Episode 3 - Introducing Nani Jansen Reventlow and Systemic Justice
Nani Jansen Reventlow – Part 1
[00:00:00] Dr Miranda Melcher: Hello and welcome to Just Access. In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people, legal experts, academics, and human rights advocates, where we explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. I’m Dr. Miranda Melcher, a senior legal fellow at Just Access, and over the next two episodes, I talk to Nani Jansen Rewentlow who is an award winning human rights lawyer specializing in strategic litigation at the intersection of human rights, social justice, and technology.
[00:00:35] In this first episode, we focus on her background and the organization she’s founded called Systemic Justice, and the work that she and her organization do. In the second episode, we talk more about digital rights more broadly, about how the legal system works, some of the biggest gaps for justice she’s identified, and some possible solutions.[00:01:00]
[00:01:13] Dr Miranda Melcher: To start off with, can you walk us through how you came to work in human rights and human rights law?
[00:01:21] Nani Jansen Revetlow: How I came to work in human rights and human rights law? I think that it’s not as linear as it sometimes seems when you look at my CV. I did discover when I was in law school very early on when I started and that in and of itself was a bit of a journey because I started out studying to be a dentist first and then quit in my second year.
[00:01:42] And anyway, I ended up in law school, which is was for me the right place to be. But I think in my first months there, I had an introduction to public international law which just really sparked a huge interest with me and that made me decide to, besides the degree in Dutch civil law that I was following at the [00:02:00] time, to also take on a master’s degree on international and European law.
[00:02:05] And so I ended up doing both, but it was clear that I was much, much more interested in the public international law side of things and in the human rights aspects in particular. I then actually did a master’s on that front at Columbia Law School at LLM. I thought I hadn’t learned enough after law school in the Netherlands.
[00:02:26] And actually when I started doing my master’s, I was like, Ooh, maybe I did. But after that, I really tried to find work in human rights immediately. And that was really hard. Now, knowing what I know now, I completely understand why people would look for someone who has a bit more of experience, even though I worked all the way through law school in order to pay for it, I didn’t really practice, obviously, as a lawyer, even though I ended up working at law firms at some stage, also as a researcher and so I ended up following the advice of a friend of mine who worked at the UN legal department, who basically said do you feel that you [00:03:00] can hit the ground running in in a role like that, because I was looking at human rights roles.
[00:03:05] And that made me realize that I probably couldn’t and he really recommended that I trained at a law firm first to really learn how to be a proper lawyer, build skills, learn how, to really apply the law in practice, which I did. Can’t say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience at such law firm life really wasn’t my kind of culture.
[00:03:23] But it did help me, properly understand how to, approach litigation work, how to build a case file, how to look at evidence, legal argumentation, and so on. And the moment that I completed my training, I made my escape. So I applied for a couple of roles and was very lucky to end up working for an NGO in London that works worldwide to defend journalists called Media Defense.
[00:03:46] And this is where I really got to put the two together, the theoretical background on human rights law, international public international law, and the practical experience that I gained at the law firm. And that kind of sparked all of the other [00:04:00] work that followed afterwards because I discovered strategic litigation as a tool for change and so on.
[00:04:04] But that’s where it really all started to come in together.
[00:04:07] Dr Miranda Melcher: Thank you for that background. I think it is really helpful to hear those different pieces where necessary. There’s so often this idea of, oh, there is a perfect degree out there, and go and do that kind of, I’ve ticked all the boxes at once. And actually, as you’ve just shared with us, It’s not that simple.
[00:04:24] It’s this over here and that over there, and they all come together. So that’s really helpful to understand and obviously really interesting to then think about how that led to your current work. So can you please introduce us to your brainchild, introduce it to us and I guess the backstory, how did you found this, what do you do?
[00:04:46] Nani Jansen Revetlow: Yeah. So that would be systemic justice, which is the organization that I’ve been working on building for the past two years. We are the first black led majority black people of color organization in Europe that works on strategic litigation [00:05:00] for racial, social, and economic justice. Strategic litigation, I just mentioned that is one of the things that yeah, I got acquainted with in the context of my work defending journalists around the world.
[00:05:10] So that is like a recurring thread ever since in the work that I’ve done. After leaving media defense, I spent a year at Harvard at the Berkman Klein Center to really look at strategic litigation and particularly how you could get people from different disciplines to work together around strategic cases.
[00:05:27] So how can you get lawyers to work together with activists, with academics, with technical experts, to really bring about the biggest impact in a case. So it’s really about collaboration and following that I got the opportunity to set up the digital freedom fund, which is the first organization that I founded and built, which supports strategic litigation on digital rights, so human rights in a digital context in Europe.
