Learn Law Life recently had the opportunity to talk with Julia Whaipooti, JustSpeak Board Member, community justice lover, and Senior Adviser at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
Name: Julia Whaipooti
Iwi: Ngati Porou
Occupation: Senior Adviser (Strategy, Rights & Advice) at the Office of the Children’s Commissioner
Length of time in current role: 3 months
University: Victoria University of Wellington
Describe a typical day in your job?
At present, there isn’t really a ‘typical day’ in my job (and I’m not sure there ever will be!). For me, I’m still learning and lucky to be surrounded by colleagues who have a range of expertise from child and youth engagement to child-centred practices. There’s the typical, lots of hui (thankfully with doey!), sending emails, and drafting reports to keep people informed on what’s coming out of our office and to share our advice about what’s best for children. Our team also advises the Commissioner and collectively, he and us, advise external agents. It’s pretty cool to be part of a kaupapa that’s really about how we hold ourselves (NZ) accountable to do better for children today and for the tomorrows to come. Also, internally, we are constantly working around what we might do in our own strategies to advise and advocate for tamariki Māori to fulfil their true potential, and identify where our systems might be failing and ways to respond. That’s a whole lot of stuff!
How did you get into this job?
I was naturally attracted to the kaupapa of Community Law JustSpeak – free legal advice to communities who can’t afford ‘access’ to their rights, and addressing the injustices and unfairness inherent in our criminal justice system. In my mahi at Community Law, we are dealing with people experiencing hardship immediately in their lives. From unpaid parking fines (leading to warrant for arrest), cumulative debt from oppressive loan requirements (e.g. 300% p/a interest rates), being dismissed from work etc, your job can’t be to advocate for systemic change, it’s to advocate for the best outcome for your “client” in the given situation. And with each client we can ‘help’, came the knowledge for me, that there are a number of other people who are in the same situation who would not get the same advocacy. Volunteering with Justspeak, really was (and still is) about creating systemic change.
Moving into the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, I think when the opportunity arose, felt like a very natural step for me. The kaupapa of the office sits in my heart really. The work we do is aspirational for the New Zealand we want, and expect should exist, to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to fulfil their true potential.
Personally, I’m driven by our mokopuna (future generations), to make the world better than when we found it, and here, we really are advocating for the interests of current and future generations of children and young people. For me, it’s also recognising how we do that in a multitude of relationship-based ways. Coming from a community and NGO space to here, it’s learning useful relationships with government agencies, because there is influence and power in their decision making, and how do you work collaboratively and advocate within that space (and of course beyond) for the interests of our kids, whānau and communities. There are some very experienced and amazing people I work with, and learning from them and working on our kaupapa excites me, inspires me.
Are there particular study subjects or working experience you would recommend to prepare for a similar role to yours?
For me, I think it’s just life. The social issues, and for some of us that can see that in our own family experiences and the communities that we exist in. You don’t really learn about these things in law school, you might learn about it in an abstract way, but it’s a real thing. These are the things that don’t happen just between 9am – 5pm. For me, it feels very real and personal.
But, I was reminded by a colleague that for many, inequality and social justice issues are not something that can be understood from personal experience. She learnt from reading, and listening, and looking to ‘the other side of the tracks’. She suggests all law students should read The Tipping Point. So… with that in mind, I recommend taking the welfare law paper, law and sexuality, youth justice, criminal justice processes, family law, Māori customary law (this should not be an elective but a compulsory, but we’ll save that for another day). Take more than commercial papers. Also look to volunteer at your local community law, join an interest group like Justspeak, use your developing legal skills to write submissions, etc.
Truth is, I went to law school not to change the world, but to make money (laughs). But for me, that meant I need to earn money that can provide for my family, put kai on the table and pay rent. And actually, that is ‘changing the world’. Part of my own interest in social justice issues was really triggered by my own experiences in what it means to be Māori, in a space such as law school that is inherently not Māori. That feeling sat with me. I remember sitting in a criminal law class discussing Māori “over-representation”. The class discussion was led predominantly by non-Māori about why Māori are offenders. It felt really uncomfortable for me. I felt it was unfair, so it sparked my “why is it like this?” that drove me to JustSpeak’s kaupapa – “Empowering young people to speak up and speak out for change in the criminal justice system based on evidence and experience”.
