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Donna E. Young is dean of Ryerson University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law in Toronto, a unique academic environment focusing on how the law intersects with discrimination.Kate Dockeray

Growing up in a mostly white neighbourhood in North York in the 1970s, Donna E. Young was keenly aware of existing in contrast to her surroundings. She remembers counting on one hand how many Black families attended her public school, and that many of those children, she says, were being informally streamed into a different category of academics than their white counterparts.

Even within her family, filled with teachers and health professionals, Ms. Young was the odd one out.

“No one ever suggested I should be a lawyer, until I kind of fell into it,” she says. “I was very, very aware of injustice, but it wasn’t until I got to law school that I realized that the ways in which the law was drafted and interpreted had so much to do with people’s experiences – and, to a certain degree, determines them.”

Two decades after Ms. Young became an alumna of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto – and following another 25-year tenure as a professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School in New York – Ms. Young is the founding dean of Ryerson University’s Lincoln Alexander School of Law, which opened doors to students in the fall of 2020. It’s a unique academic environment for its intentional focus on how the law intersects with and perpetuates discrimination, as well as the school’s aim to boost diversity in the legal profession itself.

No stranger to discrimination

It’s a fitting role for Ms. Young, whose teaching experience has often veered into socially conscious subject areas like academic freedom, pay equity and rape culture. After graduation, she represented labour unions, finding a mentor in Derrick Bell – Harvard’s first tenured Black professor and widely regarded to be the founder of critical race theory. But Ms. Young herself has been no stranger to the kinds of discrimination her scholarship intends to eradicate.

“If you are a Black woman of my age, there is almost no possibility that you haven’t experienced anti-Black racism, and I’m sure that I was treated differently by students and some colleagues because of their discomfort in seeing a Black woman at the front of the classroom,” she says. “Like, ‘She must’ve gotten there through affirmative action.’ I had student evaluations that said that I introduced issues of race and gender into my classroom too much, when, at the beginning of my career, I wasn’t introducing a whole lot of critique at all.”

Ms. Young notes that critique is essential, because while the law’s ultimate guiding principle is fairness, it often fails to achieve that ideal in practice.

“When we use the law, we often look backward to try to move forwards,” she says. “The law is trying to operate neutrally and objectively, but life isn’t like that. There are serious inequities. And when you implement a regulatory framework in a system that is systemically racist and systemically gendered, then you’re just reinforcing that. You’re not actually dismantling it.”

A necessary corrective

By affirming diversity, inclusion and access to justice as pillars of Ryerson’s program, Ms. Young and her administration are offering a necessary corrective to an institution designed “by and for British-descended people,” enabled by a profession where racialized people accounted for just 22.5 per cent of Ontario lawyers in 2018. (According to the Law Society of Ontario, Indigenous people make up less than two per cent.)

“When I started [at Lincoln Alexander School of Law] in January of 2020, there were only three or four employees – and we were all Black,” Ms. Young says. “So for months, the infrastructure was being set up, being built, by Black people. It’s just very different than the genesis of every other law school in the country.”

Even the admissions process at Lincoln Alexander is remarkably holistic, evaluating students’ GPAs using their two best academic years – rather than all four – to account for extenuating circumstances that might negatively affect learning.

“Some students really struggle during their undergraduate years – and some of that has to do with the fact that they are not as privileged as some of their classmates,” says Ms. Young, who was known to integrate multidisciplinary media like literature and film into her syllabi before she applied and was selected for the Ryerson role. “Maybe they have to work full-time, have children or elderly parents, or they have to start from absolute scratch with no real support because they’re the first in their family to go to university.”

Tremendous responsibility

Ms. Young knows that the legal profession cannot “just by magic, diversify itself,” but she is more hopeful with every harbinger of change. (For her work in “reimagining legal education,” she was recently recognized as one of 2021′s Top 25 Women of Influence.)

She imagines that the progressiveness of the law will continue to be augmented by civil-rights activism, and that the “lawyers of the future” will be an increasingly well-rounded bunch – one that looks an awful lot more like the general population and “understands that diversity isn’t just window dressing, but a necessity in order to serve the public.”

As ever, the vocation will carry the same tremendous responsibility: “We shed light on disproportionality: we see it, we show it, we explain it,” Ms. Young says, “and then we fight against it.”

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