proximity is crucial for justice

Today is blog action day 2013 and this year’s theme is human rights. For my contribution (with her permission) I am including an abbreviated transcript of a talk by Fiona McLeay, at the Annual Human Rights Dinner held in Melbourne earlier this year. I hope you are as moved reading it as those present were listening …

“We all look forward to this night.  It’s a chance to get together, to share a meal, to catch up on stories and celebrate human rights and justice.  I hope you rub shoulders with someone you haven’t seen for ages.  Or perhaps someone you’ve always wanted to meet. Who knows what could happen – there’s so much potential when we get together…!

Although at some dinners, I find that things can be a little too close… I tend to talk with my hands and have been know to send wine bottles and water jugs flying if I’m seated too close to them.  On one occasion, a luxurious Italian linen tablecloth – and several guests – wore an entire bottle of shiraz … Table 5, you have been warned!

Sometimes, being close can be messy!  But sometimes, being close to others can produce something unexpected – even something vital.  Tonight, I want to talk about how closeness – proximity – produces justice.  Distinguished American human rights lawyer, Professor Bryan Stevenson, argues that proximity is crucial for justice.  Because distance breeds indifference.  And indifference in turn breeds injustice.  Professor Stevenson says “If you get close to people, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance.  You understand how we are all connected.”  So proximity matters, because when we get close to others, something profound happens.  Proximity helps overcome indifference to injustice. It gives us a new perspective and fresh passion to pursue injustice.

Let me show you how it works.  Last year, PILCH was contacted by a group of people who live in a caravan park in Ballan, on the edge of Melbourne. The park is owned by a government department, who decided to re-develop the land. The residents had been ordered to leave their homes – homes that some had been in for many years.  Life had dealt them some rough cards – disability, ill health and the ravages of advancing age.  And now they were facing homelessness. In many ways, they are typical of our clients.  We help literally hundreds of people each year who find themselves in similar circumstances.  From a distance, it’s easy to blame them for the situation they find themselves in. We fall back on simple stereotypes – “they’re lazy”; “they made bad choices”; “they’re victims, they can’t help what’s happened to them”.  But up close, the lawyers who agreed to help this group found something unexpected.  Not victims or losers.  But people who’d worked hard all their lives, paid taxes and been part of their local community.  Not poor people, squatting in a caravan park. But a strong and supportive community.  When seen up close, the stereotypes were flipped.

The lawyers were welcomed into the caravan owned by 70 year old Mora, who’d lived in the park for 14 years. They met Helen, whose physical disabilities confined her to a wheelchair – but who also cared for her daughter who lived nearby.  They saw how everyone kept an eye out for Ross, who after his second stroke got around in his motorised scooter. One of the lawyers told me “I was brought face to face with what it meant to have a home – and what it meant not to have one”.

Proximity changed the lawyers’ perception.  But now they had to change the bureaucrats. The officials didn’t think it was their job to run a caravan park for poor people.  And on paper, they were probably right. But they had made the decision to close the park from a distance.  So what happened to these people as a result just didn’t seem like the bureaucrat’s problem.

So the lawyers arranged for the officials to meet the clients face to face. And a profound thing happened – proximity produced understanding.  It changed perceptions.  Other options became possible.  The department agreed that it wouldn’t close the park or evict the residents. Instead, they would all work together to find a better solution. Perhaps it wasn’t such a simple outcome, from a bureaucratic point of view. But it was real and it was just.

Professor Stevenson is right.  Proximity is crucial for justice to flourish. When we get close to others, something profound happens.  Our perceptions change and our passion is lit. Justice becomes possible.

For lawyers, pro bono work is a vital way of putting us close to others. It produces proximity to the real life experience of injustice.  It overcomes the distance that breeds indifference.  It renews our passion for justice and provides it with a practical outlet.

Of course, there are lots of ways to get close to people.  Pro bono work is just one. Proximity comes when we volunteer at the old folk’s home or join a local sporting club or music group.  It can be as simple as caring for a friend or colleague in distress.  But there is another – equally important – way to narrow the distance from others.  That’s by supporting organisations like PILCH and HRLC.  Tonight, I invite you to express proximity by financially supporting our work.

photo courtesy of The Courier

photo courtesy of The Courier

On your table is a photo of the Ballan caravan park residents.  [It was on the front page of the local paper, The Courier.]  It captures their relief and joy as they celebrate the withdrawal of the eviction notice. The journalist wrote “tears and champagne flowed as the residents struggled to believe the news.”

There are hundreds of stories like this – of PILCH and HRLC bringing people face to face with injustice and creating change. People just like Mora, Rose and Brenda, Helen and Ron, Beau and Charlie.  Older people, people at risk of experiencing homelessness or with a mental disorder, asylum seekers, indigenous Australians, battlers and those who are overlooked and ignored.  Many of you have been part of these stories.  This dinner gathers you all together.  Lawyers and students, colleagues from community legal centres, Legal Aid and the community sector, universities and government, our partner law firms, the LIV and the Victorian Bar, as well as a number of our funders.  We are grateful for your commitment to justice and proud to work alongside you.

Tonight, I urge you to give us your financial support as well.  Proximity doesn’t happen by accident.  PILCH and HRLC bring lawyers, government officials and policy makers face to face with injustice.  We change perceptions in practical ways by bringing people close.  We work for a more just society.  But we need resources to do this.  Like HRLC, PILCH gets around 20% of its funding from government. The rest we raise ourselves.

So partner with us.  Help us create proximity, change percpetions, ignite passion and realise a more just world.”