Excited about opportunities for impact: Meet Assistant Dean, EDI, Ada Maxwell-Alleyne

While leading equity initiatives at the Law Society of Ontario, Ada Maxwell-Alleyne discovered that although lawyers are committed to pursuing equity, diversity and inclusion and upholding human rights, there is still work to be done to level the playing field in the profession and to address historic inequity.

“Structural barriers persist and continue to stall career advancement for lawyers from under-represented communities,” says Maxwell-Alleyne, JD, the new Assistant Dean, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

While she was able to put a number of excellent programs in place, “There is a perception that the profession is sufficiently diverse and that EDI initiatives are adjunct to the practice of law when in fact they ought to exist as core values of ethical and effective practice.”

While at the Law Society, Maxwell-Alleyne sought to address inequity in the profession through the profession itself but decided to take a different tack and join, more directly, the efforts at the front end in legal training to ensure that the next generation of lawyers embrace EDI as core values. 

“When the opportunity for this role at U of T Law came up, it seemed like the perfect moment,” she said. “It was a unique opportunity at a major educational institution in a role where I could have more direct impact and at a critical point of inflection. We are experiencing a moment in history when society has seen, up close, the effects of unaddressed historical and systemic racism.  The year 2020 was climate-altering with the murder of George Floyd, which had an impact far beyond Minneapolis; the discovery of unmarked residential school graves, which confirmed our worst fears and suspicions here at home; and the disproportionate damage COVID-19 inflicted on communities of colour. I think many people understand, in a way they may not have before, how high the stakes are when it comes to addressing inequities.”

Ada Maxwell-Alleyne

Maxwell-Alleyne’s commitment to equity stems not only from her experiences on the job, but from personal beliefs and circumstances. Growing up in rural New Brunswick as the daughter of a Ghanaian father and an Irish-Acadian mother, she and her four sisters were the only Black children in the area and “as children, we learned about exclusion, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes more explicitly.”

“The seeds were planted to explore these topics and turn this into a professional and personal passion, although I took a bit of a circuitous route to get here,” she says.

Maxwell-Alleyne earned her BA in French and social anthropology at Harvard and her MA in medical anthropology at U of T before returning to the East Coast to study law at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law. She articled at a national law firm in Toronto and then moved into policy work for a number of years before joining the Law Society and, subsequently, the Faculty of Law.

EDI Goals

Maxwell-Alleyne will be working with the Faculty to develop an EDI strategic plan: one that incorporates the social, academic and professional aspects of law school and that will support the goal of integrating EDI as a fundamental component of legal education and practice. Initially, however, she has three main goals: meeting and listening to students, engaging with faculty and ensuring an EDI lens is applied to processes at the law school.

“I want a chance to meet, speak with and listen to our students, especially those from equity-seeking communities,” she says. “I may have lots of ideas about useful resources and programming I could deploy, but it’s important to listen and learn about student priorities and experiences so we can determine what has worked, what hasn’t and what we should prioritize in trying to move the needle on EDI.”

“I’m also looking forward to meeting the faculty members at the law school. They are international thought leaders, and it will be powerful to collaborate with them to determine where they see opportunities to incorporate equity into the classroom and curriculum and how they can bring diverse perspectives to teaching. Both of these goals feed into the third, which is to incorporate EDI into every process at the law school – from social, to teaching to alumni interactions.”

Maxwell-Alleyne notes the recent upswell in hiring EDI leads across all sectors, and while this is a positive move, she emphasizes that the faculty is not weaving EDI into the fabric of the law school because it’s the trendy thing to do, but “because we want it to be part of lawyering. We want law students and the legal community to understand that you can’t serve the justice system or uphold the rule of law effectively without an EDI lens. This means we have to take a historical approach to understanding, for example, the way race and the justice system interact. We also have to take a hard look at ourselves and consider whether we, as individuals, play a role in replicating systems of power that exclude some and privilege others.”

For example, she welcomes the Faculty’s efforts to recruit more professors from underrepresented communities because “the more students see lawyers and leaders in the academy who look like them, the more it will enhance their feeling of belonging and demonstrate that the faculty values diversity. But more important, diverse faculty bring critical perspectives and lived experiences to the learning community.”

The Faculty of Law already has programs in place that Maxwell-Alleyne hopes to grow and strengthen, such as the EDI lecture series and anti-racism training. Other EDI efforts that receive high marks from her include the faculty’s mentoring programs, the Black Future Lawyers program and LAWS (Law in Action Within Schools). She also notes the law school’s commitment to Truth and Reconciliation and the programs developed through the Faculty’s Indigenous Initiatives Office (IIO).

“By dedicating resources and energy to these programs, we commit to inclusion,” Maxwell-Alleyne says. “Dean Brunnée is an incredible leader in this space and has demonstrated allyship and a commitment to exploring how EDI can be incorporated in innovative ways. This is so important because without that support from leadership, you can only go so far.”

EDI Opportunities

There are a myriad of opportunities when it comes to expanding the Faculty’s commitment to EDI, she notes. While there are the fundamental pieces like recruiting diverse students and faculty, there are other gestures which are also important: “providing financial support to equity-seeking student groups at the law school, ensuring invited scholars represent different communities, engaging with racialized alumni, even considering the types of social events we host – all of these activities can go a long way in fostering a culture of respect and belonging at the law school.”  

In the health and wellness arena, there are also opportunities to support students.

“Often the burden of educating our peers about historical oppression falls to those experiencing the impacts of racism, and we need to address this,” Maxwell-Alleyne says. “We should be proactive because fostering equity and dismantling racism is a shared responsibility. Individuals from equity-seeking communities shouldn’t always have to be the stewards, although that lived experience is important to shaping the dialogue. I want to support and assist students from marginalized and equity-seeking communities who feel that burden while navigating their own challenges. That includes guiding members of our community in accessing the Faculty’s suite of wellness resources.”

Community Contributions

The U of T Law community can contribute to EDI “by listening, participating and contextualizing equity within legal education and the practice of law,” Maxwell-Alleyne says. “Equity is a living concept that has an impact on how we train and practise, and it will impact the profession, the community and the clients we serve.”

“I hope students, faculty and staff see me and my office as a resource for all things equity. We want to provide anti-racism resources, education about allyship and tools for dealing with micro-aggressions. I want these pieces to be relevant to students while at law school but also when they are out in the world, practising law, teaching law and applying their legal training.”

She understands that EDI and equity discussions can be challenging or uncomfortable, and it’s important to approach them with an open mind.

“A key part of legal education is critical thinking. I believe it is important and necessary to be self-reflective and question the status quo. We want to encourage students at the Faculty to do just that. This supports the goal of making the law school community one of belonging and respect where everybody can thrive.”

By Elaine Smith | Originally published by the Faculty of Law