Good intentions do NOT always mean positive impacts

December 14, 2023

This article is reprinted with permission from the Iowa Lawyer Weekly, Vol. 3 No. 22. Copyright 2023. Published by The Iowa State Bar Association. The guest author is Malycki Mañon-Sosa Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Director at the Iowa State Bar Association.

A division of the Federal Department of Justice hosted an event as a part of its United Against Hate program, which seeks to educate on and prevent hate crimes in the state. This event consisted of a small panel of four individuals representing a police department, an attorney’s association, a crisis and advocacy services local branch, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations; they intended to educate specific community groups on the rise of hate crimes, what a hate crime is, and how to report and prevent hate crimes from occurring.

During this event, the panel shared data explaining that hate crimes in Iowa are on the rise, and a large majority are aimed at individuals based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The law enforcement representative shared strategies for how community members can both prevent and report hate crimes.

The goal of the conversation was ostensibly to discuss services for those who have experienced hate crimes; however, the communities in attendance had a different perspective. Upon the representative sharing the police department’s standard procedures being followed for reporting hate crimes, many audience members spoke out and argued against the narrative. Several people in attendance stated that the standard procedures established by the law enforcement agency were, in fact, not being adhered to. Many of the community members in attendance introduced themselves as professionals in community advocacy. Individuals expanded on the intense need for work to be done by community organizations without assistance from the police department; including language translating and interpreting, helping navigate the legal system, providing advocacy resources, and more. The hour-long session was steered away from crime-specific reporting by a powerful conversation and discussion surrounding the most underserved and underrepresented communities. One point became clear from the conversations: “Just because we think we’re helping a community doesn’t mean that we are.”

Through the work that lawyers, judges, and legal professionals do, it may be easy to forget that legal service is essential to the lives of all citizens in Iowa. Often, services meet only a few specific needs of a very select group of clients, leaving many underserved or excluded. “We,” the legal professionals and support staff, are individuals with the utmost advantage. Many can pick and choose cases or clients; we understand the court, legal systems, and laws that are judged within them; we have a better understanding of the legal field compared to other groups in society because we are intentionally trained to navigate it. If the courts, laws, and processes were simple enough for an individual off the street to understand, we wouldn’t need to pay the increasingly expensive price tag of law school and take rigorous testing to be a member of the bar. It was this profound misunderstanding that, unfortunately, derailed the presentation that evening. We as a profession and community must do better, and while the customer isn’t always right, the responsibility of explaining why rests with us.

“Our good intentions do not always equal a positive impact.” This is a principle that I share in all of the ISBA CLEs that I present. Often, we assume that based on numbers and statistics (in this case, the increase in hate crimes), we understand the whole picture; and that nothing can be left for us to learn, apart from sharing our knowledge. Yet, what happens then in instances like the United Against Hate event, when our knowledge or perspectives are only one piece of a much larger story? What happens when the narratives are incomplete, and our good intentions fall short of their intended impacts? Whose story holds more value when two stories don’t align? While these questions are not designed to lead us in any one direction, I think they are questions that we should always be prepared to explore when educating, presenting, advocating, or even just going about our daily lives.

The answer isn’t simple. Frequently, we must first examine the complexities of communication in light of cross-cultural and interpersonal differences to move beyond conflict and confrontation to understanding and conversation. Watching the events unfold that night, it was clear no one had prepared for such an intense display of community frustration, and in the panel’s defense, who could have? An individual trained in trauma-informed communication would have been a wise addition, as they would have been able to hear and respond effectively to the community’s outpouring of emotion and, in turn, could have also addressed the vulnerability that each panelist showed in presenting. Cross-cultural education allows us to understand the inherent differences in our communication styles, the particular cultural lens each of us carries, and the unintentional effects of our words on those listening or receiving the message.

I am optimistic that inclusion practices, embracing differences, and being mindful that the justice department and legal field serve a diverse audience can provide helpful tools in the toolbox to avoid such situations. The following five sentiments or “lessons learned” can help us prepare for these deep, sometimes divided, conversations.

First, we must understand that we operate in a system that leaves many underserved and underrepresented. To prepare, we must begin by asking ourselves questions such as, “Who is and is not at the table?” or, “Who are we seeking to serve, and are their views included in the work we are about to set out on?”

Second, listen to those who have been impacted. While this is easier said than done, a great starting point is to practice active listening when people are willing to share their experiences.

Third, we must be prepared to not only hear what is unexpected but to actively ensure that we include voices of dissent to understand the complete picture. Encompassing unheard viewpoints and amplifying them throughout our work is sometimes tiring and perhaps even unnerving. But in doing so, we bring about the potential for better and more complete understanding.

Fourth, our work usually leaves those outside the profession with more questions than answers and can be extremely hard to navigate, especially for those with diverse needs such as accessibility and language barriers. Looking at the services we provide from a client perspective is a step that is not only beneficial but arguably essential.

Finally, we must understand that every one of us is human. When met with confrontation, it takes the utmost grace and confidence to not only acknowledge the good but also face the bad or unexpected, and if any examples or words could give us this ability, the world would be a much better place.

Reprinted with permission from the Iowa Lawyer Weekly, Vol. 3 No. 22. Copyright 2023. Published by The Iowa State Bar Association.

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