This member spotlight features an interview with @vesnashapkoski, of Association for legal education and transparency LET STATION in Macedonia, who was one of LELC 2019 Awardees.
For Vesna and the rest of the LET team, organizing legal and paralegal work in a way that it would not collide with the work of lawyers and not provoke unfair competition in Macedonia was an issue. The fact that there were very many lawyers in the country stemming a huge competition among them, was not the only issue. Giving legal aid if one isn’t a registered lawyer is a criminal felony, even though there is a law on free legal aid since the law doesn’t recognize paralegals. To solve this, Vesna and team are working to open space for future legislative initiatives to recognize paralegal work.
What is your organization’s mission?
The mission of LET STATION is to meet the legal needs of the citizens by encouraging openness and cooperation of the institutions. The main goals of our work and activity are:
- To provide education and assistance to citizens in the realization of their rights, with a focus on vulnerable and marginalized groups, especially Roma, in the area of health and social rights.
- Encourage the institutions of the system of transparency and accountability in the work, tailored to the needs of the citizens.
- To promote equality of citizens on all grounds, by undertaking activities for prevention and protection against discrimination.
- Encourage individuals and legal entities to engage in humanitarian actions to reduce poverty.
- To provide conditions for multiethnic and social cohesion and action through the inclusion of people of different ethnic, geographical and social profile as an opportunity to make a real and effective contribution to positive social change.
- Contribute to achieving gender equality and addressing existing inequalities between men and women, with a view to promoting women’s inclusion in social processes.
What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?
We address issues such as inequality and discrimination, denied access to justice, inability to realize basic health and social rights of the marginalized communities. We also look into other determinants that influence the quality of community life, such as housing, employment, and agriculture rights. In the last year, we started focusing on institutional corruption on a local level as one of the biggest issues of our society but from the grass-roots aspect. This was after the realization that it is rarely being addressed, but it’s directly affecting citizens the most.
How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems?
We believe that legal empowerment is the tool to improve access to justice for all and by that fight and overcome existent inequalities. Therefore, we use this tool in a way that gives strength and knowledge to the communities, brings the law closer to them, and turns it from something abstract and unavailable to something that they can hold onto when fighting injustice.
What is/are major challenge(s) you face in your work, and what are you doing to overcome them?
We face many challenges throughout our everyday work; from lack of long term motivation to be persistent in fulfilling the set goals at the side of the communities, to poor response or openness for cooperation at the side of institutions, to fighting unpredicted circumstances and adapting our work so that it is available and visible to the broader public in different ways. The grass root legal empowerment work is a constant battle that requires a lot of flexibility, courage and above all a firm belief in your goals.
What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability and/or scale of your work?
Implementing the bottom-up approach gives our work a human dimension. We focus on real, everyday issues citizens face in exercising their rights and promoting the law as a vibrant tool that should be put in the hands of those whose lives are affected by its proper content and implementation.
Also, including members of the community in our everyday work of legal education, field activities, and paralegal aid gives credibility and sustainability to our work. We consider it the right way to give power to the people independently of our presence in their lives and work.
What can you say was your biggest takeaway from the Legal Empowerment Leadership Course?
The unique possibility to see the bigger picture of legal empowerment work throughout the world enabled me to better understand and appreciate the importance of what we do and how we can upgrade it.
The face-to-face sharing of experiences with colleagues on different topics and especially getting their feedback on our Work plan Call Emergency Paralegal Aid was a rare learning experience that I took as extremely important and groundbreaking.
How has what you learned impacted your organization so far?
The case studies and examples that we shared and talked through, each one of them, helped me and my team rethink and shape the design of the paralegal work that we initialized this year but also other forms of field activism that we are continuously implementing.
How does your organization or staff exhibit courage in the face of challenges?
The work with marginalized communities, in general, is a tough one and often can be exhausting and discouraging. However, we are lucky to have motivated and enthusiastic people in the team and in our communities, who can always find joy and reason to smile and see the bright side of things. We always try to keep a positive spirit; we joke a lot and listen to music most of the time. We encourage each other, to do more and be more, to learn new things and advance ourselves not only in the field of our work but in our own personal development as well.
Do you have any tips from your experience that may be useful for other practitioners?
Always listen and pay attention to what the people from the communities tell you and especially how they reflect on the implementation of the laws. You can have the most progressive and inclusive legislation in theory that can still not be implemented properly in practice. Most often, the stumbling block in such cases is some administrative omission or improper regulation that is hard to detect than to remove.
Do you have any recommendations for a book, a quote, a resource, or a piece of art or music that keeps you or your team inspired and motivated?
We often use and repeat the quote “If the law is not available to everyone, then the justice is not available to everyone. And if the justice is not available to everyone, it is not a right but a privilege.”