In this episode, we hear the testimonies of two interns of The Young Lawyers International Program (YLIP) Devon Black in Guyana and Navdeep Kaur in Vietnam.
In this episode, we hear the testimonies of two interns of The Young Lawyers International Program (YLIP).
Devon Black works in Georgetown, Guyana with the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination.
Navdeep Kaur works in Hanoi, Vietnam with UNICEF.
To learn more and to apply to the program, visit the Young Lawyers International Program website.
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This is The Every Lawyer, presented by the Canadian Bar Association.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Welcome to The Every Lawyer, a Canadian Bar Association podcast. I'm your host, Marlisse Silver-Sweeney. Today's episode focuses on two lawyers working abroad as part of the Young Lawyers International Program funded by Global Affairs Canada. It's an internship initiative in 10 different countries. Today we're headed to Vietnam and Guyana, at least vicariously. Our first stop is in Georgetown where we're meeting up with Devon Black. Devon is working for the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination. Guyana is the last country in South America where homosexual activity is still illegal.
Hi, Devon, thanks so much for joining us today.
Devon Black: Thanks so much for having me.
Marlisse: So I wanted to start at the beginning with you and find out more about your decision to apply to this program and then specifically about why you wanted to work for the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Georgetown.
Devon Black: Sure, so my background is actually in international development, that's what I did my undergraduate degree in. And I decided to go to law school after I finished that program in part because I was having some questions about the ethics of international development work, whether it was possible to do international development work ethically and whether I had the skills to do it ethically.
So I went to law school, kind of maintained one foot in the non-profit world while I was there doing some time with the [unintelligible 00:01:50] clinic and doing a co-op term with a non-profit. And then ultimately did my articles and practiced for a few years with a small firm in Victoria doing general litigation work. And after a few years I just kind of decided that I wanted to go back to my original passion and see if there was a way for me to get back into more non-profit-oriented work. And the Young Lawyers International Program just kind of came onto my radar at the right time.
Marlisse: OK, great. So it was a chance for you to reconnect to some of the things that actually drove you to go into law school in the first place.
Devon Black: Yeah, exactly.
Devon Black: And the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination has a great mission that's really aligned with things that I'm interested in and with my own experience as a career person in law.
Marlisse: OK. And that was actually, it's a great natural transition, so thank you, into my next question and that's what type of work are you doing right now for the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination?
Devon Black: So my work is pretty varied. I do some client-facing work, the organization has a program called the Community Paralegal Support Initiative which provides paralegal support to anyone who comes in dealing with an issue of discrimination. And so that's not just for people in the LGBTQ community, that's people dealing with racism or class discrimination. And we're able to connect them with pro bono lawyers, help them which case management, in some cases provide informal advocacy. So write letters on their behalf or do some informal negotiation or connect them up with social services.
So I do some direct client work and then in addition to that SASOD does some strategic litigation work as well.
Devon Black: They're responsible for a really big decision at the end of 2018 where they managed to get a law criminalizing cross-dressing struck down at the Caribbean Court of Justice which is the highest court of appeal for Guyana.
Marlisse: Wow. Well, it really sounds like you're actually using both of your backgrounds in this role.
Devon Black: Yeah, it's kind of exciting to be able to bring both of those together.
Marlisse: That's really neat. Broad question, but I wanted to know a bit about what you've learned so far doing this work?
Devon Black: Oh, that is a big question. I mean, I have had some international placements before so a lot of the kind of experience of living in a new place is not quite as novel for me.
Devon Black: But one of the lessons that I've definitely had affirmed is the importance of being flexible and also keeping an open mind. Which both seem very obvious and I know they sound a little bit clichéd, but until you're kind of living that experience, and even when I have lived it before, there's always just so many new things that are happening that are going to, you know, throw me off my game or have me change my original perceptions. And being able to kind of go with the flow and make sure that I’m doing my best to really listen to what people are telling me and hear what they're trying to communicate – whether it's, you know, said openly or implied – is always hugely important.
