An Interview with Nolan N. Atkinson Jr., PDLG Founder

The Legal Intelligencer

Philadelphia Diversity Law Group (PDLG) founder Nolan N. Atkinson Jr. is serving in an historic role as Philadelphia's inaugural chief diversity and inclusion officer. Atkinson reports directly to Mayor Jim Kenney on diversity and inclusion issues, specifically addressing the barriers that keep the city's workforce ­racially and economically divided.

In office for just about five months, Atkinson took time to share his observations about diversity in the business community and workforce, his perspectives about the state of race relations, and his vision for a more diverse and inclusive Philadelphia.

Atkinson is a founder and a former chair of the PDLG, a consortium of law firms and corporations committed to increasing diversity in Philadelphia's legal profession. Atkinson has received significant recognition for his work in diversity and inclusion, having successfully petitioned to have his great-grandfather, George Boyer Vashon, posthumously admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar, a right he was refused in 1847 due to racial discrimination.

Q: Mayor Kenney named you as the city's first chief diversity and inclusion ­officer. What was his charge to you?

A: Mayor Kenney is committed to ­building a government that mirrors the diversity of the city. Recognizing that Philadelphia is diverse, made up of people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds; persons seeking gender equality; persons with disabilities who want to be recognized as full, contributing members of our city; citizens who want to be recognized for their gender identity and/or their sexual orientation; immigrants whose native tongue is not English and other differences among all of us too numerous to list. My charge was to build an office that would advocate for a broad-based policy of inclusion throughout the government as a top priority.

However, the mayor's vision goes beyond the mere ­diversity of the city government. In order for Philadelphia to be world class, the city must partner with institutions in the ­private sector that are committed to alleviating the high levels of poverty and unemployment that engulf far too many of our citizens. Government institutions must adapt to a changing and more challenging world by ­becoming more inclusive of populations that have not benefited from the growing economy.

The mayor's Office of Diversity and Inclusion has been tasked with being a full participant in this effort. Government, like the private sector, has come to realize that diversity and inclusion must be intrinsic to its function and delivery of services and information to its citizenry.

Q: Why is diversity and inclusion a priority for this administration?

A: Philadelphia is a very diverse city with a vibrant immigrant community. Demographically we are 41 percent black, 36 percent white, 14 percent Latino, and 7 percent Asian. But as vibrant as our diversity, we are not as inclusive as these numbers reveal.

Philadelphia has one of the highest rates of poverty of any major city in the United States. And while there are segments of our residents who are doing quite well, indicative of the changing faces of many of our neighborhoods, there is a significant number of Philadelphians for whom the ­notion of shared prosperity remains elusive. As the mayor has said on numerous occasions, the city of Philadelphia has to be a city that works for everyone and in every zip code. Being more diverse and inclusive widens the pool of talent and makes for a more efficient and successful government—it's win-win for everybody.

With this as a mandate, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion is looking at ways to make city government more inclusive in workforce development, how we spend our city dollars in government contracts and how we invest our tax dollars. We are five months into this administration and we are in the crux of our evaluation phase.

Q: What is the state of diversity and inclusion in the city government? In the private sector?

A: One of the things we do know is that in city government, we are not living up to our potential with regard to recruiting and retaining a talented diverse and inclusive pool of senior-level employees. This ­administration is cognizant of this disparity and is making strides to look at ways to make a more equitable workforce. To Mayor Kenney's credit, 55 percent of his top appointees have been women.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion is looking at what factors may be barriers to being as inclusive as we might be. For instance, what role do civil service regulations play in this dynamic. To that end, the city and a foundation will be doing a detailed study of our Civil Service rules and regulations to assess whether certain ­provisions may be a cause of a lack of diversity in certain departments of the government.

Additionally, since January, we have been busily engaged in researching the diversity metrics of the city's exempt workforce ­including upper-level management positions. We are in the process of gathering as much objective data, i.e., race and gender, that is available and determining whether there is data that should be added to the existing database. We are also ­reviewing the state of diversity on boards and commissions. Most important, the city is committed to publishing a ­document available to the public which provides understandable information regarding the state of diversity within the workforce.

Historically, the public sector has led in the movement to ensure the creation of a diverse workforce. The private sector has followed the public sector's lead, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is a successful business model that contributes to market growth. In many instances companies such as Wal-Mart and Microsoft have been leaders in establishing innovative and meaningful diversity programs. On the other hand, there are many others that are very far behind. Because of the changing face of America and the fact that in a few short years, the majority of this nation will be populated by people of color, there will have to be a new urgency in fostering throughout the private-sector programs for diversity and inclusion.

