Sitting in orientation at the University of Calgary at the beginning of her first year of law school, Bety Tesfay thought to herself, “Oh, my goodness, there is only going to be one of me.” This realization hit her as she thought about how long it would take for people of colour to move up into positions of power.
Tesfay began to notice this underrepresentation even more during her class discussions. She felt there was a lack of diversity in opinions and perspectives and that it was difficult to share her perspective as one student out of 100.
But, having been born and raised in Ethiopia, she was alarmed at that difficulty. And now she wants to take action to change that by promoting accurate representation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in the legal system.
Tesfay says, in Ethiopia, there was nothing abnormal about Black people being in power. Her doctor was Black, her teachers were Black, the president was Black. Her own parents were accountants. Because of this representation, she could see herself represented in positions of power.
“I saw it and there was never a question of what I can or cannot do based on what race, due to lack of representation, because there was representation everywhere,” she says.
When Tesfay was 16, her family moved to Canada so that she and her siblings could pursue a better education. Her mother also had family in Canada so they wanted to be closer to them.
Tesfay completed a combined undergraduate degree in business and sociology at the U of C. It was only during her first year of law and policy studies, after completing five years of her undergrad degree, that she found herself sitting in class as a minority because of the colour of her skin.
Tesfay thought to herself about how long it would take for people of colour to get into positions of power if she was the only Black student in her year.
“If there is that underrepresentation in law school, then you will see that underrepresentation reflected in lawyers and judges.”
Tesfay says that a lack of representation means some victims or individuals accused of crimes may not feel fully understood or heard. She believes people may not feel comfortable enough to talk to police if they don’t see themselves portrayed in these positions of power, leading to over representation of Black, Indigenous and other people of colour in prison.
Tesfay feels the effects of the lack of diversity personally.
“You feel very visible and invisible at the same time.”
To help change this, Tesfay volunteers for Student Legal Assistance, a non-profit organization that provides legal information and representation to low-income residents.
She has also helped to initiate change within the Faculty of Law at the U of C. Tesfay was the former vice president, now vice president of events, for the Calgary Black Law Students’ Association. She was part of a team of Black law students who submitted a “Calls to Action” in the spring of 2020, addressing systemic racism in law.
They spent many hours working on the changes they wanted to see. Their calls to action include targeted scholarships, anti-racism training and education and an admissions reform which the faculty has already implemented. They also want to see mentorship and support which is being facilitated with the Canadian Bar Association.
Tesfay describes the response from the faculty as positive and collaborative. She says they reached out right away.
Although the faculty have been very supportive and listening, Tesfay explains a long-term goal is to see more diversity among them.
Ultimately, Tesfay wants to see lawyers and anyone in positions of power, looking like the community they serve. Right now the problem is underrepresentation. What she wants to see is accurate representation.
At a broader level, she also wants more judges and lawyers to understand the people they are serving. Tesfay believes having judges and lawyers with different perspectives and experiences would help to provide more accurate representation. For example, a judge may better understand a victim’s situation if they more fully understand the cultural background from which they come from.
“What I want to see is the people who are in these roles, reflecting the community that they live in. That is the goal.”
*This story has been updated to clarify that Tesfay is the only Black student in her year, not the only person of colour.