On this week’s episode of Lawline's Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle interviews Wendy Star, an employment and labor law attorney and the Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Wendy shares her journey of individual advocacy before ultimately shifting her career to raise her impact on a more systemic level. She highlights how she leverages connectivity in diversity and inclusion work and why it is crucial to any organization's overall success. Listen to the full interview or read highlights of the interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
Interview with Wendy Star
Monday Morning Coffee
I think my favorite moment has been making my coffee this morning. I have to say, it has been my most amazing moment. I found some cold brew in the fridge that I did not remember I had, so I got to get an extra special Monday morning coffee this morning. I usually like hot coffee in the morning if I'm starting out, but if I have something special, that's really strong. I'm pretty happy about it.
On Her Law Experience
Women’s Studies to Criminal Defense to Diversity and Inclusion
Been a journey for sure. I didn't always think I would do diversity and inclusion work. In fact, I don't think diversity and inclusion work was a thing or something that we really knew about, even though people were doing it in so many different facets of their life.
But I did know that I wanted to help people throughout my job. And I wanted to advocate for people in my career. And I look back, I started as a women's studies major in college and for my senior thesis, I did something a bit unusual where I did a breast cancer research benefit through a dance performance. You know, now I look back at it and it's kind of been a little bit full circle, because now I'm doing various events, cultural celebrations to uplift different issues and to really bring people together in a different way.
But I did start off doing criminal defense work for, uh, the Legal Aid Society and then moved into labor law work. So it's been an experience of trying to figure out how I can be the most effective, how can I be a voice for people, and how can I connect people so that they can do what they need to do in their lives.
I originally wanted to work with prisoner rights, which is a very difficult niche role that very few people work with. And so then I decided, well, criminal defense will be able to help me. And so I worked very hard to wait until there was a budget and get hired at the Legal Aid Society of Manhattan. And that was my first legal position and it was an amazing experience.
I think it's changed all of my experiences since then. I was only there for maybe three and a half years, but I think it taught me how to be able to speak to anyone. How to be able to really feel comfortable and see people and acknowledge them and be there for them. And I think that's basically been sort of the thread that has helped me succeed in my career, even here at the fire department.
On Her Most Valuable Skill from Criminal Defense Work
Being Able to Speak to Anyone and Building Relationships
Yeah. You know, I think what it looks like is that people generally wanna be seen. So it's very much like, what did you do today? How are you today? Or even just being able to relate to someone as far as what their job duties are, like, what do you do? How do you do that? What matters for you as far as getting your job done? Or getting to know someone who might be, let's say a mechanic in the field. Well, what did it take to get to that position? How did you learn that? How do you see yourself helping the department? And so I think it's just really about seeing people and being able to ask them about their lives, about their jobs and acknowledging the contribution that they're making every day to the fire department, to New York City, to our community. So I try to keep that in mind in my interactions.
When you're a young public defender, you have to speak to everyone. You have no choice in order to really be good at the job. You have to speak to many, many different types of people, especially in New York City, right? If that's where you're doing that role. And so you're thrown into that, you know, you're in court, you're in arraignments. You have a very short amount of time to really get to know someone's story and to get the information that you need so that you can advocate for them. So you really have no choice, but to figure out a way to relate to people so that they trust you and that they tell you what you need to know so that you can do your job for them.
And I think figuring out that, figuring out how am I gonna be relatable to someone in a very different position? You know, I might look very different from them. I'm in a very different position of authority than them. How can I relate? So then I'm going to build trust in a very short amount of time so that I can get the information that I need so that I can do a good job for this person. I think figuring that out has been a skill that's helped me in my life, in my personal life, in my professional life since. And I don't think it's something that you anticipate you're gonna be doing, not what you realize is gonna be the skill that you're growing. But I think having looked back at that time in my life, it's definitely the skill that was the most valuable that I learned in that position. Not trial work, not how to cross-examine, not how to do direct examinations. But really the skill of how do I build a relationship quickly with someone so that there's some type of trust there so that I can get the job done that I need for that person.
On Facilitating Meaningful Relationships with Clients
Give People the Space to Share to Build Trust
I mean obviously knowing your case is helpful, right? Knowing whatever facts you have and evidence you have going into it helps cause then you're prepared. And from a public defender standpoint, there wasn't much that you knew ahead of time, but you read what you could, that they gave you ahead of time. From a labor law perspective, there was more that you could do to prepare before meeting people. But definitely, knowing what you have and having reviewed the documents is important.