Q: Although the numbers might suggest that minority, women and disabled owned (M/W/DBE) business enterprises are "awarded" a reasonable percentage of city business, we have been advised that ­numbers can get skewed. That is, it has been alleged M/W/DBE businesses only receive a fraction of the proceeds that were allegedly "awarded" to M/W/DBE? Have you found this to be true?

A: I rely on the numbers that have been reported in the Office of Economic Opportunities Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2015. This report is a public ­document and is readily available for review. The OEO reported that $302.8 million was awarded to M/W/DBEs. This represents 30 percent of all contracts awarded by the city. But we can do better and we're working with the Commerce Department and OEO to make improvements. Challenges persist in regards to enforcing these participation levels throughout the duration of contracts. Part of the work we are doing is assessing all of our enforcement options to be sure that diversity levels remain consistent from start to finish in our contracting.

We do have greater representation of M/W/DBEs as subcontractors as opposed to prime contractors. We're looking at what are the processes and technical assistance we can offer to help these companies build capacity so that they can become prime contractors in the future.

Once again, we think assisting ­subcontractors in capacity building is one way for more minority contractors to successfully bid as primary contractors. We are also optimistic about the mayor's budget for FY2017 that would provide resources for improvements to our libraries, parks and recreation centers. Minority participation will certainly be part of our project labor agreements.

Q: Have you observed any change in the state of race relations since you started practicing law?

A: When I first began practicing law, there were very limited opportunities for ­minority lawyers beyond small office practice. The opportunity for an African-American to lead the American Bar Association or even the Philadelphia Bar Association was still years away. While Civil Rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 was fresh on the books, there were no diversity programs in the legal profession. But there have also been significant changes. Many of these changes have been led by the enforcement of federal legislation by the courts. The rise of people of color in municipal government has also had a positive impact on race relations in most cities. Minorities today have significantly more opportunities than when I began practicing law. These changes have resulted from the enforcement of the laws by the courts followed by the creation of diversity programs, especially in the private sector. The end result has been more ­opportunity. However, the fact that so many people of color are at the bottom of the economic ladder challenges all leaders to continue to find new ways and programs for positive change.

Q: In your opinion, what are the impediments to progress? What has helped?

A: Probably the biggest impediment to progress is the persistence of poverty in our city. There are two ways to attack this—jobs and education, and these remain the top priorities of this administration.

On a more granular level, conscious and unconscious bias in our daily interaction can impede progress. Most of the bias is implicit—thoughts for which we are not even aware, but very much drive behaviors. Frequently, these thoughts differ from what we consciously believe and support. All of us have bias—it is a part of how we are "wired." However, the research says that these thoughts and ideas that have been stored into our subconscious since the first time we turned on the television or read a newspaper most significantly impact minority groups. Each of us in our own way must consciously pause before acting. By doing this, we challenge ourselves not to act based upon our "gut" which is largely our unconscious; but to think about what is the best course to take. By deliberately thinking before acting we increase the likelihood of overcoming biases.

Q: On June 22, PDLG will honor your substantial contributions to the Philadelphia legal community and commitment to diversity and inclusion in the profession at the annual summer reception for its ­fellows. But what can ordinary citizens do to help advance our city's goal to improve diversity and inclusion within the Greater Philadelphia area?

A: First of all, we are all diverse, that's simply a fact of who we are. But to be inclusive, we have to unpack the various lenses of our subconscious biases. To be inclusive is a conscious decision that we make to eliminate the barriers that stand in the way of equity and fairness. Institutions committed to diversity and inclusion must help create safe spaces to express ­constructive thoughts and talk through tough viewpoints. Further, institutions and individuals must work and learn to appreciate all backgrounds and views in their professional, personal and civic lives.

Sophia Lee is a partner at Blank Rome in Philadelphia. She concentrates her litigation practice in the energy industry, handling commercial, environmental, products liability, and toxic tort matters. Stella M. Tsai is a business litigation partner in the Philadelphia office of Archer & Greiner, with a practice concentrating in regulatory compliance and ethics.

“An Interview with Nolan N. Atkinson Jr., PDLG Founder,” by Sophia Lee and Stella M. Tsai was published in The Legal Intelligencer on June 10, 2016. Please click here to read the article online.

Reprinted with permission from the June 13, 2016, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2016 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. For information, contact or visit