Lift As You Climb: Men of Color Project Addresses Lack of Diversity in the Legal Profession
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
By: David Morrow & Jerome Crawford
The Rio Grande, the river that defines the border of the United States and Mexico, stretches past the town of McAllen, Texas. This small town is in many ways a representation of many Texas border towns. Fewer than 8 percent of the population holds a college degree and nearly a quarter of the population currently lives in poverty. Recently, McAllen has become the epicenter of the national debate over immigration. Thousands of people from Central and South America have come to this city in search of asylum and escape from the increasing levels of violence and political oppression in their home countries. It is in McAllen where life began for Victor Flores, the president-elect of the Texas Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.
The son of Mexican migrant workers, Flores’s early years began in a modern-day Ellis Island, where grit, faith, hard work, and hope shaped his life experiences and ultimately set him on a course that would be filled with many difficult challenges and abundant opportunities. The challenges he faced easily reflect the experiences of so many people of color throughout this country. In many communities of color, attending college can seem like a distant and unattainable dream and the idea of pursuing a legal education is illusory. Yet, Flores’s story exemplifies why the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division’s Men of Color Project is so desperately needed, now more than ever.
Take a quick look at the statistics and you’ll understand why. Latinos make up fewer than 4 percent of all attorneys, African Americans nearly 3 percent, Asian Americans nearly 8 percent, and Native Americans only 0.2 percent of the entire legal profession. These numbers become even more striking when you look at the number of incarcerated individuals. Currently, more than 60 percent of incarcerated individuals come from a racial or ethnic minority background. In other words, a disproportionate number of minorities are interacting with the American legal system as criminals instead of attorneys. That should ring an alarm to anyone who believes in a country that is held together by our faith in equity and equal protection under the law. The legal profession has and continues to experience a deep shortage of people of color in the courtroom, law firms, legal organizations, and the entire legal system. This shortage undoubtedly impacts the very validity and legitimacy of our institutions because, to nearly half of the country, our legal institutions don't reflect the people they are sworn to serve. That is a moral and legal crisis.
Representation matters and the representation of men of color in the law is disproportionately low. Initiatives such as the Men of Color Project look to address this lack of diversity and advancement to generate a transformation in the legal profession. Overall, the project exists to build leaders in the field of law, facilitate intergenerational support, and encourage community service and civic engagement among men of color in the legal profession. The project serves as a resource and forges a dynamic brotherhood for men of color while they’re in law school and in their formative early years as lawyers. The project also helps to provide mentorship, sponsorship, and community support to give men of color the resources they need to grow and prosper in the law field.
Mentorship and Sponsorship
One of the key pillars of the Men of Color Project is the concept of mentorship and sponsorship. It is our belief that new attorneys of color will not succeed in the legal profession without the presence of mentors and very proactive sponsors molding and guiding their careers at a very early stage. Overall, minorities in the profession are the most mentored yet under-sponsored group among young lawyers. Sponsors are mentors who proactively make connections and take steps to further the mentee’s career. This pillar is crucial to help young male attorneys of color realize and understand the importance of sponsorship relationships and how they are key to career success.
The unfortunately turbulent history of the United States with respect to race relations has contributed to the lack of representation of men of color in the legal profession. For many, our country’s history creates and perpetuates false internal and external expectations for minority children, which impacts their lives and succeeding generations. When a child has a negative or poor outlook on the possibilities for his future at an early age, it undercuts confidence and self-esteem. And even if these children can navigate a country with a rocky history on race and ethnicity to become a member of our noble profession, the challenges of working in predominantly white professional spaces are profound. These challenges include difficulties in finding mentors or sponsors of the same race who can intimately speak to the unique challenges of being a minority attorney, the emotional toll of coping with racial stereotypes, microaggressions, and at times, outright racism or xenophobia. Challenges also include constantly being treated as a representative for an entire racial or ethnic group. Flores is an example of a young attorney who did not allow low expectations and history to define his life or his legal career. What made the difference was the help he had from others. Mentors and key sponsors have proactively shaped his early career in a manner that transformed his life, his parents’ lives, and the lives of his own growing family.
Upon Flores’s return from the Iraq War as a member of the US Marine Corps, he met Kevin Pagan, an experienced attorney, at his church. Pagan immediately saw potential in Flores and began to actively guide and mentor his professional career. Pagan even used his own connections to secure Flores an internship working in the McAllen Municipal Court System. Additionally, through Pagan’s personal introduction, Flores met the Honorable Ernie Aliseda, a former district court judge in Texas. Despite his own busy schedule, Judge Aliseda invested deeply in Flores’s career before and after law school. He even wrote a letter of recommendation for Flores’s admission into law school. These pivotal experiences of true mentorship and sponsorship ultimately led Flores to law school and admission to the Texas Bar.
