College of Law’s Racial Justice Initiative hosts inaugural event


Jack McNeil | Racial Justice

(From left) Aisha Edwards, Christina Rivers, Ami Gandhi, Tony Romanucci and Stephen Blandin spoke at the discussion panel, moderated by RJI Faculty Director Manoj Mate.

DePaul’s College of Law kicked off its Racial Justice Initiative (RJI) on Wednesday with a panel discussion on the state of racial justice in Illinois.

RJI, which was officially announced and launched in the fall, brings together students, lawyers, researchers, policymakers and activists to develop community-based solutions to further racial justice in Chicago and Illinois.

“As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s important to acknowledge the challenges facing Chicago, the state of IL and the nation on the racial justice front,” said Manoj Mate, associate professor of law and the faculty director of RJI, at Wednesday’s kickoff. “Historic and present-day structural discrimination and inequality remain pervasive across all aspects of our constitutional and political system and our economic system.”

A combined over 90 students and members of the broader community attended the event both virtually and in-person.

It featured five panelists: Tony Romanucci of Romanucci & Blandin and attorney for the families of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols, Aisha Edwards of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, DePaul Prof. Christina Rivers, Ami Gandhi of Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Stephen Blandin of Romanucci & Blandin.

The panelists each shared their own experiences using law in attempts to further racial and societal equity. Topics ranged from voting rights and felon disenfranchisement to housing inequality and police accountability.

Romanucci discussed how his time as a public defender, when he said he witnessed police officers plant evidence on several of his clients, shaped how he approached being a trial lawyer and representing the families of Floyd and Nichols.

“I think our discussion here today would be moot unless you leave here today just a little pissed off,” Romanucci told attendees. “If you don’t, you’re not going to leave here and try to make the change that is necessary.”

It was that assertion by Romanucci that Mate found to be the most striking for those in attendance.

“I thought that was a really impactful moment for students to realize that the broader goal of the initiative and the event is not just to raise awareness about some of these issues, but for students to feel motivated and upset about the current state of racial justice, civil rights, social justice in our nation,” Mate said.

For Nathan Fleming, the racial justice fellow of RJI, this goal is exactly why it’s so important for this initiative to be based in Chicago – a city that is widely regarded as one of the most segregated in the United States and home to racial disparities that affect healthcare, income and policing.

“The [issues] that many urban jurisdictions face are potent and present in the city of Chicago,” Fleming said. “When we make progress in Chicago, it has the national significance that can help us to gain momentum to make change in other urban environments throughout the country.”

Mate said that RJI has other events tentatively planned over the next several months. He hopes that a broader conference on racial justice will be put on by the initiative in the fall.

Based on the success of Wednesday’s inaugural panel, Mate believes that launching an initiative like RJI was overdue.

“For a while now, the law school community has been wanting a space, some type of group or infrastructure that could address issues like the ones we’re addressing,” he said. “Given the turnout we saw at the event, I think that is proof that there has been this demand.”