Ohio State Bar Foundation donates $500,000 to advance racial justice

Erica Thompson
The Columbus Dispatch
Desiree Tims is president and CEO of Innovation Ohio, a think tank and political advocacy organization. The organization's education fund is one of the recipients of the Ohio State Bar Foundation's Racial Justice Initiative.

After the city erupted in protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor participated in a video documenting the damage to the court building.

“As disheartened as I was about what happened to our building, I'm equally as disheartened that people in this state feel disenfranchised, and the treatment that they receive is unfair across all of our institutions," said O’Connor. “I can understand the outrage.”

O’Connor continued to speak out about systemic racism, and she pushed for a statewide sentencing database to track racial fairness in the criminal justice system.

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Her words had a profound impact on people in the legal field, including Lori Keating, executive director of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

“I think she speaks for most attorneys in Ohio,” said Keating, 48, of Galloway, Ohio. “I think it gave us permission to say, ‘Hey, this is systemic racism. This isn’t up for debate.'”

With that in mind, the Ohio State Bar Foundation established the Racial Justice Initiative to provide $500,000 in grant funding to projects that “identify, address and challenge systemic racism which hinders the pursuit of justice and public understanding of the rule of law for historically marginalized communities of color in Ohio.”

While the foundation has already awarded several grantees since 2020, nearly $100,000 remains, and Keating hopes to add more. Organizations across the state are encouraged to apply by March 4, 2022. More information can be found at osbf.org/racialjustice.

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“This aligns with our mission, which is to educate the public on the rule of law and build a better justice system,” Keating said. “We're a group of lawyers and we argue about everything, but when the vote came up for this, it was something we all easily agreed to.”

Keating said the foundation is especially excited about projects that can be replicated across the state.

The Racial Justice Initiative has supported programs like the University of Cincinnati College of Law’s Ohio Innocence Project, Case Western Reserve University’s School of Law Racial Justice Fellowships and the Kirwan Institute’s Opportunity Map for Inclusion.

The initiative also provided a $50,000 grant to the Innovation Ohio Education Fund’s Justice Agenda for Black Women and Girls in Ohio.

The project will examine how systemic racism within the criminal justice system impacts Black women and girls, and identify legislative solutions.

“So often Black women and girls are left out of the conversation when we talk about criminal justice reform,” said Desiree Tims, president and CEO of Innovation Ohio, a think tank and political advocacy organization based in Columbus. “Unfortunately, we're seeing more and more Black girls who are getting entangled with the criminal justice system and suspended for issues that are irrelevant to the classroom. When we push girls out of the school system, they turn to some of the same things that boys turn to. But often, Black girls get caught up in human trafficking.”

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Tims also is passionate about providing resources to teachers, parents and mentors to support Black girls and women. The grant may also help other groups interested in serving the demographic.

“Maybe it's some mamas in Cleveland or some sisters in Cincinnati who really care about this issue,” she said Tims, 34, of Downtown Columbus. “How do we bring them together and create this working group so that they, too, can advocate for the bills that they need at the Statehouse?”

Tims underscored the importance of the Racial Justice Initiative.

“It's often really hard to get funding for things like this," she said. “After the George Floyd moment—I'm not going call it a movement—all these corporations said they were going fund Black-led organizations, and it just went away. The Ohio State Bar Foundation is really walking the walk. We need funding for capacity for staff to be able to do this work.”

The Racial Justice Initiative also awarded two grants totaling $35,000 to the Health Policy Institute of Ohio for its research on the connection between racism in the criminal justice system and the health and well-being of Ohioans of color.

The Columbus-based nonprofit has developed briefs laying out its findings, as well as policy options to close the gaps. 

"I just think it's so critically important that organizations like ours are looking at the impacts of structural racism across the spectrum," said Hailey Akah, 30, of Clintonville, who is a senior health policy analyst with the institute. "We're so thankful that the Ohio State Bar Foundation chose to invest in policy research and impacting policy change because when we're talking about systemic racism, policy change at a systemic level is a really critical way to address it."

According to Keating, the Ohio State Bar Foundation is the largest of its kind in the country, and its singular Racial Justice Initiative may serve as a model for other foundations interested in doing similar work.

“We give money for organizations to do something outside of their normal operating budget,” she said. “We really give them the opportunity to innovate. We realize we don’t have the answers. We said, ‘Hey, who’s working on this, who’s boots on the ground, and what can they try?’”