When social justice becomes ‘just us’

Eric Gonzales reflects on his experience with juvenile justice visitation initiatives

From the moment you step into law schools around Australia, you are subtly engineered towards a corporate career. Facebook photographs of clerkships depict a lavish lifestyle of cocktail mixers and dress up parties, the precursor to a 70-hour working week embellished with bonding trips and myriad extra benefits. It’s ironic that the corporate world has such a bizarre fixation on the ideal curriculum vitae being loaded with volunteering, community engagement, and proof of a social conscience.

One of Sydney University Law Society’s social justice portfolio programs is the Juvenile Justice Mentoring Scheme, where law students interact with young inmates on a fortnightly basis.

Upon first entering the centre, volunteers must sign a contract agreeing to its strict terms, which prohibit inquiring into personal stories and sharing last names. If inmates persisted, we were advised to diffuse the situations with a smile, and repeat our first name instead.

The regulations are there for the inmates’ safety, and they make total sense, but it also means the students attending only ever learn a snippet of the experiences they are there to understand.

Each subsequent visit further illuminated that while the visits revolved around the inmates, they were designed for our benefit. Weekly volunteer-made program plans aimed to foster ‘trust between the girls and visitors’ or inspire ‘reflection about future goals’.

Yet the aspirational cliches sugarcoated what was essentially origami paper-folding and paddle-pop scaffolding. Celebrity heads and charades similarly fell short of life-changing epiphanies. That there are so few activities that accord with the rules didn’t alleviate the sense of infantilisation. But to law students who enter the program expecting to step outside their bubble of privilege, injustice seemingly lies in the girls being subjected to pitiably boring time-fillers. While its simplicity lessens the load for a volunteer, the initiative prohibits those precious insights that could humanise them beyond a first name and a uniform, even whilst maintaining crucial privacy boundaries. Otherwise, the whole process resembles observing subjects of a study behind a two-way mirror. And at the end of it all, the noble altruist ticks a box, convinced that they have done their bit.

Therein lies the problem. For at least some of the volunteers, social justice isn’t one their core values. It’s an extra line on their resume.

What deters volunteers from proactively engaging with other local community causes is that the initiative conveniently kills two birds with one stone. First is the absolution of guilt-hued privilege. The other, an extra curricular activity that provides prime material for society-climbing and CV stacking. One LinkedIn user vouches for their “recreational, personal development and mentoring experiences” under the program. On another profile, the program occupies a sizable box under “Volunteers Experience & Causes”, where the member describes himself as “a positive role model”. In other words, spiel that speaks volumes about their conviction in a cause, pandering to corporate law’s obsession with extracurricular volunteer work as an ironic precursor to representing the privileged elite.

But the underlying aspirational value of the program shouldn’t be discounted too easily. The Sydney University Law Society has fostered an opportunity where students overwhelmed by the faculty’s ubiquitous corporatism can engage in social justice activities. It has been the role of the unpaid law students that hold the Law Society together to compensate for this hole in our learning experience, one that other university faculties such as the University of New South Wales take more seriously in supporting legal centres through their on-site Law Precinct.

The program becomes problematic when we believe one initiative to be an adequate substitute for broader community engagement. In truth, it isn’t. It becomes another case when social justice is just for us. The moments with inmates that prompt a law student to reflect on their own privilege are important and valuable. Even though non-disclosure measures employed by the centre are undoubtedly vital to the privacy of both parties, the nature of the program and the students it sometimes attracts means these moments can be few and far between. Social justice must be more than the illusion of enriching engagement, but insofar as programs are dominated by students who care more about their LinkedIn profile than community activism, these programs will fail to live up to their potential as the fostering ground of compassionate lawyers.