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Center for Black Excellence and Culture to address underrepresentation within legal community

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//February 8, 2024//

The Center for Black Excellence and Culture

The Center for Black Excellence and Culture. Photo courtesy of JLA Architects.

Center for Black Excellence and Culture to address underrepresentation within legal community

By: Steve Schuster, [email protected]//February 8, 2024//

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The Center for Black Excellence and Culture announced Thursday the launch of the Attorneys for Black Excellence Initiative, a new fundraising effort with a goal of raising $250,000 from Greater Madison law firms and individual attorneys.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) policies come under legal attack, philanthropic donors adapt.

According to the Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, founder and CEO of The Center, although fundraising efforts began two years ago before the recent attacks on DEI, efforts are more meaningful now than ever before.

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Wednesday, Gee said, in a place like Madison that has a reputation of wanting to be inclusive, that couldn’t be further from reality.

“We are hoping to see a greater support from the philanthropic community in supporting efforts like ours,” Gee said.

The Center will help “instill values that are important to us as a community and as a state,” Gee added.

The Madison initiative will drive The Center’s capital campaign in an effort to raise the final $3 million needed to break ground later this year without accrued debt.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, justice is supposed to be swift, just and blind. However, any attorney, litigant, or judge knows this is far from reality in Wisconsin’s legal system. A reformation and rebirth of justice is in its infancy in the Badger State, said Attorney Mark Thomsen during the historic swearing in of Pedro Colón to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals last November.

Quoting Frederick Douglass, Thomsen said, “No Republic is safe that tolerates a privileged class, or denies to any of its citizens equal rights and equal means to maintain them.”

In an effort to inspire and advance the Black community, the Center will be located “within the heart of a historically Black neighborhood on Madison’s South side,” Center officials said.

“The Center will be a physical place where Black residents and others throughout the community can gather to plan for and celebrate current and future growth and advancement,” officials noted.

The campaign is being spearheaded by attorneys at Husch Blackwell and the Wisconsin Association of African-American Lawyers (WAAL), according to a spokesperson for The Center.

The three-level facility will host programming areas, including Black culture, history, innovation and leadership development, mental wellness, arts and youth STEAM engagement.

Underrepresentation in legal community

According to officials, the initiative recognizes The Center as a much-needed solution to help address long-standing underrepresentation within the legal community.

To date, only 2% of all attorneys in the greater Madison area identify as Black, in-part due to reputational and quality-of-life barriers that inhibit recruitment, officials noted.

According to Gee, the broader community can recreate and network anywhere, but that isn’t the case for Madison’s black community.

“It’s like going to Grandma’s house and seeing everyone else’s picture, except for yours, Gee said.

The center creates a space of networking innovation, art, and galleries for the Black community.

“When people feel at home, they act like they are at home. We need to roll out a welcome carpet,” Gee added.

Gee said one of the goals of his center is to make Madison a destination.

According to Gee, the recent DEI attacks will have a profound trickle effect.

“It’s even more important to have space like The Center. It’s not about hiring, it’s about having a place of belonging for those who have gone up against all odds,” Gee said.

“The strongest the Black communities can hold its own culture and stories. That gives us strength to thrive. The Center will do that,” Gee added.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, in 2022 only 11.4% of all law firm partners nationwide were lawyers of color, according to a NALP report, which raised a number of questions.

Does Wisconsin’s legal community reflect the population it serves?

If not, what are the potential negative consequences when the legal community is not reflective of the population it serves?

According to The Center’s website, Dane County’s racial disparities are among the state’s most extreme. And, as previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, Wisconsin had more hate groups than Mississippi and Alabama combined in 2022, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Center of innovation

As a first-of-its-kind cultural and innovation destination, The Center will help the legal community’s efforts to attract and retain Black legal talent, which has broader impacts on creating a more equitable justice system and society for all residents, officials added.

As previously reported by the Wisconsin Law Journal, the State Bar of Wisconsin’s diversity clerkship program, intended to promote diverse legal talent, is under litigation in federal court as Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty claims the program is unconstitutional.

The recent attacks on diversity, equity, and inclusion are reminiscent of 1930’s Nazi Germany, said a Jewish Holocaust survivor, in a previous Wisconsin Law Journal article.

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Wednesday, Gee said the recent DEI attacks remind him of the 1940s in the United States.

“By being a Black American, it is reminiscent of what I studied as a history major. It’s what happened here in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s,” Gee said.

The Center interior
Interior rendering of The Center. JLA Architects photo

On Wisconsin, Forward

Gee remains optimistic The Center will have a positive community impact.

“The purpose of The Center is to create a sense of belonging and purpose. We need to create more space that you are welcome,” Gee said.