Then I think, within reason with boundaries, giving people the opportunity to tell you their story and what they want you to know. Whether or not you think, well, that's not really gonna be helpful for me in the case. I really think it's important to give people the space to share what they think they need to share to build that trust. And, you know, maybe you'll be surprised. Maybe some of what they tell you later on will become significant months down when you're putting together a closing or an opening statement in a trial or a hearing. Or in some type of messaging material or whatever you're doing. Maybe something they said in that first meeting that you were thinking wasn't particularly that important at the time might come to you. So I do think it is important to hold the space for someone to give you their story.
But on a day to day basis, I think it's more just being kind and friendly, honestly, for lack of a better way to put it. I'm not a particularly chatty person, but I think I'm direct and I'm kind and friendly. And that helps, right? I'm gonna say, how was your weekend? Make a joke, whatever personable things that you can do to show someone that you're there and you know they're there, I think helps build that trust and that relationship.
On Her Journey to FDNY
Wanted to Switch Her Impact from Individual Advocacy to a Systemic Level
I loved practicing labor law. Just to put it out there, I really enjoyed it. I worked for New York State United Teachers where I represented teachers and other school-related professionals and unions. And that work was very wonderful for a lot of reasons. But I really got to a point where I felt that my love of other things that I felt I could do to make bigger changes wasn't being utilized. I wanted to switch from sort of individual advocacy, for individual people to thinking of things on a more systematic level.
And, you know, I wasn't sure what that would be for some time. I started researching what types of careers are there out there? There's policy making that we hear a lot about. There's a legislative council, there's executive directors of different groups. And then the more I researched and the more I went to various events, I realized that diversity, equity, and inclusion is really an opening field that holds keys to being able to do a lot of different things.
Things that I really loved and felt that I was good at like connecting people. Showcasing people's stories, doing restorative work that's different than courtroom work. And so it just was a field that people are doing in so many very exciting ways that I felt I could be a real asset to that work. So I started looking at where I wanna do that and how? And I was very excited to meet the former Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at the fire department who's doing that work and explore the opportunity to do it here. And so now I've been here a little over three years and it's just, it's been an amazing experience to be able to bring to the fire department. Different ways to expand and become more inclusive.
On Inclusion Initiatives at FDNY
Policy Work, Cultural Celebrations, and Acknowledgement Ceremonies
Well, we have a lot of exciting things happening here at the fire department. We have one of the most diverse classes coming in ever. And from a diversity standpoint, we've been really expanding each probationary class.
But from an inclusion perspective, we have over 40 affiliated organizations, which are our employee resource groups or affinity groups. And they've been really expanding and we support them all the time through various cultural celebrations, through award and acknowledgement ceremonies. We just had a women's history month award, where we acknowledged various people throughout the department, including the United Women Firefighters Association which represents our female firefighters, as well as the Women's Benevolent Association, which represents firefighters and EMS. And so we have been through a messaging campaign through our awards and ceremony celebrations really uplifting the women of the department, as well as you know, many other diverse categories.
It's very exciting. There's 134 women, female firefighters at this juncture give or take, you know, depending on the daily changes.
This September is the 40 year anniversary of the United Women's Firefighters Association and women coming into the department. And we do see an uptick and because with those 134, comes assistance with recruiting and people seeing themselves, you know, and representation matters. So they're showing people in the community that women can do this work. If you're interested, they'll help you. They'll help you train. They'll help you learn how to do it so that you're successful. So that's been great. You know, with increased numbers comes support, encouragement, community involvement, recruitment, social media representation. And so it's been very exciting.
The other thing is all the changes that go along with that. I mean, when I first came here, one of the first things I did was assist with our lactation policy, so that we made sure that women throughout the fire service had a place. An opportunity to express breast milk if they needed to. And so there's all kinds of things that, you know, follow as you become more inclusive of an agency and that's been really rewarding and fun to work on.
On Fostering Relationships with Affiliate Organizations
Consistent Listening, Communication, and Support
Right. There's a lot of different groups and we are so lucky to have great relationships with a lot of that leadership. But some of them have been in existence 50 years and so they're long-standing groups. Some of them have been around for a really long time and some of them are newer. I think we continue the relationship through very regular meetings and communication with those groups, really supporting the groups and also trying to integrate them in a lot of things that we do here.
For example, I work closely with the community affairs unit. And then oftentimes we also loop in our affiliated organization to work with the community affairs unit to hold, let's say, various round tables in the community, whether that's to focus on religious diversity, whether it's to focus on fire safety. But we really rely heavily on the affiliated organizations and their leadership to help us hear what the membership needs and to hear how we can help them in the community. And so it's just very much regular communication. They also help us a lot of times as our sound board for training. We put together a lot of diversity and inclusion training, and the affiliated organizations may be able to tell us, you know, this issue's coming up or I think that this type of training would be helpful.
