Empowering Women of Color Student Group Hosts Inaugural Conference at Columbia Law School

Daylong Event Draws Scholars, Artists, Journalists, And Columbia Law School Alumnae and Faculty for Candid Discussions About the Role of Race and Gender in a Variety of Contexts

New York, April 10, 2015—Women of color at Columbia Law School have the opportunity—and the obligation—to help members of their community move ahead in the legal profession and in the world more generally, said Paulette Brown, the first black woman president-elect of the American Bar Association, at the first annual Empowering Women of Color (EWOC) Conference at Columbia Law School.

ABA President-Elect Paulette Brown spoke at the Empowering Women of Color student group's inaugural conference.
“You have entrées that so many other women of color don’t,” Brown said, pointing to the success the Law School’s graduates have in securing jobs at law firms and in government and public interest positions. “So you have some responsibility.”
Still, success doesn’t come easy, even for those with a strong institution behind them. Women of color hold a very small percentage of equity partner positions at law firms. Brown, a labor and employment partner and co-chair of the diversity committee at Locke Lord Edwards in New Jersey who co-authored the ABA report “Visible Invisibility: Women of Color in Law Firms,” said aspiring firm lawyers should not let that hold them back.
“You have to say, ‘So what—I am going to break through that statistic,’” she said. “Knowing that you have the power to do that is very important.”
Brown, who was introduced by EWOC Alumni Chair Alexandra P. Swain ’16, was part of an all-star lineup of panelists and speakers at the student group’s inaugural conference, titled “Playing the Game? Reflections on the Lives of Women of Color.” Participants included artists, journalists, scholars, and Columbia Law School alumnae and faculty who discussed everything from attrition at law firms, the portrayal of women of color in the media and in art, and the work of women of color in public interest law. Brown kicked the conference off with a keynote address in the morning, and Columbia Law School Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw delivered a closing keynote at the end of the daylong event. EWOC collaborated on the conference with the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) and the African American Policy Forum (AAPF).
 (from left) Empowering Women of Color President Brittany L. Hazelwood '16, Alumni Chair Alexandra P. Swain '16, and Advisory Committee Member Zila R. Acosta '15 introduced conference speakers and moderated panel discussions.
EWOC President Brittany L. Hazelwood ’16 welcomed attendees before Brown spoke, thanking panelists Michelle Pham ’12 and Adelle Fontanet-Torres ’12, who founded EWOC at the Law School in 2011.
“These last four years, we have found incredible opportunities to do coalition work and continue to be inspired by intersectional organizations” including CISPS and AAPF, which were both founded by Crenshaw, Hazelwood said.  “It is so vital that these dialogues remain active.”
The conference organizers also thanked the Law School’s Office of Student Services, and Director of Academic Counseling and Student Outreach Yadira Ramos-Herbert in particular, for support.
Zila R. Acosta ’15, an EWOC Advisory Committee member, introduced and moderated the first panel, “Subverting the Norm: A Discussion on the Extraordinary Attrition Rates Facing Women of Color at Law Firms,” which allowed graduates and non-alumni firm attorneys who spanned generations to reflect on their careers. Like Brown, the women encouraged students to establish relationships with mentors and clients and to make themselves indispensable in their jobs.  Jamila M. Hall ’03, a partner at Jones Day in Atlanta, said she left her firm for a few years to work as an assistant U.S. attorney so she could acquire valuable trial experience.
 Several alumnae returned to campus to participate in the conference, including, from left, Michelle Pham '12, Lorraine McGowen '86, Jamilah Hall '03, and Shanita Nicholas '13.
 “I knew I had to create a specialty,” she said. “When I came back, I had credibility and relationships with defense attorneys and judges I could leverage.”
The panelists commented on the fact that women of color still encounter so many firsts in 2015—being the first at a firm, on a management committee, or to lead the ABA as keynote speaker Paulette Brown soon will. Anna Brown was a founding member of Shearman & Sterling’s first diversity committee and is now director of the firm’s Global Diversity & Inclusion initiative.
“I never imagined myself being a diversity professional because that didn’t exist at the time I started my career,” she said.
As for EWOC, Paulette Brown commended the group on its own “first”—an inaugural conference, which many of the speakers praised for helping to raise awareness about race and gender in the legal profession and beyond.
“It is a real honor and privilege to be here,” Brown said. “I think it is so awesome that you are doing this.”
Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw delivered a keynote address and participated in a panel discussion.
In the second panel of the day, Columbia Law School Professor Crenshaw took part in a discussion about the portrayal of women of color in the media. Other panelists were: Kara Brown, a staff writer at Jezebel; Columbia University Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race; and Jamilah Lemieux, senior digital editor at Ebony magazine. A later panel featuring artists included Akilah Hughes and Juliana Huxtable.
During the conversation, Crenshaw described the media's coverage of a report she recently authored, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, which showed that girls of color face much harsher school discipline than their white peers but are excluded from current efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline.  
 The second panel of the day covered the portrayal of women of color in the media and featured, from left, Kara Brown, a staff writer at Jezebel; Columbia University Professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race; moderator and EWOC President Hazelwood; Crenshaw; and Jamilah Lemieux, senior digital editor at Ebony magazine.
Columbia Law School’s EWOC is committed to championing the successes and addressing the concerns of women of color. As an inclusive organization, EWOC is devoted to providing a safe space for collaboration and dialogue regarding issues relevant to this segment of the Law School population. View the organization’s profiles on Facebook and Twitter.