“People in Chicago, Detroit, Raleigh and Atlanta can easily find jazz clubs and coffee houses that offer a place for the Black community. We don’t offer that anywhere in Madison or in the state of Wisconsin,” Gee added.

When asked by the Wisconsin Law Journal why Southern cities have more accommodating places than Wisconsin for the Black community, Gee said he doesn’t believe it is always intentional — as is the case in Madison, he said.

“I think in Wisconsin’s model to look forward, some people try to look past race, but we also need to create a place of belonging,” Gee said.

Gee noted The Center is not just a place to congregate. It’s therapeutic for the Black community to gather as lawyers, physicians and professors who are feeling in isolation. We need spaces for quality of life, to make Madison attractive.

“This is not just good for the Black community, its good for the broader community,” Gee added.

“In order for us to work together we need to better understand what causes people to not feel at home. There needs to be education in the dominate culture so we can be strengthened, move forward, and be fortified … trail blazers,” Gee said.

Madison attorney Chalisa Sims (Lindemann Miller Bowan LLP), who serves as the Greater Wisconsin Liaison on the executive board of the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers, agreed with Gee.

During an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal on Wednesday, Sims said she moved from Southern California to Wisconsin for law school and never looked back. However, she too, feels there are opportunities for the Black community in Madison and Wisconsin overall to create a greater support system.

Sims said once the dust settles in Madison, she would like to see a similar construction effort in Milwaukee with a Center for Milwaukee’s Black Community. However, Sims noted there is a real need in Madison right now.

“I think The Center will be great giving Black people a place to be themselves, their entire selves,” Sims said.

“As a black woman this is a place where I feel safe and can have open conversations. We all have a single purpose of trying to better our community,” Sims said.

Sims noted the significance of The Center.

The Center is ours and no one can take it from us. That’s extremely significant,” Sims said.

“We did this as a community and we can stay here and do it with it what we please,” Sims noted.

“As a Black community, this is something we need to do. This what will benefit us all in the best way possible,” Sims added.

Challenges ahead

As Wisconsin’s legislative maps are before the Supreme Court and the State Bar’s DEI program is under attack, challenges remain.

According to the State Bar of Wisconsin, the Diversity Clerkship Program is a 10-week paid summer employment opportunity where first-year Marquette University Law School and University of Wisconsin Law School students with backgrounds that ​have been historically excluded from the legal field are matched with a wide array of employers from private law firms, corporate legal departments and governmental agencies.

However, according to University of Wisconsin-Madison clinical law professor Steven Wright, who serves faculty advisor to the school’s Black Law Student Association, only one Black student was admitted to the program last year and all of the other Black students who applied now have their personal information made public due to the pending litigation.

According to Center officials, diversity in legal representation and resources has a direct relation to entrepreneurial, educational, financial and professional opportunities and access to justice for the Black community.

“The Center is a remarkable, Black-led project creating a vital space that fosters personal and professional development opportunities and moves Madison’s Black community forward — something we believe everyone, including every lawyer in Madison, will value. When the Black community thrives, everyone benefits,” said Melissa Caulum Williams, attorney at Husch Blackwell and co-founder of the Attorneys for Black Excellence initiative.

Leadership with the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers expressed optimism about the profound impact The Center will have on Wisconsin’s legal community.

“We’re thrilled about the enormous potential in The Center as a place for meaningful connection, collaboration and to give back to and empower the communities,” said Brittani Miller, president of WAAL.

“The Center’s significance stretches statewide to foster Black excellence both professionally and personally. Firms will have a powerful tool at-hand to help encourage Black talent in Wisconsin law schools – and elsewhere – to practice in Wisconsin,” Miller added.

Husch Blackwell LLP, Dewitt LLP, Boardman & Clark LLP and Perkins Coie are just a few examples of Madison law firms working in collaboration with Attorneys for Black Excellence.

Both government / public and private sector attorneys are generating broad participation throughout Wisconsin’s legal community, Center officials said, noting attorneys and entire law practices are being encouraged to donate.

Gee said all attorneys and firms who donate will receive special recognition within The Center.

“We are so grateful and inspired by leadership across Madison’s legal community in the final stretch of our historic capital campaign. It’s even more evidence of how The Center’s impact will reach across the region,” said Gee.

“This incredible initiative, with people from Wisconsin coming together, pooling their talents and passions to create change – that’s exactly the promise of The Center,” Gee added.

To date, donors of The Center include names such as:

  • Mary Burke (2014 Democrat Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate / $500,000)
  • Exact Sciences
  • Delta Dental of Wisconsin
  • Kevin & Sheila Conroy
  • Mary Ellyn and Joe Sensenbrenner
  • U.S. Bank Foundation
  • Associated Bank Foundation
  • PRL Keystone Foundation
  • Chubb

To learn more about The Center, click here.

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