Why is it that there are so many Māori incarcerated, when being Māori is not inherently criminal, yet that’s how it was framed. So that triggered my want, and still drives me.
What are the highlights of the job?
The highlight is in having the ability to influence decision making, to be learning every day, being challenged every day and working with people who really care about children and families having the ability to be their best. Also, I absolutely know I am being developed into a better advocate. There’s a responsibility in that. I think the highlight is to advocate for our people, rangatahi and tamariki to be heard, and for me it’s beyond any single paid job.
What is the one thing you wish someone had told you at law school?
In a way, law school doesn’t define you. In my experience I found we were made to feel like you’re constantly competing and that if you didn’t stack up at law school you were inferior. But I recognise the huge privilege to be at law school. I know with privilege comes responsibility, I definitely believe that. I was the first in my whānau, and I have responsibilities to do something with this (law degree). My family made sacrifices for me to be at law school, and they still do, because they don’t get my time or presence enough.
When you’re constantly surrounded by competition that values, in some ways (and many people may disagree), individualism, rote learning, regurgitating opinions of people in the past, you’re made to feel like you are not good enough. If you don’t get a “good” grade, or don’t make it into the top quartile etc, you are not enough. The first message that we got at law school was to “Look left, and look right, only one of you will be here”. I think that’s absolutely an appalling message to give and I think universities should take a hard look at themselves when this message is delivered with pride. Plus, checking why that’s the case and whether with open entries, you set people up to fail from the start. What do we value in law? Competitiveness for the sake of competitiveness is not something I value. Compassion, empathy and understanding different world views are things that I didn’t experience valued in the teachings at law school (this is different than saying individuals don’t have values!). I think the lack of these kinds of values underpinning what’s important to learn and teach at law school isn’t very holistic.
In saying that, law school really did teach me tools to think and analyse differently. But if I could go back and talk to my younger self venturing into the institution of university and law, I would be telling myself ‘You are enough’. Law school doesn’t define you, your whānau, or your whakapapa, but rather it’s something that can contribute to your pathways.
Also, find your mates. They can be for life. I found a whānau in Ngā rangahautira, the Māori law students’ association. Those people are my whānau and even though we don’t talk as much anymore, I know we’ve got each other’s backs. Many of us journeyed through that was hard and also took us away from our families who couldn’t walk with us in law school. So, we supported each other in ways our families couldn’t and with a unique understanding of walking through law together, and that’s invaluable. Otherwise it could’ve been pretty lonely and my life now is richer for the relationships.
How do you manage your passions and commitments?
I sometimes joke that “It’s after 5 o’clock, I don’t want to talk about children’s rights or the criminal justice system. We’re gonna ‘just be’.” And there’s privilege in that, but I know it’s important (to ‘check out’). I’m held accountable by people around me in my life. That doesn’t mean I’m good at it – the other night I woke up in the middle of the night ’cause of an ‘urgent’ email to send. My partner, cares very much about all these things, but needs to sleep. She told me “I care, but not at 3 in the morning, can you go do it out in the lounge?” (laughs).
Also, passion is not enough. Passion doesn’t get s**t done. It’s an important thing to have. Believe me, I’m learning this. Sometimes I have passion coming out of my ears and I’ve had to learn (in hard ways) to stop, take stock, refuel my heart and try be more useful with my passion and doey.
How did you get involved with JustSpeak?
I spoke about the discomfort in criminal law class and wanting, needing to find a place I could do something about the injustices in our system. I came about in its first year. I never went into JustSpeak because I wanted a career – or because I thought it would provide good opportunities – it was just something I felt and cared about a lot (and all our people involved do). It was an avenue I saw where I could do something, otherwise you just sit around getting angry or upset. My measure is where I can be the most useful with the tools I have. My tools are getting much sharper here at the Children’s Commission, and hopefully the work of Justspeak becomes redundant in my lifetime. That’s the aim.