[00:05:53] And I think it’s basically all of those different experiences combined, working as a [00:06:00] litigator, like getting a very close up look on how the law can both bring about huge change, but also how it can sometimes be difficult for people to actually use that system to their advantage, but also seeing as a re-granter, because that’s what we essentially were with Digital Freedom Fund, how lawyers approached strategic litigation projects. And that became increasingly difficult for me to see. I should mention there also that another factor played into it as well, which was the decolonizing work that I initiated when I was at DFF.
[00:06:32] I very quickly noticed when I just started that work, that when we were having conversations about human rights in the digital context in Europe, that those conversations tended to be held by white middle class non disabled, et cetera, people mostly men, also quite often and that they were not very reflective of the society that we live in.
[00:06:53] So that meant that we after actually, getting a little bit annoyed with the fact that a lot of talk was being [00:07:00] had about, like, how to change these things, but not a lot of action was undertaken decided to do something about it and initiate a process to really address these structural issues within the digital rights ecosystem.
[00:07:12] And that meant that we ended up connecting with a lot of organizations and movements and collectives across the region. That we’re working on racial, social and economic justice to really see how would digital rights fit into their work. And yeah, seeing in that process, like what a huge divide there was, and also understanding more and more what a huge disconnect there was quite often between lawyers and litigating organizations and communities that were doing resistance work.
[00:07:37] And that in combination with seeing the what I extremely increasingly began to consider an extractive dynamic between litigating organizations and communities, you saw lawyers swooping in when an issue got a digital rights aspect to it in spite of work having been done for decades by communities to resist certain manifestations of systemic injustice and then just run off with the case [00:08:00] essentially and claiming victory and leaving all of that groundwork.
[00:08:03] It had been done and the communities who should have been in charge behind. And that made me think and yeah, talk to co conspirators about this and really think, okay, we should be able to build something that works in a different way to make sure that communities are really leading on the cases that concern them that they’re able to set the agenda that they’re able to set the strategy and that they really remain in their power throughout.
[00:08:29] So that is what we’re trying to build with systemic justice. It’s a new model of community driven litigation. It builds on best practices from movement lawyering, et cetera, but it’s slightly different in the sense that it really is intended to make sure that communities themselves are in the lead in the cases that concern them in the middle part there basically is for us to work with community partners to develop litigation projects that can help further their campaigns for change, but we’re also doing work to build their knowledge and power more generally about strategic [00:09:00] litigation.
[00:09:00] What can I do for their campaigns for change? What are the the possibilities? What are the limitations? We just launched a toolkit, a community toolkit, for example, that includes a guide that actually takes people through the different ways in which litigation can really help make a difference in racial, social and economic justice cases.
[00:09:20] There’s a legal lexicon. So there’s like an explainer of complicated legal terms in normal human speak, which I think I sometimes also can use. And then there’s also a conversation starter that if communities are interested in exploring litigation, to have an idea of what are the things they can think about and discuss with each other.
[00:09:40] And then the other pillar of our work is a community of practice. We may be the first black led majority black people of color organization in Europe working on strategic litigation. But there are lots and lots of other organizations working on all different sorts of issues through litigation as a tool.
[00:09:57] On climate, for example on Roma [00:10:00] rights on labor rights, all sorts of different things. And a lot of them are very interested in working in a more community centered way, but also feel it would be helpful to be able to share best practices with other litigators in a space that’s safe for them to do so that’s something else that we’re facilitating, those exchanges and those learnings between different practitioners across the region.
[00:10:23] Dr Miranda Melcher: So this is obviously why we have you here. It’s brilliant, the work that you and your team are doing and the whole sort of how it developed, how it all links together is fabulous. So thank you very much for sharing that with us. Obviously in the sort of latter half of that answer, the amount of work that you’re doing on the multiple different pillars, there’s a lot going on here.
[00:10:44] So if we move from the why and the big picture what, practically speaking, what does your role involve on a day to day basis?
[00:10:55] Nani Jansen Revetlow: What do I do on a day to day basis? So I guess it’s my role to make sure that [00:11:00] we stay on course in pursuing our mission, which is to make sure that communities can take litigation on their own terms in their campaigns for change. That means building a fabulous team.
[00:11:12] We are now a group of 10. We hope to grow a little bit further in the new year, but then I think we’re at a sufficient strength to be doing the work in a sustainable way. So it’s actually making sure that all the practical things align with the mission and with the vision that we have for the change that we want to bring about.
[00:11:29] And that could mean. very different things on any given day. Sometimes it can mean having conversations like this or delivering a keynote or it could be being in case development meetings with community partners where we’re strategizing about what are different stakeholders that should be influenced in order to bring about the change and therefore what are the potential litigation strategies that could go with that. It could be looking at really practical things, such as all the nuts and bolts that are very unattractive, but important, like our IT security [00:12:00] and our case management system and things like that.
