Toward Inclusivity and Cultural Competence

Hi everyone and happy summer! I am very pleased to be able to host a guest blog today from the BC Law Alumni Board member Ingrid Schroffner, Assistant General Counsel at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

I am passionate about—and feel fortunate to be able to work on—diversity and unconscious bias issues at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS). My cross-cultural upbringing and my experience as an Asian-American lawyer contribute to my interest in this area.

My maternal grandfather immigrated from Okinawa to Hawaii in the first part of the 20th century to work in the sugarcane fields. I attended Japanese school when I was a child, and my household was filled with Japanese culture.

I also have a cross-cultural, East-West perspective. My father is a first-generation immigrant from Salzburg, Austria. I learned German from my father (and later, in school) and spent a summer living and working in Austria with my relatives. None of my grandparents spoke English. These two diverse heritages comprise my background.

When I came to Massachusetts for college in 1988, I did not self-identify as Asian. This was because I grew up in Hawaii, where the majority of the population has Asian or Pacific Island ancestry. In law school, however, my minority status became more evident. I was one of four Asian women in my section of over 200 students. We were called the “5’2” crew” because we were all that height and under. It was then that I began to realize that I was a minority in Massachusetts, and even more so as a lawyer. Yet I felt very accepted at BC Law, with its welcoming sense of community, and I made many friends there, including in the Asian Pacific Law Student Association. I continued to feel connected after graduation, especially when the Director of Alumni Relations asked if I would become the alumni board member in charge of affinity groups. I knew I could use my BC Law connections in the affinity legal community to bring those BC Law alumni together with affinity students at the annual receptions that BC Law had begun hosting.

After law school, I also experienced some additional awareness. My first and last names do not indicate that I am Asian, while my features and stature do. I had a client with whom I had talked on the telephone but not met in person until the day of his hearing. When we met at the courthouse, he seemed uncomfortable, and said that I looked different than he had expected. Until then, I had not given much thought as to how my name might be perceived by someone vis-a-vis my appearance. At the same time, I also needed to serve my client, and my ability to do so would be hampered if he was uncomfortable. So I tried humor. “Oh—I see,” I said. “You thought I might be six-feet tall and have blonde braids?” It did the trick. My client loosened up and we had a successful hearing. I also learned to describe myself in similar circumstances.

Against this backdrop, my practice included probate and family law, which also informed my sensitivity to cultural differences. By 2003, having represented clients of various ethnicities, I had become aware of different cultural conceptions that might need to be addressed through legal representation.

I discussed cultural competency training for family lawyers with some judges and other lawyers, who were supportive. This led to working with the Asian American Lawyers of Massachusetts (AALAM) and the Boston Bar Association (BBA). My belief in the value of addressing issues of unintended bias with fresh eyes and current material also inspired me to pursue trainings on the subject—not just to start, but also to continue the dialogue. When I first began my efforts to publicize its importance, this was a new and not well-recognized area affecting the practice of law. Back in 2003, I put together “Cultural Considerations in Divorce and Custody Matters” for AALAM and the BBA, and then another joint program two years later. It was exciting to bring the organizations together to exchange ideas with a mutually identified goal: assisting lawyers in helping disadvantaged and underrepresented clients.

The programs provided valuable information, including practice tips for working with clients and witnesses from other cultures. They were eventually integrated into a mandatory Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education training for Guardians ad Litem—those appointed by probate judges to investigate family-law disputes.

When I was invited to present trainings for the Department of Developmental Services Diversity Council, EOHHS Legal, and the Recovery units, I reworked and updated material from those programs. I also presented on cultural competence in legal and health care contexts at the UMass Medical School Center for Health Care Financing, and again at the BBA.

In November 2015, I was the guest speaker for the Western New England University School of Law faculty retreat. With further research, adjusting the material and exercises, I presented “Ensuring Inclusivity: Learning Ways to Address Unconscious Bias” in legal and law school education contexts.

I am grateful for the opportunities at EOHHS to share what I have learned on this topic and move this work forward. Currently, I am working with others on an unconscious bias training for EOHHS. To that end, last October my MassHealth Diversity Council (the Council) co-chair and I presented “Addressing Unintended Bias: An Introduction to Cultural Humility” to EOHHS diversity officers. I also recently presented “Unintended and Unconscious Bias” with a colleague from another agency, to EOHHS trainers. I had collaborated with that same colleague on inclusivity and accessibility trainings for the EOHHS director-track program.

I appreciate being able to serve as co-chair of the Council with so many talented colleagues who are equally passionate about diversity and unconscious bias. I am thrilled to be able to guide strategies of the Council subcommittees to foster an inclusive work environment that recognizes the progress that results from employees’ diversity, and reflects the population served by facilitating training, education and best practices to support MassHealth’s goals and serve its members. The collaboration of the Council, in deploying a diversity-climate survey and working on initiatives based on its results, demonstrates the dedication of its members to the agency.

I believe that the increasing diversity of Massachusetts makes it incumbent on all of us to keep issues of cultural considerations as part of our ongoing discussion with respect to our work as we become more informed. I feel lucky to be able to contribute to that cause.

Ingrid Chiemi Schroffner is an assistant general counsel at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Prior to this position, she practiced at Burns Levinson, clerked for Chief Justice Warner (Massachusetts Appeals Court), and clerked for the Massachusetts Superior Court justices. Ingrid serves on the BC Law Boston Alumni Chapter Leadership Team, has served as the BC Law Alumni Board member in charge of affinity groups and currently serves as Vice President. She has also served as the President of the Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts, on the Boston Bar Association elected Council and has been named a Top Woman of Law by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly.


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