On September 17, 2007, the Peoria County Bar Association’s Diversity Committee held its fourth annual Diversity Luncheon and continued the tradition of highlighting the importance of diversity in the legal profession. There were close to 300 attendees including students from local high schools, Northern Illinois University College of Law, Southern Illinois University School of Law, Illinois Central College’s Upward Bound Program, and South Side College Club (programs aimed at assisting underprivileged students on the road to higher education). Also in attendance were local judges, civic leaders, community organizations, and a strong contingent from the ISBA Board of Governors.
During the program’s opening, ISBA President Joe Bisceglia announced the formation of the ISBA Task Force on Diversity and lauded the Peoria County Bar Association’s diversity initiatives, including the Diversity Luncheons, as ahead of the curve. The PCBA Diversity Committee presented a plaque to NIU Dean LeRoy Pernell to recognize and thank him for his contribution to the goals of the Diversity Committee. Dean Pernell will soon be leaving the area to become dean of the Florida A&M College of Law.
The PCBA Diversity Committee announced three recipients of the Diversity Scholarship, which increased this year from $1,000 to $1,500 per recipient. One of the three recipients, Melodi Green, an African-American third-year law student at SIU School of Law, was also a previous scholarship winner. A Peoria native, Melodi plans to practice in Peoria and is a prime example of how the Diversity Committee’s programs, including funding the Diversity Scholarship, have paid off in dividends. Melodi was present at the Diversity Luncheon to accept her scholarship.
The second recipient, Rocio S. Becerril, a second-year law student at NIU College of Law, is a first-generation college graduate. The third recipient, Shannon D. Taylor, a first-year law student at St. Louis University School of Law, was born and raised in Rantoul, Illinois. Shannon has been actively involved with the NAACP.
This year’s keynote speaker, Dean Peter C. Alexander of SIU School of Law titled his speech, “Why Care?” Dean Alexander posed this question in the context of why everyone should care about diversity. He answered the question with a story of how United States Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, prior to the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, learned about racial discrimination in the south when his driver had to sleep in the car because the area hotels would not allow accommodations for African-Americans. Dean Alexander emphasized that diversity does not mean taking jobs from people who have held the jobs for centuries, but instead it is about the opportunity to learn from each other, and that all groups have something to offer and something to voice. The message was that we all can learn from each other and keep our individual identities while joined in one nation and one profession. Dean Alexander also noted that he was in a room full of people who cared, but that they need to bring this message to others outside of the Luncheon and to reach out to everyone.
The Diversity Luncheon highlighted other programs implemented by the PCBA Diversity Committee to diversify the legal field so that it better reflects the community. Those efforts include the mentorship program with the Illinois Central College’s Upward Bound Program (a program to assist in first generation college bound local high school students through tutoring, job training, and mentoring) to plug the “leak” in the pipeline to the profession and get qualified minority students into the legal field; funding and assisting the ABA Judicial Internship program; and funding and awarding the Diversity Scholarship. As with all the previous luncheons, proceeds from this year’s Diversity Luncheon help fund the Diversity Scholarship.