Marlisse: OK, so those active listening skills. What about hard skills? So any type of legal knowledge or legal skills or advocacy work that you didn't necessarily get to practice before in Victoria or in law school in your other placements?
Devon Black: Yeah, the strategic litigation work that I've been getting to do here has been really exciting. We've got a case that we're planning to file at the end of March and I won't go into too many details about the subject matter of it, but I've been lucky to work with some students at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. who have been helping us with some research and drafting.
Marlisse: Oh, OK.
Devon Black: And I've been able to give them some assistance in terms of doing international legal research because I had some resources on hand and some experience doing that that I was able to help them with. But also kind of being able to provide some mentorship and some oversight because in a lot of cases they hadn't really done this kind of legal drafting before and they hadn't really worked on human rights stuff before. And I worked on human rights stuff in a B.C. context but working on it in a totally new national context was a, very illuminating and challenging. So we were definitely learning together through some of that process.
Marlisse: Right, so it sounds like you've gotten to practice your mentorship as well.
Devon Black: Yeah, which has been really nice.
Marlisse: Yeah, that is nice. I wanted to turn a little more personal now and I wanted to ask you a little bit more, you are a self-identified queer person, you mentioned it earlier, what is it like to live in a country where your sexuality is criminalized? I want to know a bit about what you've done to keep yourself safe and how you prepared for this emotionally and practically.
Devon Black: Yeah. So the laws that criminalize sexual activity in Guyana are very specifically worded.
Devon Black: And as a person who identifies as a queer woman I'm actually not targeted particularly by the laws that are in place.
Devon Black: Because what they outlaw is buggery, so specifically anal sex, regardless of the gender of the people involved, and then also any same sex intimacy between men is what's criminalized. So I'm not in a position where I would be breaking any laws and I wouldn't be anyway because my partner is back in Canada. But despite that there's still a lot of stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ people regardless of gender.
I've been lucky enough to be fairly insulated from that, in part because as a visible foreigner I don't get the same types of comments, I think, as some other people do. People tend to focus more on the colour of my skin than the things that would normally be signifiers of queerness for me. But I've also been lucky enough to find a really good group of friends here, some of whom are expats, some of whom are locals, who have been really welcoming. And I've been lucky enough to never really feel unsafe while I've been out and about as a result of my queerness.
Marlisse: OK. Just finding kind of a safety network of people and friends to support you.
Devon Black: Yeah, and a lot of that happens through work luckily enough. SASOD runs social events once a month for the local LGBTQ community and my co-workers are obviously very accepting and supportive of me being able to be myself at work which makes a huge difference.
Marlisse: Right, OK, so your community is really a benefit there.
Devon Black: Definitely.
Marlisse: OK. Have you had any, so we've talked about a lot of the skills you've gained and, you know, being able to mentor students and working within your two backgrounds, it sounds like a lot of positives. Have there been any lows?
Devon Black: Oh, definitely. I mean, anytime you kind of take a big leap like this into an unknown there's going to be some difficult points. And in doing some of the direct client work that I've been able to do, just because of a lack of resources and in some cases a lack of legislation that's really set up to support people, I've run into more cases than I'm used to running into where I just don't have good solutions available for the people that I'm looking to help.
Devon Black: And so, you know, we do as much as we can and provide all of the supports that we're able to, but in some cases there just aren't referrals available for the types of problems that people are showing up with. Or the laws aren't in place to provide protection.
A perfect example of that is the Prevention of Discrimination Act in Guyana which has been in place here since, I think, 1997, is limited to dealing with discrimination just in the context of employment. And the projected grounds for discrimination don't include anything in the way of gender identity or sexual orientation or gender expression for that matter. And so if you've got people who are dealing with employment discrimination there aren't a lot of great legal avenues for remedies right now in Guyana which is really frustrating to deal with. Because people recognize that they're being treated unfairly as a result of their identities and the law just hasn't caught up yet to protecting them.
Marlisse: Right, that does sound really frustrating to not be able to offer people better remedy there.
Devon Black: Yeah, it's tough.
