Learning from women: Volunteering at FLAC’s Woman Only sessions
A blog by Free Legal Advice Centre Volunteer, Jennifer Fernandez Owsianka
Since 2015, Toynbee hall has offered a women only legal advice clinic to provide a safe and supportive environment for women to receive free legal advice. The Saturday women only legal advice session was originally set up to serve the needs of the large Bangladeshi community in Tower Hamlets but we became aware that many women who would have liked to access free legal advice nevertheless found it uncomfortable or inhibiting to attend a mixed gender clinic, and that attending this during weekday evenings could be problematic.
Jennifer volunteers at the clinic has written this blog sharing her experiences and what’s she’s learned in her time volunteering with us.
Volunteering at the Saturday Women Only sessions (WO) has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Attending the reception and seeing clients talking to each other, who would otherwise probably never do so, is invaluable. I see how strangers can lift each other’s spirits. By something as simple as complimenting shoes.
At WO sessions, I often sit down and triage clients face-to-face. This is something I would otherwise do over the phone. Being face-to-face means that I need to respond and react appropriately in the moment to the client’s case. I have to filter and manage my emotions at the same time.
During one triage, a client told me about how her husband and her father took their own lives. I sat there, with my pen and paper, feeling rather helpless. It was hard to hear that. But seeing this client’s resilience on her face inspired me. Her strength helped me to stay calm and composed.
I learn so much from the clients I see, their stories, and their suffering. They model resilience in a way that makes it easier for me to carry out my role.
At the WO sessions, I work closely with Laura, the other FLAC volunteer. We’ve learnt to support each other and distribute tasks. We can quickly say to each other: ‘can you print this? I’ll call the client’. It’s over time that we’ve been able to develop such understanding and collaboration. We’ve also learnt to laugh about the computers not always working.
The WO sessions can run long after the clients have left. I still remember one session where I was helping the legal advisors send some documents. It was late and they were visibly tired. The documents kept on failing to send. I realised then that part of my role is to bring patience, and ideally, a little bit of humour to the process. Especially when there is a technical issue or a long administrative process to be completed.
Bringing humour and patience makes it easier for everyone.
I’ve grown to love the time spent, after the WO session, finalizing documents with advisors, and brainstorming with Jasmine and Laura about how we can improve the service. We often have very long discussions together. These become moments where we generate lots of ideas and vision. It always makes me think that a team of women can create so much impact.
There is something uniquely fulfilling about a long day like this.
The WO sessions are important to me – primarily – because I learn so much from inspiring and resilient women. I learn about patience, struggle, and professionalism from both the FLAC team, the volunteers, and the clients.
Support the Women Only Clinic
In the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, demand for our services is now beginning to increase. As people’s financial futures, their housing, employment and stability becomes uncertain and with women in particular disproportionately affected and more likely to have their employment impacted, offering a women only clinic is more important now that ever. You can support us and help keep this vital service running in the wake of Coronavirus.