[00:12:03] So it, it varies a lot and also, obviously, as the team expands, and there are more people to take on dedicated roles, there will be more differentiation as to what everyone does. But I guess in the end of the day, my main job is making sure that it all like fits together, and that we have also, again, together with the team members, that we make sure that we have the right processes in place to make sure that we all know what everyone else is doing and we can make sure that yeah, we do the best we can in delivering what we want to deliver for our community partners.
[00:12:33] Dr Miranda Melcher: I imagine you don’t have quiet days given all of that.
[00:12:39] Nani Jansen Revetlow: I would almost say guilty as charged, but I’m becoming a little bit better at actually making sure I have some sort of a weekend.
[00:12:45] Dr Miranda Melcher: Oh yeah! Cause you need to like sleep and recharge to be able do all of this, yeah. No, that’s good! Earlier you mentioned a few, obviously the pillars and the overall mission, but also a few kind of specific projects. Obviously my favorite is the lexicon of [00:13:00] explaining legal terms in, as you said, human speak.
[00:13:03] This is. incredibly important. There are a lot of legal terms and they don’t relate to human speak directly. But are there any other either current projects or kind of upcoming projects that you’d particularly like to highlight or explain?
[00:13:17] Nani Jansen Revetlow: Oh, yeah there’s two that I would mention here. So one is the work that builds on the community consultation process that we started our work with. As I mentioned, we work on racial, social, and economic justice. We also work on those issues across the digital and non digital spectrum, building a bit further on the approach that we had at the Digital Freedom Fund, where we said digital rights are human rights.
[00:13:38] So all human rights in the digital context should be considered as digital rights, moving away from the more, narrow perspective that you had traditionally of privacy online data protection and free speech online. Instead we’re just saying okay, this fiction of a separation between digital and non-digital, we need to really do away with that and also do away with like [00:14:00] tech-centered narratives and acknowledge that these things exist in a continuum and the way that oppression manifests itself digitally or non digitally doesn’t really matter. The root causes are the same.
[00:14:12] So that is an awful lot of potential work that you could be doing. So what we wanted to make sure is that we focused our attention on those issues that were most urgent according to communities. So we engaged in a really extensive community consultation process early last year, which consisted of my having a lot of one on one conversations with people had about 100. We also had about 100 submissions to a needs assessment form that we had open.
[00:14:39] We had six roundtable conversations to look at different themes. And so we explored climate justice, access to justice, social protection, policing, free movement and anti racism. Each of these conversations with activists from all over the region to see what were the issues that they were firefighting on a daily basis? What are the potential for change that they [00:15:00] saw? And what are the opportunities for action that they also saw?
[00:15:03] And we also mapped over a thousand organizations, movements, and collectives across the region that were working on racial, social, and economic justice. And alongside that, we mapped the legal landscape to see what litigation work was already taking place.
[00:15:17] And when we put those two together, we ended up with climate justice and social protection as our priority areas. Climate justice really for us is the intersection of The fallout of the climate crisis with racial, social and economic justice and social protection is housing, healthcare, education, basically any area in which government should be providing access to essential services, but is doing less and less, particularly when it comes to certain groups who are basically left to fall through the safety net. And this was quite an exercise. It actually is something that kind of mushroomed out of conversation that we had with our head of research before we even formally existed.
[00:15:53] Oh, yeah, we should talk some people. We should consult them. And that kind of became this whole big enterprise. And we also [00:16:00] published the findings of that, right? Because I was really clear also for the people who participated that they wanted to make sure that this, which is a one of a kind, like really community view of resistance and also priorities and opportunities for change that they wanted to make sure that was out there in the world.
[00:16:14] So we published that in September last year. But also saw that there were certain things that we didn’t get as clearly from the information that we had collected. One of those actually was the role that technology plays in the oppression that communities are resisting. So this is something that we’re digging into a little bit more deeply now.
[00:16:33] And we also really work to expand on the regional coverage, if I can put it that way. Because we looked at all of the Council of Europe, but we saw that certain regions were just sub regions just more presented than others. So we really made an effort to get more information on those parts of Europe, which means that now we have a data set of 3000 organizations, movements and collectives across the region.
[00:16:56] And we’re engaging in deeper interviews with around [00:17:00] 50 different activists, which will give us an enhanced picture basically that will build on what we did last year. This will come out in June. We’ll also have a lot more time then to really properly work on data visualization to maybe make sure that it can be accessible and very usable for people for their own campaigns.
[00:17:16] So that is something to be on the lookout for. So we’ll obviously announce all of this, but it will be June 2024. And the other project I want to highlight is something that actually came out of all of these roundtable conversations and the conversation we also have with community partners subsequently about climate justice and building potential casework around there.
