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Creating a More Inclusive Learning Environment

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A hallmark of clinical education is reflection, say Professors Mary Lynch and Nancy Maurer—reflection on the legal system; reflection on one’s own growth; reflection on how one has performed in the past and can do better in the future.

This summer, The Justice Center at Albany Law School faced one of the most significant reflection points in recent memory—one that turned into a moment of inflection.

Hearing the concerns of students and recent alumni, Lynch and Maurer realized that they could, and should, do more to address racial justice within the clinic.

First, Maurer began developing new opportunities for students to work on racial justice projects through the Field Placement Program. She put out the call, and Albany County requested a student to work on its equity plans.

Disability Rights New York wanted someone to explore the intersection of disability and racial justice. Overall, Maurer has placed three students through this initiative and plans to add to the list this spring.

“It was clear that students were eager to engage in this kind of work,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”

Second, Maurer partnered with Lynch to provide anti-bias training to field supervisors. More than 75 local practitioners, including four district attorneys, registered for the first training, held over two days in August and September.

“We are expecting that we will have trained every super- visor that works with us within the next year or so,” Lynch said. “It is an expectation for ourselves and our program.”

The training began with anonymous testimonials from students about their experiences working in the Albany legal community. It also included sessions on implicit bias, a historical perspective of racial injustice in the U.S., and self-reflection. Among the stated goals of the training: to identify ways to support students from historically marginalized populations; to help students successfully navigate and improve our legal justice system; and to start a conversation about how The Justice Center and its field supervisors can ensure a more inclusive learning environment.

“The fact that we’ve had a good response to this training is indicative of the fact that that our offices are interested in this partnership,” Maurer said. “They want to know what they can do to be more inclusive, more supportive, and more aware.”

Finally, Lynch began a self-audit of her own program: the Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid (DVPH) Clinic, which places students in special victims units of prosecutors’ offices across the Capital Region. Turning the lens inward meant confronting some harsh truths. She found that DVPH presently has no field supervisors of color.

“That was really startling to me,” Lynch said. “I am teaching currently in a program that is not diverse.”

But acknowledging an issue is the first step toward fixing it. “This is something that we struggle with as teachers: we are graduating our students into one of the least diverse professions,” Lynch said. “There are systemic, built-in historical reasons for this. … But to the students who are here for only three years, they don’t get to wait until history catches up. It has accelerated our responsibility. And I think that there’s a real opportunity for us to [work with our field office partners] so that our students of color—and graduates of color—become our future supervisors of color.”

“If we bond together and create a more inclusive learning environment,” she added, “that’s what can help make a difference long term.”

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