Students Put Anti-Racism into Action at St. John’s law


No More Talking. What Are We Going to Do?

One statement. One question. Linked as a call to action, they brought close to 300 members of the St. John’s Law community together this past June for a virtual Dialogue Day organized by the student-run Coalition for Social Justice (CSJ) and Black Law Students Association (BLSA), along with co-sponsoring student organizations and the Law School’s Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights.

One by one, over three hours, student groups presented their commitments—events, petitions, fundraisers, committees, speakers, outreach, research, and more—to making St. John’s Law an actively anti-racist institution and to combatting racial injustice in its many forms. Those Dialogue Day pledges made in support of, and in solidarity with, the Law School’s Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni are now the pillars of an action plan that CSJ has memorialized in two publications.

In early September, it published the “St. John’s University School of Law Student Organization Commitment to Racial Justice and Solidarity with Marginalized Communities” (the Contract). The Contract documents the student organizations’ collective commitment to anti-racism, articulated through a set of guiding principles and obligations, including organizational change. The Contract also shares each group’s year-to-year obligations and agreement to be held accountable for them.

The Contract’s publication was a meaningful milestone for BLSA President Jasmine Johnson ’21, whose email to her peers and the Law School’s administration sparked the idea for the June Dialogue Day. “I sent the message out of anger, frustration, and desperation,” she says. “I was upset that no one at St. John’s Law had addressed the death of George Floyd. I was upset that allies didn’t appear to be acting like allies to me.” Looking back at the event she helped to launch and to the collaboration flowing from it, Johnson is heartened. “As an aspiring lawyer, I’ve witnessed how my ability to advocate can create something bigger than myself,” she shares. “It’s inspiring. And humbling. The project is still growing and developing, and I’m excited to see what comes next.”

Those next steps include CSJ‘s recent publication of its multi-part “Full Report on the St. John’s University School of Law’s Anti-Racist Agenda Following the Racial Justice Reckoning of Summer 2020” (the Full Report). Chronicling the evolution of student organization activity from the June Dialogue Day to the start of the Fall 2020 semester, the Full Report reflects on the work done so far, comments on what needs improvement, projects what will come next, and provides a model for other law schools to follow.

Written and edited by CSJ’s Action Plan Committee—which includes Katie Helde ’21, Annalise Leonelli ’22, Ryan Minett ’22, Gabriela Morales ’22, Heidi Simpson ’21, Pharoah Sutton-Jackson ’21, and Jourden Taylor ’22—the Full Report isn’t a static document. Rather, it’s drafted to help advance the process of framing, implementing, monitoring, and evolving the Law School’s anti-racism agenda. It also clarifies CSJ’s leading role in that fluid process, stating: “The mere existence and persistence of the Coalition for Social Justice itself is a recognition of and response to the fact that there is still much work to be done. However, if there is regression, or specific identifiable impediments to continued progress, expect to hear from us.”

Considering her contributions to the Contract and Full Report, Heidi Simpson says, “It’s meant a lot to me to be involved in such innovative projects. The hard work of just a handful of students has spurred an institution-wide shift in discourse and behavior to create a better, more equitable and just future. And I hope that the students who have stepped up and committed to anti-racism at St. John’s Law will take that commitment with them after graduation and become anti-racist lawyers.”

Jourden Taylor, whose stirring Memorandum of Support is an appendix to the Contract, is also hopeful that the two publications, and CSJ’s work more broadly, will make a difference. “In a time where ignorance and division plague our nation, our response as an institution was to tell our Black brothers and sisters: ‘We hear your pain,’” he says. “While we still have much of the work to do, I’m inspired by our ability to come together as a community. It brings me great pride that I played some role in inspiring others to join in this fight against racial injustice. Every step towards equality has required a catalyst, and it’s my hope that these publications can serve as the catalyst for real change at St. John’s Law.”

As CSJ’s current president, and as a lead organizer and moderator of the June Dialogue Day, Pharoah Sutton-Jackson recognizes the collective effort that went into the two publications and sees continued collaboration as key to the anti-racism work ahead. “That’s what the Contract and Full Report represent to me,” he explains. “They signal the successful unification of the Law School’s affinity groups that so many students have desired, along with the unity of almost all the student organizations in general. And they’re a time stamp of our institution’s substantial step in an evolution that so many members of this community have advocated for tirelessly for a long time. I look forward to moving ahead, together, and will carry this formative experience with me when seeking justice as a lawyer in the coming years.”

The Contract and Full Report are posted on the Law School’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion website, which spotlights scholarships, programs, and other resources that St. John’s Law offers with the aim of building and sustaining a diverse and inclusive legal profession.

“The June Dialogue Day was the most inspiring event I’ve been involved with in my 22 years at St. John’s Law,” Dean Michael A. Simons says. “As I listened to the student leaders that night, their commitment to supporting their Black peers and to creating an anti-racist teaching and learning community was very clear. It was also clear that the students know this is a process—one of identifying and reckoning with the many ways that anti-Black racism pervades legal institutions and legal structures. The Contract and Full Report show that our students are ready, willing, and able to do the hard work that this reckoning requires. The faculty, administration, and staff of St. John’s Law share that commitment. We’re in this together.”