I recently attended an access to justice conference where the majority of speakers and attendees were white men. As a South Asian woman my presence felt conspicuous. This circumstance didn’t feel intentional or nefarious, it was clearly a matter of the organizers working within the default mode. The same default that is common not only in the legal world but also in other spheres such as academia and the technology sector.
This default is currently being pierced by humour and frank conversation. Recently, The Globe and Mail launched a new podcast called Colour Code that examines race in Canada. Earlier this year, we saw a mainstream conversation about the pervasive perspective of the straight, white male with #OscarsSoWhite. This Twitter campaign took Hollywood’s most celebrated evening to task for its limited diversity. Last year, Finnish researcher Saara Sarma’s website titled Congrats You Have an All-Male Panel went viral. There are also increasing instances where men in high profile roles are pledging to decline speaking engagements on all male conference panels.
Diversity isn’t about tokenism, rigid constraints or being a killjoy. Diversity is productive. It’s about solving problems effectively. Diversity in perspectives and lived experience is especially significant when it comes to addressing “wicked problems” like access to justice. Yet, in spite of the hard evidence that diversity increases innovation and the subsequent development of informed, effective solutions, it remains elusive.
In working in the access to justice sphere, I find that limited diversity is most apparent in conversations about technology. This strikes me as odd because its applied nature makes it an easy source for a diversity win. People who have successfully incorporated technology into their lives, who can speak about its practical features and limitations, easily cut across a range of areas, including occupation, generation, race, sexual orientation, disability and gender. This is an area ripe for cross-pollination, to learn from other sectors not just about technical aspects behind the development of a specific product or tool, but also about how to connect socio-cultural aspects of tech-based solutions to issues of inequality.
From October 17 to 21, The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) will host Ontario’s first Access to Justice Week. It has been developed with a range of partners both inside and outside of the justice system in an attempt to diversify participants in the access to justice conversation. Speakers have been selected for their expertise and to reflect the varied dimensions of the access to justice crisis.
During this week, we will feature a range of initiatives from across Canada, including Steps to Justice. This online resource led by Community Legal Education Ontario brings together a broad range of Ontario’s justice sector partners. Steps to Justice will ultimately be a website with plain language content about common legal problems that can be embedded on to the websites of other partners — within the justice sector and beyond. The initiative has involved extensive in-person and online user-testing. The goal has been to ensure that the final presentation of content is intuitive and reflective of how people actually engage with this type of material online.
Although this reads like a technological response to access to justice, diversity runs throughout Steps to Justice. Testing subjects were selected to reflect demographic traits of people in Ontario — particularly those who had experience with specific legal problems. Furthermore, this type of project brings together an inter-disciplinary team — lawyers and public legal education experts, but also designers, developers, community workers and communications experts.
Recently in the legal world, conversations about diversity have focused on the judiciary. Toronto lawyer and president of the South Asian Bar Association, Ranjan Agarwal, has voiced concerns about diversifying the bench, pointing out that the push needs to start earlier by ensuring the feeder system holds sufficiently diverse candidates. In the justice sector, we need more awareness and normalizing of diversity all around us — from panels and beyond. Can we disrupt the default thinking when we’re organizing an event or even attending one?
Public confidence is a pressing access to justice issue. People need to see themselves and their lived experience reflected throughout the sector — whether that’s on the bench or at a conference. Diversity, like access to justice, is everyone’s problem but it’s also a part of the solution.
Sabreena Delhon is the Manager of The Action Group on Access to Justice. Follow her @sabreenadelhon.
 See page 124 of the Canadian Bar Association’s Equal Justice report here: http://www.cba.org/CBAMediaLibrary/cba_na/images/Equal%20Justice%20-%20Microsite/PDFs/EqualJusticeFinalReport-eng.pdf