“I would encourage people who come from backgrounds where money was a source of stress or conflict to really think about joining this cohort, as well.” – Summra M. Shariff, Executive Director, Twin Cities Diversity in Practice
There are currently very few to no Hispanic women who are partners at large or mid-sized legal firms in the Twin Cities. When it comes to representation of people of color, Minnesota’s legal community reflects the same kinds of opportunity and achievement gaps the state sees in education, health, and income: only 7.2% of Twin Cities attorneys are people of color (National Association for Legal Placement), whereas the state as a whole is closer to 20% people of color (according to the 2010 U.S. Census).
Opening the Gate to the Twin Cities’ Legal Community
However, Summra Mohammadee Shariff – herself an attorney of color who chose to move to Minnesota to practice – is optimistic these stats can change. Summra has been the executive director of Twin Cities Diversity in Practice since the spring of 2018. She was drawn to the mission of the nonprofit, which is to attract, recruit, advance, and retain attorneys of color. “I understand what a great place Minnesota is to live in. At the same time, I also know how hard it can be to live in this community as a person of color,” said Summra. “Holding those two truths at the same time, I can see the opportunity and possibilities in trying to diversify the legal community here.”
Twin Cities Diversity in Practice carries out its mission through several programs. For example, the TCDIP 1L Clerkship program places students of color who have completed their first year of law school into paid positions with law firms and corporate in-house legal departments. This past year, they offered clerkships to 28 students, and in 2020 they plan to have their largest class of clerks by offering opportunities for 33 students. “Each of these clerks is a person who is getting the opportunity to gain experience and make connections,” said Summra. “I consider this program a gate-opening opportunity because students can take these experiences and connections and use them to get opportunities for their second summer, which is really important, and hopefully leads to them getting gainfully employed after graduation.” Clerks are matched with mentors, introduced to leaders in the Twin Cities legal community, and offered other professional development opportunities.
Claiming the Title of Financial Leader
For Summra, Propel’s Financial Leadership Cohort was her own gate-opening opportunity. As a new executive director of a nonprofit, she was placed in a cohort of other smaller nonprofit organizations. “I applied because I’d been looking for guidance on how to get my arms around the finances of this organization,” said Summra. “We are a financially healthy organization, and I want every tool in my toolbox to keep it that way.”
Over the course of six months, she met with other nonprofit leaders to learn new ways of thinking about the day-to-day work of being an executive director. In a small organization, that means she is also the financial manager. “I walked away with so much information, and more importantly, I walked away with more confidence than I had before,” she said. “I was getting bogged down in very technical things and forgetting the bigger decision making and thinking about how our finances align with our mission.” To help her check off all the new ideas she came up with in the cohort, the board has formed a working committee to help move the organization forward.
Summra’s advice for others: apply. Even if you think you don’t have time. “I would encourage people who come from backgrounds where money was a source of stress or conflict to really think about joining this cohort, as well,” urged Summra. She reflected that it’s easy for us to bring our personal relationship with money into how we approach organizational financial leadership. “I didn’t grow up with a lot of money and, now that I’m in charge of an organization, I tend to be overly conservative because I am worried about overspending or making an inadvertent misstep,” said Summra. “It’s part of my struggle with imposter syndrome. This program was a great opportunity to build my skills and confidence so that I can be a better steward of the organization’s resources.”
Summra knows that these investments in the organization’s infrastructure and her own professional development are all in service to an urgent mission of moving the Twin Cities’ legal community forward, especially on who gets to be part of it and rise to positions of leadership. “Inclusion and diversity are hard work, and we’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough,” she said. “It’s going to require innovation and creative thinking, and those are things I like to do.”
Learn more about Twin Cities Diversity in Practice: https://diversityinpractice.org/
All photos by Anna Min, Min Enterprises Photography, LLC