Profiles in Practice: Val Jensen

Val-Jensen-400Whether she’s helping corporate managers develop a diversity plan, coaching employees about implicit bias, or teaching law students about race relations, Val Jensen’s message is clear: 

“To break down barriers, we need to get to know each other beyond the resume.”

As founder of Azon Consulting, Jensen works with businesses, non profits, and government entities, facilitating critical conversations about communicating across differences and what it means to be an ally. “The workplace in Minnesota is changing,” Jensen said. “Today we see more immigrants and people of color, plus different religious practices and sexual orientations. As a result, employers have a heightened awareness of issues around diversity and inclusion.”

For over 10 years, Jensen served as executive director of Twin Cities Diversity in Practice (TCDIP), an association of law firms and corporate law departments concentrating on recruitment, advancement, and retention of diverse lawyers in Minnesota. During her tenure, TCDIP conducted an attrition study which found two primary reasons why attorneys of color leave law firms: lack of access to meaningful work and social isolation. Jensen works with companies to prevent and address these problems. 

It starts with becoming conscious about bias. “We all have affinity bias for similarity,” Jensen said. “We prefer people who look like us, with similar backgrounds.” Similarities could include, for example, attending the same college or having children. Affinity bias is not conscious exclusion, Jensen explained. “We have busy lives, so we tend to do what’s easy and that is being with people of similar backgrounds.”

In addition to affinity bias, every organization has unwritten rules. An unwritten rule could be, for example, what constitutes appropriate attire for casual day, or whether being on time for a meeting actually means arriving early. “Who gets told the unwritten rules?” Jensen asked. “Often women and minorities are not included in the teaching of these rules. A lot of business and networking gets done in social settings. If you’re not invited to the social settings, you aren’t building those relationships and you aren’t fully understanding the environment. That can lead to social isolation at work.”

Creating an inclusive workplace does not have to be complicated or elaborate. “Start by being intentional about who you include on work teams and who you invite to coffee or to your cabin,” she suggested.

Jensen stresses that you can learn from someone who doesn’t look like you or seem to have anything in common. ”The people that have supported me the most typically have been white men,” said Jensen, who is a black woman. “Your mentor may not look like you but can still have a huge impact.” 

The late senator Paul Wellstone was one of Jensen’s mentors. As a professor at Carleton College, Jensen’s alma mater, he nominated her to represent students at a global conference in Washington DC. “I had never even been on a plane before,” she said. “I got to participate in this amazing event, and he made that happen for me.” 

Another mentor was retired Supreme Court Justice Alan Page. Jensen worked with Page as a staff attorney implementing the findings of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Racial Bias Task Force Report. “We were so different — he’s introverted and I’m the complete opposite,” she said. One day, she asked Page why he hired her, given their different personalities. “Justice Page said ‘I’ve found that to be a successful leader, I need people on my team who are not like me, that can fill the gaps,’” she said. “That was a great lesson to me. I try to surround myself with people who have skills or abilities that I may lack.”

Mitchell Hamline vice dean David Prince also had a significant influence on Jensen when she was the law school’s first associate dean for multicultural affairs. “He was my biggest champion,” she said. “He listened to me, advocated for me, and helped me navigate politics. He changed my career trajectory.” 

Jensen has stayed involved at Mitchell Hamline, where she teaches Race and the Law. “We’ve created a safe space where students can come with an open mind and a critical eye,” she said. Over the 12 years she has taught the course, she has noticed a change in classroom conversations. “Students today are less hopeful about race relations,” she said. “They are more polarized.”

In addition to teaching, Jensen invests in young people in other ways. She serves on the board of the Washburn Center for Children, a nonprofit mental health center in Minneapolis. Jensen also supports an orphanage in Africa. She created an association in her parents’ names to improve education and healthcare in grassroots communities. “My parents adopted me and our family had foster kids,” she said. “My parents taught me about giving back.” 

In her free time, Jensen enjoys being with her grandchildren. “We like to bake together,” she said. Jensen likes to cook and plans to make a feast at Thanksgiving. “I make food steeped in African-American tradition: collard greens, homemade macaroni and cheese, and sweet potato pie.” 

Traveling is another of Jensen’s interests. Her favorite destination is Togo, West Africa, her husband’s birth country. “Africa is about personal connection and building relationships,” she said. “Things are done face-to-face and the pace of life is different.” She hopes to eventually retire to Togo.

But for now, her focus is enhancing diversity and inclusion in Minnesota. “Think about the last person you had coffee with. Was that person different or outside your comfort zone?” Jensen asked. “If not, invite someone to coffee that is different from your normal coffee date. That’s what inclusion is.”

By Lisa Buck

Ms. Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law before a family relocation to the East Coast. Since returning to Minnesota, Buck contributes to the Hennepin Lawyer and serves on the board of the Hennepin County Law Library. She is also a coach of a local high school speech team.