[00:17:39] And that was that there was very clearly a sentiment amongst black indigenous people of color led climate justice organizations and movements. Basically, their narrative is being pushed out of the frame at the moment when you look at the climate debate in Europe, which is very much a climate debate, very focused on carbon emissions, corporate accountability, [00:18:00] technical solutions, but not the realities that community partners are living.
[00:18:04] For example, one of the participants in our climate justice roundtable was Rosamund Kissi Debra, who is a clean air activist because her daughter Ella, 10 years ago, died of air pollution. Those are the lived realities of racialized and marginalized communities, and those are the things that we think there should be a lot more attention for at the moment.
[00:18:25] So what we’re doing is basically we set up an initiative to build the power of people glad climate justice movements and that comprises a speaker series, which we launched last month at the LBI conference in Berlin, which will be continued online for the coming months, be six installments in total, but we’re really digging into yeah, to like the deeper conversations about what does eco gentrification and climate justice have to do with each other? How does race play into all of this et cetera.
[00:18:55] We’re talking to a partner to develop a podcast series as [00:19:00] well for people who are interested in climate, but don’t know that much about climate justice. How can we make sure that they actually, yeah are taken into that work and better understand what the dimensions are and that the conversation hopefully will expand as a result of that.
[00:19:17] And last but definitely not least we’re organizing a climate justice summit in April of this coming year, where we hope to bring together 30 people, climate justice activists from around the region. To strategize to learn from each other, but also really yeah, articulate this positive vision for climate justice that people have, but quite often don’t have the space for because they’re busy firefighting and basically fighting for survival.
[00:19:41] But we do have ideas on how we can do things differently. So that would be the two other projects that I would highlight at this stage.
[00:19:49] Dr Miranda Melcher: Brilliant! Lots to look forward to, and thank you for highlighting them for us. Some amount of your work, at least, obviously not all of it is focused on digital [00:20:00] rights. And I’m wondering if I can ask you a little bit about that. There’s obviously a number of things that need to be reconceptualized, that the law needs to change, that we need to rethink.
[00:20:11] There’s a lot of changes that are needed in this space. But specifically, if we bring the ethos and mission of your organization, systemic justice to it, what then does it mean to decolonize digital rights?
[00:20:26] Nani Jansen Revetlow: So the decolonizing work that I initiated and which is wonderfully followed up on at the moment in the weaving liberation project, it’s yeah, wonderfully taken up on a life of its own, which is really great to see, was really intended to address the power structures that are in place.
[00:20:44] And in that particular case, we need to look at the power structures of the digital rights field, so not so much the entire world, right? Because there’s many different actors that need to be addressed if we’re really going to be tackling the issues with digital rights at the moment. [00:21:00] That includes the tech companies, it includes government, includes regulators, international bodies, et cetera. But that work was really focused on making sure that the field that’s supposed to be the watchdog actually also made structural changes and that means looking at things beyond just thinking that it’s a pipeline program because that’s often a go to response, right?
[00:21:22] Oh, we just need to bring in more people with different kinds of lived experience and that will just solve everything without really considering what are the kinds of organizations that they would then be working in, what is the fighting that we’d have to do internally in order to actually start shifting the debate.
[00:21:38] So that was and still continues to be the work of the decolonizing work at DFF and now the Weaving Liberation Initiative. The way that we look at it is really like trying to make clear, and I think that the upcoming report will be very illustrative of that, that the way that policymakers, big NGOs and governments, tech companies
[00:22:00] speak about technology is not the way that communities actually experience it.
[00:22:05] So there’s a disconnect there, even in a conceptualization of what technology is and how it plays out in people’s day to day reality. And there’s a really clear like divide that needs to be bridged there in order for us to get to places where we actually can formulate meaningful solutions to these challenges because we’re actually speaking a completely different language at the moment.
[00:22:30] One of the things that we’re trying to do, at least from the way that we approach the work and the way that we talk about it is as I just mentioned, like trying to move away from this kind of like tech centered narrative and actually really saying listen, it’s very nice that we talk about digital and non digital.
[00:22:46] It’s all connected for our community partners. It really doesn’t make much of a difference if they are being targeted by a racist predictive policing algorithm or if they’re being stopped on the street [00:23:00] corner and asked for that ID by someone who’s racially profiling them in person. It’s all comes down to the same root causes and that is what we’re trying to address with the work that we’re doing.
[00:23:10] Dr Miranda Melcher: That makes a lot of sense, given that community focus. It’s a problems thing that the goal is to address.
[00:23:16] Dr Miranda Melcher: Thank you, Nani, for introducing us to systemic justice and your own background and exploring the work that you’re doing with us. In our next episode, we will look more and discuss more about digital rights and many other gaps in the access to justice system and explore possible solutions.