese internment camps. Today, Sam is a national speaker whose talks focus on his family’s imprisonment, the conditions for prisoners and their eventual release and return home, current detainment camps for Central American refugees and the possibility of a similar civil rights abuse in contemporary times. He discussed the dehumanizing conditions of the internment camp, from open-stall bathrooms and poor food quality to designated prisoner numbers.
- James Forman, Jr., a Yale Law Professor who discussed his 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. James discussed mass incarceration of African American men and women; the constraints on the first substantial cohort of African American mayors, judges and police chiefs amid the surge in crime and drug addiction; and shared stories from his book about the cases he worked on as a former public defender in Washington, DC.
- Colonel Charles McGee, a Tuskegee Airman during World War II, the first African-American military aviators in the US Armed Forces. By the time he retired in 1973, Colonel McGee had served the United States in three wars and had flown 409 aerial combat missions. In 2007, he received the Congressional Gold Medal. He has been inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
- David Lat, a former practicing lawyer, who penned Supreme Ambitions, a comedic legal novel in the mold of The Devil Wears Prada. David is the founder and managing editor of the legal blog Above The Law.
- Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza. Ms. De Castro spoke on the proposed DREAM Act, federal immigration policy and recent state legislation affecting immigrant communities.
- The Hon. Ruben Castillo, now chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Judge Castillo was the firm’s first Hispanic lawyer, the first Hispanic federal judge in Illinois and the first Hispanic individual to serve as chief judge of the Northern District.
- The Hon. Edward C. Prado, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Judge Prado, known for participating in mentor programs for minority students in the San Antonio area, was a state district judge and a federal district court judge before being appointed to the federal Court of Appeals.
- Judge Tony Richardson spoke to the lawyers and summer associates on a number of topics, including his career and path to the bench, his current assignment handling juvenile dependency matters and the importance of diversity – including diversity of thought – on the bench and in the legal profession generally.
- Columbia University Law Professor Ted Shaw, then-head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who discussed major civil rights cases considered during the Supreme Court’s 2012 term, including Fisher v. University of Texas (affirmative action), Shelby County (voting rights) and Windsor and Perry (same-sex marriage).