This may seem like a simple and easy story of mentorship and sponsorship, but for most men of color, the first time they will encounter an attorney will be in a courtroom under very different circumstances. And upon entry into the legal profession, mentors and most certainly sponsors of any race are difficult to find, yet critical for success. The responsibility to mentor and guide young lawyers of color, however, does not solely lie with other diverse attorneys. The responsibility belongs to the entire legal profession, a profession that has sworn to uphold the laws of this country and, thus, must take immense measures to protect and support the very legitimacy of the rule of law.
Vision and Development
Having an excellent group of mentors, sponsors, and advisors is essential to a successful support system. Equally important, however, is a young man’s ability to develop a vision for his life and executing necessary steps to realize that vision. Another pillar of the Men of Color Project, therefore, is Vision Development and Execution. The focus of this pillar is seeing your dreams broken down into tangible goals, each one serving as a bright red target that you are ready to aim for. And for those who come from communities of color, envisioning their future, particularly one that differs from the examples they routinely see, can be a task that quickly goes from seemingly simple to confusing and disheartening.
Most people from the community Flores grew up in made a living by being skilled trade workers, not through a career following the procurement of a secondary degree. Flores’s father and mother, a Mexican immigrant and first-generation American citizen, respectively, also never graduated from college. That said, his parents strongly encouraged him to be the first in the family to accomplish this feat.
Unfortunately, however, Flores struggled because he did not have a roadmap. Additionally, he did not even know how to create a path to success that would carry him from his starting point to his destination. Part of his decision to join the Marines was to seek help with his schooling. Little did he know at the time, he would quickly transition from being in the Reserves to being deployed to Iraq. Nonetheless, although his military service ended up longer than he initially intended, Flores knows that the time spent was necessary for his journey to propel him to where he sits today.
Among men of color, Flores’s recollection is somewhat commonplace. The challenge to see yourself in a role or position that no one around you has ever held is tough enough. But, assuming one has the mental fortitude to believe they can achieve such goals, outlining the critical steps one must take to make the vision come to pass is even tougher. To that end, the work of the Men of Color Project is geared to aid young male attorneys by first helping them identify the life they want for themselves and then providing tools and resources to help them attain it. Namely, the project promotes a digital toolkit on its website with key accessible resources on this and other subject matters.
Mental Health and Wellness
The final pillar of the Men of Color Project is mental health and wellness. A variety of initiatives have made the importance to care for one’s physical health more valued. Unfortunately, however, there still exists a significant stigma around mental health. That stigma only intensifies for those from communities of color. Although the symptoms are largely unseen by outsiders, mental and emotional ailments can be just as impactful to a person’s overall state of wellness.
An important aspect of Flores’s journey was his time spent in military service. When he graduated boot camp on September 7, 2001 (a mere four days before 9/11), he had no idea what the immediate future would hold. He promptly transitioned from his intended role as a Reserve to serving in Iraq. While overseas, two members of his company were killed.
It goes without saying that the stressors of engaging in an active war or losing a loved one, close friend, or colleague are each in their own way highly stressful, devastating experiences. Yet to have both such realities collide is an even tougher situation to cope with. Flores undoubtedly credits not only his faith but also his family, mentors, and friends for helping him focus on his overall well-being and ensuring he achieves and maintains complete wellness. Flores is living proof that everything pales in comparison when your health is lacking or otherwise failing.
No one achieves success alone. Simply put, we all are, in some way, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. We walk in their footsteps. Flores understood that to reach his goals, he needed great mentors and sponsors, a vision and a plan, and to be of sound mind and body. More importantly, he knew the secret ingredient to each of those necessities is other people. In that same vein, the Men of Color Project also understands that male lawyers of color, particularly during the pivotal early years of their careers, need unique, targeted support and programs to provide them the tools and resources to succeed.
The goal of the Men of Color Project is that those who are positively affected will continue to reach back and add links to the proverbial chain of success stories. As the late Judge Damon J. Keith often said, “you are walking on floors you did not scrub and through doors you did not open; so, wherever you go, scrub floors and open doors.” Let us never forget his great charge and forever reach back as we simultaneously reach forward.
This article originally appeared in TYL magazine, Volume 23, Number 4, Summer 2019. TYLis a benefit of membership of the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division.