We have one, for example, that is really integral in helping with our LGBTQ training. And we're in the process now of updating some of that training and their input is invaluable. So we work with them on a lot of our initiatives besides just events and community affairs, but also on training and education materials.
One thing I've learned about the fire department, which I think is a little different than other places, is that firefighters, EMS, you know, the servants that are serving the city are so active. These are people who are EMS on the streets every day and then have decided that they're going to, let's say, collect toys for Ronald McDonald House in their spare time. Or they're going to give out donations during difficult times in Chinatown. Like these are very active people who have decided that in their own free time, they're going to run sports groups for good causes. So I think it's easy in some ways to want to continue to communicate with the affiliated organization leadership, because they're so active and they're doing amazing things in their community, outside of their already amazing work that they're doing, keeping New York City safe. And I'm here to help support them and uplift those various events and also to help the rest of the agency learn about the various cultures. And the affiliated organizations help us do that.
On Supporting the Work of Affiliate Organizations
Attending and Hosting Cultural Events
There's two different things that happen as far as support. One, we may join. Often our team may go to, let's say The Phoenix Society, which is our Asian Pacific American group, may have a Lunar New Year celebration and we'll help support that through funding as well as through event planning and then by going and participating and letting people know and letting other city partners know about it. So that's one way.
And then the other way is that we'll hold those celebrations. And so we'll have a lunch that we'll plan with the affiliated organization where we have an educational component. Whether that's a speaker or a dance or a cultural aspect of that celebration so that people in the community can learn more and people in FDNY can learn more about that particular cultural celebration. So we'll also plan it so that people can know.
On Representation and Education
Uplifting Every Member of the Fire Department
We have an FDNY internal publication that we write content for. And so we may, for example, for Black History Month, we wrote an article about notable African American achievements at the fire department. And so we'll work with the affiliated organizations to make sure that the history is out in our messaging, as well as in our publications.
We have various contests for Women's History Month and Black History Month, but we'll create questions and answers and have quizzes. There's small prizes for people who answer first and get all the answers right. We're constantly trying to come up with different ways that we can educate and uplift the experiences of people throughout the fire department. Through, you know, all kinds of means whether it's events, whether it's policy, which is very important. Whether it's messaging itself, “We Are FDNY” campaign, which is a poster that comes out each year that showcases various diverse faces of the department with a code that then you can read people's stories and we're about to put out number three.
And so through those different types of avenues, whether it's working with EEO and the legal department on actual policy, whether it's drafting articles on particular content or whether it's creating initiatives and events, our goal is to continue to uplift and educate the department about everyone that's here.
On Listening to Employee Feedback
Creating Events, Measuring Engagement, and Being Able to Pivot
Metrics are always complicated when it comes to diversity and inclusion work. And I think it's something, especially with inclusion, right? Diversity metrics are easier. I think it's something that we're always really strategizing on and something that we've been revamping actually recently is how do we know what's the most well received? And I think we've been doing that through a lot of conversations for the most part, through relationship building and through conversations, what receives the most responses? What do people go to? What do people seem to like, what are people enthusiastic about? That's really been the best data, but then we also have different evaluations that we'll use for trainings that we're always reviewing. You know, when it comes to events, you can kind of see how excited are people about it? What do they wanna do? So we've been trying to revamp some of our initiatives based on what people are interested in.
For example, we did a Black History Month contest in February, where we had quizzes and we've done that every year. And for some reason, this year we had so many responses from a very diverse group of people. And then we decided, you know what, we need to do a Women's History Month one then, like the word is getting out. People are interested in it. And the questions were not easy. You know, they took time to figure out the answers to these questions. You needed to research. It wasn't ones that you would automatically know because it was general Women's History Month trivia, and it was also FDNY women's trivia. So then we decided to do that one too, because we had such a good showing.
And so it's also constantly being open and flexible. Maybe there's something to pivot to that's better received. That's been something I've been really learning to do over time in this position.
I think we have made some relationships that helped get the word out to a larger audience over the past year. I think that in the fire department, there's a real challenge in getting information out to the field. There's so many firehouses. There's so many EMS stations. So it's a challenge to get the information outside of the civilian workforce. And I think we worked really hard to do that on these initiatives and it showed. It helped with getting the responses and it just goes to show, we have to continue to really push to get the word out to the field, through the various outlets, through word of mouth, through getting 'em to the captains and the chiefs and the different department orders. And I think that made the difference.
