Inside Perspective: Getting to know each other

Dan Harper is vice president, corporate counsel and secretary for Océ North America, Inc., a Canon Group Co.  He is also immediate past president of the Chicago Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel. The views expressed herein are the opinions of the author and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of Océ North America Inc., Canon Inc. or any of the Océ or Canon companies.

I had the good fortune to meet a very nice young lawyer today, the kind of lawyer who will make a big difference in the lives of many people for generations to come.

Sam Finkelstein is the founder and CEO of Legal Prep Charter Academies.  LPCA is a legal-themed charter high school approved to open in the Chicago Public School System in the fall of 2012.  It will offer a college prep curriculum in a very high-quality learning environment in a high need community in Chicago.

“…Legal Prep will focus on the skills that all great lawyers possess: excellent written and oral communication, critical thinking, problem solving and advocacy…While not all of our students will go on to be lawyers, all students will gain an understanding and respect for the law.  Students will give back to their communities through scheduled service projects.  Every student will be required to gain admittance to college in order to graduate from Legal Prep.(Emphasis as in original)  Legal Prep Mission Statement

I am excited about this new Chicago public school for many reasons.  Too many in fact to address in this column.  So for today, I will focus on only one – the “diverse” school population served by the school and the opportunities such diversity presents to lawyers who are not used to working with such populations.  I have seen or heard various statistics from several sources that indicate that by the middle of the 21st Century, “diverse” individuals will make up 50 percent of the U.S. population.  To many people this may be a shocking statistic, but it is well accepted as a realistic estimate of our future ethnic/cultural make-up.  So for those who find this an uncomfortable statistic, I suggest a retooling of mindset in order to be successful in our “new” world.

A good friend of mine related to me that he (like many of my colleagues in the law) was raised in a middle class, white, suburban, Christian community during the 1960s and 1970s.  To him, this was America.  The only “diversity” he experienced was between Irish, Germans, Polish, Italians, Catholic and Protestants (and various mixtures of those particular groups).  Once in a while there might be an Asian or Asian Pacific person who crossed his path.  So, while this was a diverse group in one sense, in another it was very homogenous.

My friend met his first black person in college as well as his first Jewish person (at a Catholic university).  As he told it, these people were unfamiliar to him and he did not know how to relate to them.  Not only had he never met people like this, but what he “knew” about them from others was generally negative.  As one might guess, he avoided them as anyone might do when confronted with an uncomfortable situation.

What does any of this have to do with the latest charter school to be approved by the CPS system?  The lawyer community is going to be given the opportunity to step up and assist the school as it accepts its first class of freshmen next year, the graduating “Class of 2016.”  We will be given mentoring, teaching and other project based opportunities.

We must take advantage of these opportunities so that we can get to know the students in these programs.  We must let them see who we are and learn who they are.  We need to teach each other about each others’ backgrounds, our respective upbringing, our neighborhoods and home life.  People will open up if given an emotionally safe  environment that encourages openness and sharing of sometimes uncomfortable and unfounded preconceptions about each other.  All participants will learn about each other.  Misconceptions, prejudgments and stereotypical characterizations of each other will dissolve.

The people who participate will learn that despite their differences, we are all more alike than different.  By getting to know people who are “different,” who come from a different place, socially, culturally, financially and geographically, walls are broken down and bridges built – one person, one mentor/mentee relationship at a time.  People begin to see that yes, there may be differences in speech, food, skin color and so on, but also that they really aren’t that different in their core – they are human beings wanting to provide for their families, desiring good education and the opportunity to excel.

When we come to this level of understanding, we no longer avoid each other or walk on the other side of the street.  As lawyers, as leaders of our business and neighborhood communities, we are called to take a leadership role in this process.  The new Chicago Legal Prep Academy and people like Sam Finkelstein will provide us an opportunity to do so.

For more on Chicago Legal Prep Academy click here: http://www.legalprep.org/

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