Pilot Course Focuses on Identity Literacy and Diversity Leadership

How individuals and communities define themselves in terms of race, class, and gender has grown more complex. With this complexity comes a need for deeper understanding for lawyers who hope to succeed when dealing with a more diverse set of clients in a global economy.

Vice Provost Adrienne Davis, the William M. Van Cleve Professor of Law, helped students tackle these intertwined issues in a one-credit, pilot, weekend course called Identity Literacy and Diversity Leadership.  

The course was designed to give students a deeper understanding of the following:

  • Identities such as race, class, gender expression, and how these categories are inextricably intertwined.
  • Legal and other concepts related to diverse identities.
  • How law and identity interact to shape structural equality, inequality, and social justice.
  • The role lawyers play in developing, vetting, and implementing policy.
  • How lawyers shape various institutions, including educational ones and workplaces.

“In every profession, recognizing the difference that identity can make in how people interact with the world, and how the world interacts with people, is essential to being not only a good citizen, but also an effective leader, member of a team, or knowledgeable practitioner,” said Davis, who is renowned for her scholarship and teaching on gender and race relations. “The course approaches law students as future leaders of legal workplaces, legal institutions, and, more broadly, of our society.”

The weekend course combined traditional law cases with journalistic accounts of recent incidents involving racial slurs, viral social media, harassment, and sexual assault. Students completed a Social Identity Profile and discussed topics as far-ranging as cheerleading, gender-integrated bathrooms, and discriminatory harassment.

“I think the conversation about gender expression and what that means for schools in terms of bathrooms and locker rooms, and names and acknowledgment really stuck with me,” said Jamie Gray, who graduated in May with both a JD and a master’s degree in social work. “Although I’ve thought about these things before, I had never had as in-depth a discussion about them and heard various arguments on either side.”

Discussions also included hypotheticals about topics such as Title IX, sexual harassment, and establishing an affirmative consent standard for sex on college campuses.

Gray added that she was pleased to see both the course being piloted at WashULaw and Davis as the professor. “Professor Davis is perfect for it,” she observed. “Professor Davis allows herself to be open and honest about her experiences, both personal and professional, in a way that encourages student reflection, facilitates discussion, and makes abstract concepts real and relevant. That class was my favorite, hands down.”

By Kathleen Nelson, Spring 2016