“In order to learn and build knowledge we need to deconstruct the ‘lawyer’ in us.”: Building trust and community with litigators

Photo shows the participants in the Community of Practice retreat, smiling and looking to the camera, in the style of a selfie.
The shared purpose of the Community of Practice is to work collectively to promote community-centred lawyering and reframe litigation processes so they can be more accessible and better serve communities and their objectives. Photo: Systemic Justice

“The first retreat of the Community of Practice was a unique experience which I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in, alongside so many welcoming, passionate, and talented people.” – Participant at the Community of Practice Retreat 2022

The first ever Community of Practice retreat was held in October in the beautiful surroundings of the Vexin Regional Natural Park in France.

The aim of the retreat was to kick-start the process of establishing a Community of Practice, bringing together litigators and litigating organisations working on racial, social, and economic justice in Europe, with the common goal of developing community-centred methods to litigation.

To achieve this goal, we set out to build a Community based on mutual trust, shared values, and collective decision-making.

This retreat was our first opportunity to bring all Community of Practice participants together and start building community by meeting in person and sharing space over the course of three days.

We started the retreat by taking a deeper look at what the Community’s shared objectives are, both for our short time together and for the Community of Practice more generally. Where is there alignment in our personal goals for the Community? What is the shared purpose of the Community? This included an exercise in establishing overarching values and principles that inform the work of the Community.

While the retreat brought together litigators and activists working on legal cases across a broad range of issues and countries, participants immediately found a strong alignment in the shared goals and objectives of the Community.

High on the list of priorities was the will to translate the values that guide and inform our work into working methods and practices. The shared purpose of the Community of Practice that emerged is: to work collectively to promote community-centred lawyering and reframe litigation processes so they can be more accessible and better serve communities and their objectives.

The Community identified a range of ways in which we can work together to live up to this goal:

  • We should foster co-learning and build knowledge around community lawyering, as well as develop our own methodologies for community-centred litigation.
  • We should use our positions as litigators to push for change in court processes so litigation can better serve the communities we work with.
  • We should challenge assumptions or narratives around how litigation is meant to be conducted.
  • We should de-centre lawyers and “the law” in movements or campaigns for change.
  • We should promote the framing of litigation as one tool in an interdisciplinary fight for justice led by communities and movements themselves. 

To start setting up the Community of Practice, we took time as a group to articulate and design a potential framework for how the Community will function and cultivate, this included discussion of:

  • What the values of the Community are and how to embed them in our work.  
  • What the structure of the Community will be to help us work successfully as a collective and make decisions.
  • How people can engage with the work we are doing and the ways in which the Community can grow.

From these conversations, it was clear there was a shared desire to establish realistic and flexible goals to ensure the sustainability of the work we are doing, to build trust and maintain as safe a space as possible for the Community to collaborate and co-operate, and to be accountable to the values we seek to embody. The values of decolonising, anti-oppression, and restorative justice were initially identified as particularly important for the group.

Photo shows two groups of people sitting outside working on post-its and flip-charts.
We set out to build a Community based on mutual trust, shared values, and collective decision-making. Photo: Systemic Justice

By prioritising connection with people and nature, the retreat also aimed to nurture and consolidate trust amongst participants. Immersed in a peaceful rural location, the activities planned were intentionally designed to allow for active planning but also for confidence-building, spontaneity, rest, and fun.

Everyone brought so much energy, passion, and openness to the retreat, and we left with a clear, co-designed action plan for next steps, including the drafting of a value statement, the development of a process for others to engage with the Community’s work, the establishment of a governance structure, and the setting up of a secure platform for communicating and sharing knowledge with each other.

In addition to setting the foundations for the functioning and growth of the Community, we identified two concrete projects for the Community to work on:

  1. The development of a methodology for putting communities in the driver’s seat in litigation, and
  2. The organisation of litigation workshops to share and acquire knowledge as a community.

At the end of the retreat, participants shared that they left feeling empowered, emboldened, and inspired to continue this work together. There was excitement around further building on the momentum of the retreat, with one participant sharing: “I had a wonderful few days and I feel lucky to now have the co-operation of all these amazing people and their organisations. I really feel like we made a step forward.”

We would like to thank the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for Human Progress for donating the use of the venue for the retreat (La Bergerie de Villarceaux), and The Freedom Fund for their support.

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