On Policy Work at FDNY
Working with Other Offices to Ensure Inclusivity
We have an equal employment opportunity office that's separate from the diversity and inclusion office. Sometimes they're intertwined and we also have a human resources office. There's various offices that work together and some policy we overlap on. And so we each have input on it.
For example, that lactation policy is one case that we all took a stab at and reviewed and went through and made sure that there were managerial guidelines that came out. And so there's been a lot of different policies that we look at with respect to that, whether it's accommodation, disability access, there's grooming, you know, there's quite a few different policies that we're asked to review that we can give input on and make sure that it's from a D&I lens and it's as inclusive as possible.
On Being a Certified Restorative Circle Keeper
Creating a Safe Space and Building Community
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to become trained in circle keeping, which is a restorative justice initiative that has been around for a really long time. Doing things in circles is a Native American origin process by which people share in a circle. And it's used for community building, conflict resolution, and it's a real specific process in which the circle itself holds space for people that are part of the process.
And you can learn how to do this through the Center for Creative Conflict Resolution with the city. They actually help their city partners use circles in order to deal with conflict resolution in order to create community. And we learned through them. And then I also went to an agency called Planning Change and got certified.
Schools in New York City use a lot of this restorative work. And it's basically the concept that we're gonna sit in a circle, and it's to listen, to know, and share to be known. And so it's all from your own personal experience, there's no like cross talk. There's no advice given it's all from your personal experience. And there's a circle keeper who facilitates that, but the difference from other types of work is that you're part of the circle as well. You know, you're not facilitating like you are the judge, you are part of that process. You are engaging in the process. You might be helping to model because you're the circle keeper. You might be able to help model the shared behavior, the shared acknowledgment of what people are saying, and you can hold circles on all different types of issues. And New York city holds a lot of circles. It's a real way to community build and try to create a safe space for people to share what they need to.
Maybe two people could be a circle. Well, first, you know, there's some ground rules. And so we would discuss those, which is confidentiality. That everything stays within the space, speak from the eye. So we would go over the ground rules of particular circle keeping, and then you usually start off with a few different prompts. So you're not going right into the prompt itself, but it could be something like, well this is a funny one, but like ones that you can do often, and that I actually do with my children often is, you know what let's say, you're gonna look at the past month of your work. And you might say, what is the rose, the bud, and the thorn of your work?
And so this is like one that you can do if you're trying to, not necessarily for conflict resolution, which there would be much more, you know, focused prompts, but let's say you wanna build community among a team. You could say, like from this particular project, what was the rose, what was something that really stood out that was very exciting for you? What was the thorn, you know, what was the big obstacle? What was the challenge? What was something that you had to work on? And then the bud would be, what are you looking forward to? And so you would do each one, one question and then each person would answer to it and they don't have to answer. You can pass. That's big and the amazing thing is that it equals the playing field, right? Everyone has their opportunity to speak. It's not by hierarchy. It's not by who's running the meeting or who's the executive director. Everyone has the same opportunity to answer to the particular question. So it really evens out.
The circle's an amazing process. You could even do it just running meetings as a check-in. How was your day today? You pass it to someone else, you pass it to someone else, and on. Virtually, you avoid both people trying to speak at the same time. Cause they're gonna pass to someone else. So you can use it in smaller ways and bigger ways. There are so many avenues for team building.
We really wanted to bring it to the FDNY, and to try to think about how to have those difficult conversations in a circle. And so I was approached at, you know, if I had interest in learning it and I was very excited to do it. So it's been a great new tool to get people talking.
And I feel like even if I'm not in a circle, I always have the various tools that I learned from becoming a circle keeper. You know, with me, making sure everyone in the room has an opportunity to speak at a meeting. You know, those types of things, even if we're not doing it in a circle, is really important. And so I'm mindful of those things now.
You can do it in stages, right? Like you can have an opening check in. We're not going right into the heart of like the difficult conversation. So the concepts that you learn in sort of restorative practices can really help in general meetings.
If you're doing it with a team, you can start small and just begin to build the circle each week, or however often you meet, and then everyone will start to feel much more comfortable with each other, and then you can build in deeper, bigger, more controversial topics. But it's definitely a tool if you wanna build psychological safety among your team and get people to know each other, it's an amazing tool to use.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Transparency, Respect, and Vulnerability
Leadership in the law means to be the most upfront, upstanding, and compassionate individual that you can be in your role. And they say that the most difficult person to lead is yourself. And I truly believe that. And so to me, leadership means using the law and really handling yourself as a leader.
It's really important for people that are in a position where they're representing other individuals or companies, or whatever you're doing in your legal capacity, where you're helping other people to be as direct and transparent as you can.
