On June 5-6, the City of New Orleans played host to a group of 70 juvenile defenders from around the Gulf Coast and southern Atlantic seaboard at the 4th annual Southern Juvenile Defender Center Summit. The focus of the summit this year was a difficult topic: bringing race into your advocacy.

I am sure few people would be surprised to hear that children of color are disproportionately impacted by arrest, prosecution, and incarceration in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and North Carolina, the states that form the Southern region.

We (the Planning Committee was me, Randee Waldman of Georgia, Rob Mason of Florida, Hector Linares of Louisiana, and Amy Bell of Georgia. Considerable credit also goes to the co-chairs of the Southern Juvenile Defender Center, Whitney Untiedt and Tobie Smith, along with our additional presenters Ellen Marrus, Elisa Chinn-Gary, Tenee Felix, and Derwyn Bunton. And of course, the 70-or-so people who came to learn) knew the topic would be provocative, challenging, and perhaps even polarizing, as juvenile defenders are subject to the same weariness in talking about pervasive and seemingly intractable problems that everyone else experiences, but the planners decided that the lure of a destination city like New Orleans gave us a unique opportunity to cover a topic that could potentially depress turnout if held in a different location.

The result was a remarkable one-and-a-half day discussion of how race impacts our practice and our lives here in the deep south. The conference began with Professor Geoff Ward, the keynote speaker from the University of California-Irvine, discussing how his research reveals that local violent crime rates, support for capital punishment, and other modern measurable indicators correlate strongly with the location and frequency of racially motivated lynchings in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Prof. Ward’s address went far beyond the usual cited statistics about how people of color are incarcerated to a greater degree than white people, which most of us know without needing to be told. He showed, through carefully gathered evidence, how our highly racially tinged past continues to haunt us today.

It was both fascinating and deeply disturbing, and at the same time it was novel information about how the justice system continues to feel the legacy of race-based terrorism. (I followed this presentation with a session on challenging cross-racial identifications. The contrast between Prof. Ward’s soaring, profound, and insightful discussion and my prosaic, conventional, and technical lecture was palpable.) This discussion was the perfect tone-setter for a productive discussion across the rest of the conference of how to incorporate race and racially correlated issues into our advocacy on behalf of clients.

Far from being uncomfortable, participants among this diverse crowd were eager to discuss the disparities they see and to examine their own potential for perpetuating implicit bias. Defenders from many areas expressed frustration at their observations that some schools seem to refer children of color to juvenile court for minor offenses like fighting, but do not refer white children for the same offenses. We discussed ways to use modern technology, such as the high definition security cameras of our modern surveillance state, to help our children. More than one defender reported that these cameras, intended to help police and school administrators identify child wrongdoers, sometimes show teachers or police bullying and provoking students who then are arrested when they lash out.

I learned, among other things, that while talking about race in the courtroom is hard, it is far from impossible. It is something we should not fear or think cannot be done without harming the client. We can advocate for positive system change, by advocating to prosecutors not to petition cases that appear to be at least unconsciously racially based. One defender recounted telling his prosecutor, “Hey do you ever notice that they never shake down students at Episcopal High even though statistics show that white kids use marijuana more than the black kids?” We were empowered to start the dialog, and given the tools to start it productively.

In the early years of my practice, I resisted attending conferences and conventions. I considered them to be extra unpaid effort for indeterminate benefit, but they have come to be an invaluable part of my work. Talking to colleagues from other areas and sharing ideas for how to do better is an indispensable part of growing professionally. It also recharges you for the challenges that are coming. It gives you the courage to try bold new ideas. Frankly, it’s also good to see old friends from my days in Alabama now that I am in Louisiana. This conference in particular was bold, refreshing, and challenging in all the right ways.