Marlisse: What, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, I know we're working on time differences here and I want to let you go on, for your day, but what advice would you have for somebody who was looking into applying and having this same experience?
Devon Black: I think my advice would be to go for it.
Devon Black: If this is something that you're interested in, if this is an opportunity that you want to get, the YLIP program through the CBA is a really incredible opportunity to develop some skills, get out of your comfort zone and do the kind of legal work that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to do. I know that finding public interest legal experience straight out of law school or even in my case with a few years into practice can be really challenging. And one of the amazing things about Young Lawyers International Program is that it's an opportunity to really build those skills in a really practical way and in environments that are challenging, but where you also have the support of the CBA and your peers going through the program to rely on.
So you're not just going out there on your own, you do have a network of support for when things get challenging which is really great to be able to fall back on.
Marlisse: For sure. And I did indicate that was my last question, now I have another one for you so I'm sorry. But I want to know if this has changed the course of your career at all, this experience?
Devon Black: Yeah, I think it has. I mean, I went into law school with an interest in doing more public service-oriented work or public interest-oriented work. And like I think a lot of people do when they go into law school I ended up finding articles and work doing private law. And I had the opportunity to build a lot of great skills and work with a lot of amazing people, but it, I think I needed an opportunity like this one to remember the things that I loved about public interest work and the ways that I was passionate about them. And I'm hoping that that's going to be an area that I can re-focus my career on because as much as I love the work that I was doing before and really appreciated all of the opportunities that I had to learn in that previous position, public interest work is something that I'm really passionate about.
Marlisse: Nice. So it was a way to kind of remember some of the interests that you had before law school and articling.
Devon Black: Yeah, exactly. I think in law school people can get, I mean, we all get really focused on private sector work because those are the jobs that are the most visible and the most available. But doing something like this helped me remember that the skills that I've built are not just good for private law work, there's a lot of other opportunities out there.
Marlisse: Right, absolutely. Well, I think that's a lovely note to end it on. So, thank you so much, Devon, for your time today.
Devon Black: Thank you.
Marlisse: Our next guess today is Navdeep Kaur who is Hanoi, Vietnam. She is working with UNICEF in the social policy and governance section. Her work there focuses on advocacy, awareness and policy development.
Navdeep, we're keeping you up late, so thank you so much for being with us here today.
Navdeep Kaur: Thank you so much for having me.
Marlisse: I understand you're already internationally trained, you're licensed to practice in both Canada and India, can you tell me a bit more about your decision to take on yet another international opportunity?
Navdeep Kaur: Yeah, so I did move to Canada only just in April of 2018 and I practiced earlier in India, I was licensed in India and I've worked there as a lawyer since September 2016 to about March 2018. I have the timeline really clear
Marlisse: You do.
Navdeep Kaur: Because I end up sharing it with everyone so much. So, yeah, so as far as this opportunity is concerned I was always intrigued with international law and I feel that although I had moved to Canada but I hadn't really had enough opportunities back home in India. So when this came along it was sort of right after my articles were over and I had just been called to the bar in Canada. So I, it was sort of the opportune moment for me to explore something other than just a hardcore legal field. And this was, the opportunity that I'm doing was more into governance and policy, an area that I would perhaps like to explore.
Navdeep Kaur: So, yes, all the combinations and the all the factors that have led me to deciding that yes I should take this up.
Marlisse: OK. And why Vietnam?
Navdeep Kaur: So when I chose, when we had the options to choose, to select what placement we were going to go for, it was interesting to be, I had never been to this site except for a little bit of travel, but I had never really spent any amount of time in Southeast Asia. And this was maybe another way for me to just sort of feel closer to home again, closer to India again, I guess.
Navdeep Kaur: So that was definitely in the back of my mind and was a contributing factor to say that hey although I've just been away from home for a year and a half or so, maybe I can, it'll be easier to travel again. So it just may be one of the motivating factors.
Marlisse: OK. And you briefly mentioned it just now but you talked about how you're interested in more policy and governance, can you tell me what kind of work you're doing right now for UNICEF?
