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Winnie's Story

Winnie Hawkins on Social Justice and Leadership

Winnie Hawkins is a partner in the Tax Group at Kutak Rock. She is also co-chair of the firm’s National Inclusiveness and Diversity Committee (NIDC). “I’ve been co-chair of the committee since just before the pandemic hit. The violent deaths of Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others, some caught on camera and seen around the world, have shone a spotlight on the racial injustice and energized the Black Lives Matter movement,” she says. “Being co-chair in this environment has its advantages because more people are asking, ‘What can we do to eliminate systemic racism in our country? What can we do to create a more just society?'

NIDC Committee
I honestly think it’s a revolution in that we have reached a turning point. Now is the time to examine—and re-examine—our systems and structures, eliminate barriers and create equal opportunities for everyone. There is no more turning a blind eye to inequality.

“The firm’s progress advancing diversity and inclusiveness is only possible because of the commitment of the Executive Committee and the work of our NIDC staff who collect statistical data, implement training programs and so much more. I am thankful for the support from these groups. Our clients know that diversity is about more than hiring numbers. It is about developing attorneys over the course of their careers. That is the kind of inclusiveness Kutak Rock is committed to providing.”

In addition to her tax practice and co-chair responsibilities, Winnie has also become one of several facilitators for a new firmwide anti-racism program at Kutak Rock centered around psychologist and professor Dolly Chugh’s book, The Person You Mean to Be. “In preparation for that we had to learn how to facilitate. I don’t have facilitation experience, so our director of Inclusiveness and Diversity has provided practice sessions and tools to bring people back to the center after hearing an odd remark, and techniques to give everyone a voice.

“A number of learning moments have arisen during our book club discussions. Everyone has different and valuable perspectives.

I believe it is critical to educate yourself. Talk and listen to others.

“There are numerous books that can teach us about how to talk about these important issues, and what we can do to make a difference every single day. It’s not just the big things that create change. It’s really the small things we do every day that make a huge difference.

“Hopefully Dolly Chugh’s book will help people think about their role and responsibility to eliminate racism in our society and act intentionally. We can create a more inclusive environment that allows people to come to work and be comfortable with who they are and not try to fit into another person’s mold of what they ‘should’ sound like, act like or look like.”

Diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace weren’t always issues Winnie felt comfortable tackling. “When I started at the firm directly out of law school, I realized I needed to focus on my practice, so there was a period of time when I was simply a supporter of inclusiveness, diversity, and engagement initiatives and not a leader.

"I wanted to prove myself as a hard-working and competent attorney within the firm to build trust among my colleagues. Then I could start contributing more time to areas outside of my practice.

“One of the best experiences I had when I initially stepped beyond the Tax Credit world was as co-chair of the Professional Development Committee during its inaugural year. That experience allowed me to lead an amazing group of individuals committed to bringing people up. I also had the chance to introduce myself to firm leadership. I first wanted exposure within the firm that wasn’t specifically diversity-related, so people saw me as more than just a minority person working on diversity initiatives.

“At the end of my term as co-chair of the NIDC, I want the firm to look like it does today: diligent, smart, accepting. Eliminating more and more of the barriers in our systems."

I see Kutak Rock becoming a recognized leader in the anti-racism movement among law firms.

“We can achieve the three-year strategic goals we put in place, even though there are some lofty ones. It is going to be a lot of work to move the goals and tactics forward, and it takes everyone, from bottom to top. It is not a check-the-box exercise. It is not a top-down directive. As I said before, it is the everyday actions and decisions of every member of our firm that will bring us forward to meet our goals.”

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