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Dr Zahra Stardust – Artist & Scholar at UNSW

Most of my partners have told me that I am a workaholic. It’s probably true.

I spend most of my time overcommitted to lots of exciting projects, working from one deadline to the next. I rarely rest. But I don’t believe in the glorification of work as an end in and of itself. I think keeping the population in a perpetual state of business is a deliberate strategy to distract us from the bigger issues. We should be working shorter, not longer, hours and redistributing our labour more equitably so people can spend their time doing more joyful, meaningful things and building a different kind of world.

Photo Credit: River Heart

When I was at law school I was involved in some really amazing projects. I worked with Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre writing submissions to the Victim’s Compensation Tribunal for women who had experienced sexual assault or family violence. I travelled to Eritrea in the Horn of Africa to work with the UN Population Fund on advocacy partnerships between youth groups and faith-based organisations for sexual and reproductive health. I did pro bono work with Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Homeless Persons Legal Service and Indigenous Justice Project and was seconded to the Kimberley Land Council for the Aurora Native Title Internship Program. I learnt so much about the inaccessibility of the law, the resilience of marginalised populations and the vital role of Community Legal Centres.

After I finished law school, I did a summer clerkship and took a graduate job, working in litigation and dispute resolution for a top-tier firm. Corporate law was not a good fit for me. I didn’t thrive in a hierarchical environment with billable hours and boys’ clubs, and frankly, I just didn’t like wearing suits. The partners had words with me about my facial piercings. I didn’t fit the corporate image, regardless of the quality of my work. I had some great opportunities and made long-term friends, but I became seriously depressed and disillusioned with the law. Someone recommended that I read Lisa Pryor’s The Pin Striped Prison, in which she critiques the funneling of bright students into corporate law and asks why “so many of our cleverest people are siphoned off from careers in which they could be doing something usefuI.” I decided to leave the law. I wasn’t sure if I would ever return.

I went on to do a Masters in Gender Studies and PhD on the regulation of queer and feminist pornographies. I loved doing socio-legal research – it meant collecting oral histories and rich stories about people’s lives. I found that communities navigated the law in complex ways and often had more sophisticated systems of ethics than the heavy-handed approach of criminal or classification law. I worked as a Policy Advisor for ACON, working in HIV treatment & prevention and LGBTIQ health, and Scarlet Alliance, advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work. I loved being an environment where the policy and strategic direction of the work was driven by community needs and experiences. It was collective work. It was kind of perfect for me; I could use my legal knowledge whilst being in an office environment where we all brought home-made vegan food and our rescue pups to work.

But I ended up coming back to the law sideways. I was writing submissions for law reform, giving evidence at government enquiries, meeting with politicians and participating in advisory groups. I was working with the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, advocating for anti-discrimination and vilification protections at the height of the marriage equality postal survey. I was volunteering with the Inner City Legal Centre monitoring police in their drug detection operations during Mardi Gras. I started working with the Women’s Justice Network to support women who were recently released from prison with social reintegration. I even started a podcast called Thinking Justice, where I interview people about social justice and law reform. Somehow, I kept coming back to the law.

It was personal work. I had friends living with HIV, sex worker colleagues working in criminal contexts, family in prison, trans partners changing their documentation, and a national opinion poll to decide whether queer people like me deserved human rights. The law is not simply a set of codified, abstract or impartial rules – it has real impacts on people’s lives on a daily basis.

At law school students are taught to think about careers and success. I think it is more useful to think about how to best use your skillset to make a difference. You might have access to knowledge, resources or privilege that others don’t. You might be an efficient administrator, or a persuasive orator, or a community organiser. You might be brilliant at writing funding applications, or an excellent listener or have awesome graphic design skills. Choose the method that feels intuitively right for you. Law is just one tool in your toolkit.

My advice to students is to get as much hands-on, grass-roots and practical experience as you can, on and off campus. Join your union or student representative body, participate in student societies, attend rallies and organise direct actions. Try everything once. Find what fits you and recognise that this will change over time. Don’t forget to practice self-care, seek support when you need it, and create support-networks for others. We are quite literally relying on you (the planet is dying). You are our future!

I want to share a tarot card from the Next World Tarot deck by Cuban-American artist Cristy C. Road. Her deck is described as “featuring body outlaws, endangered cultures, and anti-colonial belief systems… [and] envision[ing] a world where justice relies on respect and revolutionary love.” This is the tarot card for Justice. There are no scales, no sword. There is no court, no judge. There is no hierarchy. Justice is depicted as bottom up, not top down. Justice happens in the streets, in public, through decades of struggle, through collective action, through the intersections of different movements and through acts of solidarity.

The deck is a reminder that the law is not synonymous with justice. Many activist scholars call our criminal justice system a criminal legal system, because it doesn’t actually deliver justice. Working on law reform campaigns has taught me that the law often lags behind community standards. The law is often unjust. Our legal system is built on systems of oppression. It operates in ways that maintain colonialism and other kinds of disadvantage. I like teaching criminal law because I get to have really interesting conversations with students about what they think of the law. I love hearing about what students think the law should be, or how they imagine what equity and justice could look like. I am interested in how social movements are speaking truth to power, challenging the law’s institutions, operations, and its very foundations.

Law is very cerebral. I think it is important to be in your body. When I’m not writing or teaching, I do flying trapeze. Being upside down helps me see the world differently and keep my mind open to new perspectives and possibilities. After working in policy for so long, I have learnt (sadly) that there’s only so far an evidence-base will take you in instigating change. Governments often have all the facts but are blinded by lack of political will. I like how art-based mediums can really move people to change their hearts and minds through emotion. Music, art, colour and storytelling are often powerful catalysts for cultural and social change. Advocating for law reform is urgent and necessary, but it is only one part of the puzzle in a greater world-making project.

Cristy C Road, Next World Tarot Deck, Justice.


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