Navdeep Kaur: Yeah, so I'm working with the social policy and governance section of UNICEF Vietnam and this section coordinates between different sections like education, child protection, child survival and development and does its own governance and policy work as well. It sort of works in tandem with the government and stakeholders and representatives and Vietnamese policy and law and governance for child rights.
Navdeep Kaur: And it's sort of spans all across the different legislations and the law that comes up and different governance decisions of the government. So it, legally it sort of correlates with the practices of the government and how they are dealing with, how they are aligning the national laws with international laws from UNICEF's perspective.
Marlisse: Wow, that sounds fascinating. And can you, I don't know what you can share, what you cannot, but can you give me an example or two, some of the things that you're actually working on there?
Navdeep Kaur: Yeah, sure, I mean, it does, you're right, it does happen that a lot of UNICEF work it's in the stage of decision-making, etc., so a lot of it cannot be disclosed in a regular sense.
Navdeep Kaur: But, for instance, we are working on Vietnam, child, you know, the age of the child in Vietnam is not as per the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Navdeep Kaur: Child is defined under the age of 16 and, for instance UNICEF is advocating for that age to be increased to 18 as per the Convention on the Rights of the Child. So there's only very few countries in the world now who have the age of the child not as per the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Navdeep Kaur: Particularly those countries who have signed and ratified the conventions and the national laws still do not align. So those are the kind of, that's an example of a chunk of work that UNICEF is advocating to do besides other areas of course.
Marlisse: Wow, that's very important. What have you – and this is a hard question because it's so broad – but what do you think you've learned so far?
Navdeep Kaur: Yeah, it is fairly broad and I guess in line with the name of the section, social policy and governance it's so wide-spanning. I think the learning so far, I mean, the learning so far I would say that, you know, it's, the UN does not sue directly and cannot be sued so it's not really a very legal-centric or a position that directly aligns with my background so far in terms of law.
But it has been a learning experience in terms of analyzing, critically analyzing the legal documents, particularly of a different country and understanding the implications in a country context. Because a lot of times, for instance, let's say, when I was in India or even while I was in Canada but I fairly, I had some background on what the country context was all about so you wouldn't delve into that. But here it's about delving into the country context and correlating it with the implications the law has on, from a very societal and social context.
So and critically analyzing the laws here and also, of course, there's a lot of, UNICEF work involves a lot of review of reports and different writing styles and there definitely has been a learning curve as well.
Navdeep Kaur: But there's been, learning in terms of law reform and how to advocate for law reforms. And advocacy is something that I haven't really delved into in the past so a lot of communication campaigns and a lot of advocacy projects and interactions with the government stakeholders. So, yes, learnings have been from that perspective.
Marlisse: Wow. I was going to ask you just hearing about that and having to analyze all these legal documents from the perspective of the country of Vietnam, how did you prepare for that?
Navdeep Kaur: So now that I think of it I could have prepared a lot more than what I came in with.
Navdeep Kaur: But, yes, of course, reading a little bit about the country and, you know, just learning a few basics about, reading a few basics about the kind of political system and the governance system. And historically because Vietnam has, you know, a war-torn history as well, so that has far-reaching implications because it affected the communities both in north and south.
So, yes, before coming I did read up but I would say that the best learning you have is actually when you read. So, yeah, so, I mean, from outside of course we can read a lot and we can see a lot but I ended up reading on a lot more after my interactions here and some of the resources that I got. Because, particularly for UNICEF and for the UN they have a lot of policy and background documents which you definitely cannot access to before coming for the placement.
Navdeep Kaur: But when you get in you have a lot of reading material which you can review and that explains a lot of the country context, I would say. Personally I had some information on the background and history of the country but having come in here it's actually good to have a lot of background documents which, they already prepared for the country office which you can view and learn from.
Marlisse: OK, well, it sounds like law school again, I hope your vision is OK.
Navdeep Kaur: Yes, it's been, it has been a lot of documents, a lot of reading. And it actually, you're never really done because, in fact I feel that six months is anyway not as much of a time to really know everything.
Marlisse: No, it's so quick.
