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Law school program aims to debunk myth that lack of diversity on Hawaiʻi courts is a pipeline issue

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A new leadership program at the University of Hawaiʻi William S. Richardson School of Law aims to increase diversity, inclusion, and representation among Hawaiʻi’s legal professionals.

This comes at a time when some have called for more diversity on Hawaiʻi’s courts. Others maintain the lack of representation is a pipeline issue.

When Camille Nelson became dean of the UH William S. Richardson School of Law, she made history as the first female to hold that position in the institution’s nearly 50 years.

But she never set out to break barriers, and at times she questioned the rarity of her accomplishment.

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University of Hawaiʻi William S. Richardson School of Law
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Island Leadership Lab Seminar flyer

"I’ve never seen a dean that looks like me. Have you not seen — I’m a Black woman who’s an immigrant from Jamaica. Some of us are never given that tap on the shoulder, hug or embrace to even think about the possibility of leading in some space. This is a chance for us to speak to that opportunity," she said.

Nelson partnered with Native Hawaiian attorney Noelani Kalipi to develop the Island Leadership Lab, a semester-long pilot project.

The goal is to encourage more women and minorities to think about pursuing options at the highest levels of the judiciary.

Kalipi says much of the curriculum and training focuses on dealing with difficult conversations, understanding personal triggers, and exploring various perspectives.

"Whether it’s the Kanaka Maoli perspective, the plantation perspective, just everything that makes Hawaiʻi, Hawaiʻi. So it’s not the typical class where this leader says this so this is what we should do. Much of the learning is going to be in the practical application. Let’s roleplay what this looks like. How do you deal with someone that’s very wedded to this particular position in this controversial situation and what questions might we ask to learn more about that?" Kalipi said.

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William S. Richardson School of Law
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Incoming 2019 class in front of the King Kamehameha statue at Aliʻiolani Hale, home to the Supreme Court of Hawaiʻi.

The program’s launch this fall comes as questions are raised about the lack of diverse representation on Hawaiʻi’s courts — both in terms of gender and ethnicity.

Nelson rejects the contention put forth by some that the problem is a lack of diverse candidates for judicial appointments.

"The typical rationale is that there’s just not qualified people. So this also aims to absolutely debunk that myth. And on the other hand to make sure that those who are there, are ready and more than equipped to take on those roles," Nelson said.

The program will also feature candid conversations with local and national leaders, including former Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Central Pacific Bank President Catherine Ngo, and former U.S. Attorney for Hawaiʻi Kenji Price.

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