Meet Meena – asking the tough questions of Victoria Legal Aid on Indigenous need

Meet Meena – asking the tough questions of Victoria Legal Aid on Indigenous need

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Associate Director, Aboriginal Services, Meena Singh

Inaugural Associate Director of Aboriginal Services Meena Singh is aware that she shares Indigenous heritage with just four of her colleagues, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up just four per cent of Victoria Legal Aid’s clients, and that her appointment is a key part of the organisation wanting to do better.

‘I think if you come to a place like Legal Aid, Aboriginal legal services or community legal centres and you think you’re just going to be a lawyer, you’ve got a very narrow view of what it means to be working there,’ she said.

Meena took up the senior executive position this month, bringing expertise from her previous advocacy roles, including Director Legal and Strategy with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service – a role that saw her attend a United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues last year.

It is a different organisation to when Meena first completed her articles here, with a Reconciliation Action Plan in place, a Strategy highlighting Indigenous priorities and plans for her to lead a team of three Aboriginal field officers in building relationships.

The challenge ahead

But while Meena notes extensive good will, she is forthright in assessing the task ahead.

‘Just four per cent of our clients are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, and we know the gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in Victoria’s prisons and child protections system, so we have to ask ourselves, how are we – as an organisation that wants to help more Aboriginal people – going to better service these clients and communities?

‘Part of my role is looking at what we do … and how we make a service that an Aboriginal person feels comfortable coming to in the first place,’ Meena said.

‘Are we a place that, as soon as someone picks up the phone or interacts with a staff member, makes that person feel they have come to a safe place for them?

‘Are we a culturally appropriate place that recognises the relationship between a lawyer and a client can be what they need it to be?

Trauma of the legal process

Recognising the influence that generational disadvantage has had to bear on a client’s life could be key to positive interactions, Meena said.

‘The trauma of going through the legal process is very situational … but for Aboriginal people that trauma is following intergenerational trauma, like the breakup of families, denial of language and culture and it permeates the relationship between the lawyer and that person.

‘Even though the lawyer will be trying to get a good outcome, their work could be affected by issues around privilege and other perceptions that could influence that relationship.’

Identity and cultural awareness

Meena is the daughter of a Yorta Yorta woman and a migrant father who is confident in her identity.

‘I like to say sometimes "I’m the Aboriginal woman with the Indian name". I can’t ever say I’m Aboriginal without saying I’m also of Indian heritage, just like I can’t ever say I’m Indian without saying I’m also Aboriginal,’ she said.

‘The good thing about cultural awareness training is that it encourages people who think, “I’m just Australian”, “I’m just white” or even “I don’t have a culture” to think about that and to realise that this is the dominant culture, this is what you have come to.’

But understanding identity is not just an issue for individuals, Meena asserts, ‘Victoria Legal Aid needs to know itself as an organisation before we can start to know other cultures and know how we can help them and creating an environment where that can happen is the start of the journey.'

More information

See why we introduced the Associate Director Aboriginal Services role.

Read our Reconciliation Action Plan.

Hear Meena speak at the upcoming Law Institute Victoria 8 June event Prison Songs: Addressing Aboriginal Incarceration Rates.

Find out more about our Aboriginal Clerkship Program.

Read Managing Director Bevan Warner's blog on Making Change Personal.