Navdeep Kaur: Yes, it flies by but you, but luckily, I would say luckily because UN has so many resources and so many different agencies working intersectorally that you get a chance, you get exposed to a lot more material than you would before you come.
Marlisse: OK. And you spoke about your advocacy skills and getting a chance to practice those in a way that you hadn't before in Canada or India. Would you tell me a bit more about some of the skills you've acquired on this placement that would have been difficult to gain in Canada or otherwise?
Navdeep Kaur: Perhaps I hadn't even spent enough time in Canada yet or hadn't gotten that sort of an opportunity. So I would say that maybe those skills that I could have gotten in Canada as well but hadn't really gotten the opportunity to yet and I did get the opportunity to gain them here.
But, yes, I mean, there's a lot of campaign design that the communication team does and you learn a lot from that. Even if you don't design it yourselves but they share a lot of campaign designs. For instance the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNCRC, was celebrating 30 years in 2019 since in came about in 1989. So there was a lot of campaigning from the perspective of the fact that it's been 30 years to the Convention and how much have we achieved, how much have we done for child rights.
And, for instance, Vietnam actually signed the Convention in 1990 so this year marks the 30th anniversary of Vietnam's signing of the Convention. So a lot of advocacy is being done from that perspective, that this is a milestone for Vietnam and it needs to, they're really documenting what they have done.
And then, again, taking a cue from that, this year is the 75th anniversary of the United Nations in October, so it's, the UN is 75, those sort of campaigns are being, so they're just really capitalizing on important milestones.
Navdeep Kaur: And that's something that creates an impact. If I see something being campaigned or [unintelligible 00:25:24] campaign from that perspective, it's powerful. Another one, for instance, would be that it's the year 2020 to 2030 is the decade of action for the sustainable development goals. So a lot of advocacy based on these important milestones and how ideas and how certain policies and, can be pushed for by capitalizing on these ideals.
Marlisse: Right. Well, it sounds like –
Navdeep Kaur: I hope I answered the question there.
Marlisse: – for sure, for sure. And it sounds like aside from advocacy you've actually really had some practice with communications as well. So to be able to articulate what you're doing and why it's important and how it furthers, you know, higher ideals and objectives, so that sounds very interesting as well.
Navdeep Kaur: Yes.
Marlisse: So I don’t want to keep you up because it is well past your bedtime, it's well over midnight there in Hanoi, but my last question for you is what's one piece of advice you'd give to someone looking to gain international experience?
Navdeep Kaur: There's lots, I mean, when you say advice, I would say that just keep an open mind, that's the one thing I realized. And even though when I was travelling from India to Canada and then here I, you always initially feel that, you know, I've already lived internationally and I know a bunch of things. But I feel that we actually don't and as an added [unintelligible 00:27:01], you know, you only how much you don’t know when you interact more and you move places and you go to different places and you meet different people and you engage with different cultures.
And we, there's one thing that we should remember is that we actually don't know and there's a lot more to know. So keeping an open mind wherever you're going, whether it's within the country or even if it's an international placement or an internship of any sort. The interaction with different cultures and different locations and different people exposes you to so much more. So just keeping an open mind and, yes, and, you know, just going with the flow and, yeah, so I would say that.
Marlisse: Lovely, so keeping an open mind and being open to learning which sounds like a lot of reading on your end. So, that's a great note to end it on. Thank you, Navdeep, for sharing all of your experience with us.
Navdeep Kaur: Thank you so much, thank you for having me.
Marlisse: I don’t know about all of you but listening to Navdeep and Devon certainly helped me combat the winter doldrums. If you're interested in hearing more about the Young Lawyers International Program, check out our four-part podcast exploring it that we produced last year. And I'd love to hear what's inspiring you these days. Tweet to us at CBA_news or you can reach me at my handle at @marlissess. We are on Spotify, Apple Podcast and Stitcher wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes and if you like what you hear please leave us a review.
We also have a podcast in French called Juriste branché. If you're interested in the Young Lawyers International Program tweet to us or visit our website to find out more. Stay tuned for the next episode of The Every Lawyer. Thank you for listening.