Respectful, professional, and responsible as you know how to be in your role. Which may mean being vulnerable to what you don't know? It means being humble to what you're still learning. And to being as respectful to the people that help get the work done. Whether that's the investigators or the social workers or the paralegals or all of those people that help get the work done. That's what I mean when I say that.
On What She Would Improve About the Legal Industry
We Should Prioritize Higher Compensation for Public Interest Work
There's a lot of things I would like to improve about the legal industry. This is really like a dream now.
I think the people that are doing the public interest work, you know, that are really on the ground. The federal defenders, the public defenders, those civil rights workers. They need to make a living wage. They need to be on par with other lawyers. And so I would really rethink where we are putting our priorities as far as the finance part of our legal compensation.
On What People Misunderstand About Her Work
Diversity Isn't Just About Doing the Right Thing, Research and Evidence Supports How Beneficial it is to an Organization’s Overall Success
I think that people generally don't understand the work that I do. So I think there's a lot of misunderstanding, especially now in this space. I think there are two pretty big misunderstandings. One is that we're just out there trying to diversify, no matter the costs, which I think is very much not the case or that we're out here just sort of kumbaya, trying to get everyone to just get along and that it's not being looked at from a real like strategic aspect where there's real benefits to being a diverse, inclusive, place.
Now I think the research is really well settled that the more diverse you are in actual diversity, the higher profit margin you're making. The more innovative teams. The more efficient your team is. Now there's a real bottom line that's been explored and researched and evidenced. And so I think that people are still learning about that. That it's not just about that it's the good thing to do, which I think it is, but that there are real benefits to the organizations, the companies, themselves to having multiple perspectives and to really weighing in on those different perspectives.
On A Piece of Practical Advice for Leaders in Law
Never Underestimate the Value of a Connection
I think some advice is to really continue and reach out and connect with people, even when you're unsure what you wanna do next. There are so many people in this industry who will impart their story to you and will help make those connections no matter how long you've been practicing. I ended up in this role by doing just that. After practicing law for 20 years, reaching out to someone who I thought could help me figure out like, what's next, when I was stuck. I'm still grateful for that conversation. So never underestimate the value of what a connection can do and how people can help you move to the next phase of your career.
On Almost Pursuing A Different Career
Environmental Science and Her Love for Botany
So I went to SUNY Purchase in Westchester and originally I went there because I had gotten a scholarship to go to Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse for my last two years of college. And then I got very into politics and women's studies and political science and decided I'm gonna change the world. I'm not gonna do environmental science. And so I didn't go there and I stayed as a political science minor and women's studies major and I do have some regrets that really, I should be a park ranger and still love environmental science and learning about sustainability and plants and botany. And so I, I do have some regrets that I didn't stay the course, although, you know, I think everything kind of works itself out the way it should be. In retirement, I will be a botanist, or I might be a park ranger in the country somewhere. And so that is something I almost did.
Taking Time Alone
I like to take a lot of walks and just be by myself. I think that finding some alone time is really necessary for me in between work and kids. And you know, it's not necessarily meditating or like it could just be walking around Target, or like walking around City Point near here and just shopping for a little bit, or taking a few minutes to read a book. But trying to build in time when I leave work. Before running home to my family and spending a little bit of time alone has been really important for me.
I think it's really good to try to peruse a bookstore as much as you can, you know, just peruse whatever space is near you to get like some mind free space before you're onto your tasks. That's been the most, I think, best self-care practice that I've found.
On Overcoming Obstacles
Be Strategic and Take Your Time
What I do now to overcome obstacles definitely has changed. Now I try to sit with them a little bit longer than I may have in the past and to map out various strategies, which I didn't do before. You know, I think in my earlier practice I would have an obstacle. Maybe I would talk to, you know, a colleague or a trusted friend about it. Then I was like, this is the step, I'm gonna go, I'm gonna talk to this person or I'm gonna do this research.
Now I'm trying to be, and it could be by nature of this work, I have to map out two or three avenues of how I might be able to pass that obstacle. Maybe one avenue is I speak to this stakeholder and get advice or try to forge a relationship. Maybe one other obstacle is I leave it and I wait and I revisit it in a few months when maybe the culture or the climate is different. Maybe the third avenue is I do more research and I see what other companies are doing. What are other initiatives that are working out in various organizations? So I think that my new mode is to really map out different ways that I can handle it and then pick the one that I think makes the most sense at the time.
I really try to have three strategies for whatever the obstacle is that might make sense. And I used to think that everything needed to be done all at once. And I've really learned that timing is a lot of what can help solve some problems as well. And so I try to also be very strategic about when it's good to let go of a particular issue and revisit it maybe later on if you can, if it's possible to do that.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.