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Law & Design CoLab
August 12, 2020
Avery Au from the Law and Design CoLab on seizing the opportunity to strengthen the public’s understanding of the justice system and grow a broad coalition for systemic change.
Tell us about the Law and Design CoLab. How would you describe your purpose and what makes you unique?
The Law & Design CoLab’s mission is to use design and digital media to make legal education and advocacy more impactful. We’re an Ontario-based nonprofit that has a unique model of skills-based volunteering. Our members include both lawyers and professionals from creative industries like UX/product design, advertising & marketing, graphic design, and web development.
We scope projects by reviewing the research and consulting broadly with legal experts. Then, collaborating in small flexible teams, CoLab members work to conceive and create multimedia to amplify the impact of legal advocacy.
We hope that our work can help foster a culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration in Canada’s justice sector and strengthen civic engagement with justice issues.
We are all navigating this pandemic in different ways. What’s a key insight from how the Law & Design CoLab is responding to the crisis?
Thankfully, we haven’t had to make many changes to our work style since our team has always been a digital-first collaboration. Even before the pandemic, we often held online meetings where members participated from several different locations across Canada.
This spring, we decided to focus our efforts on building out an educational website for the Unlock Bail Reform project having a wide range of interactive features. This highly collaborative effort was facilitated using a variety of digital tools including G Suite for Nonprofits, Slack, Zoom, Calendly, Figma, GitHub, Miro, Airtable, Evernote, and Hubspot.
Currently, we’re ramping up our outreach – which is being done exclusively online – in an effort to secure institutional and corporate partners who can enable the next phase of multimedia for the Unlock Bail Reform project.
This moment is prompting crucial conversations about the structural inequality and violence faced by Black and Indigenous communities. How does this relate to the work of the Law & Design CoLab?
Structural inequality is a major problem in Canada’s justice sector that is felt in virtually every part of Canada’s civil and criminal legal systems. Right now, with both the pandemic and the global protests supporting Black Lives Matter, there’s an unprecedented level of public attention and concern being directed towards Canada’s justice sector. As legal advocates, we have an incredible opportunity to strengthen the public’s understanding of the justice system and grow a broad coalition for systemic change.
The CoLab’s work on bail reform is deeply connected to structural racism and inequality. Bail is often described as the most important decision in the criminal process because it’s highly determinative of a lot of outcomes that follow. By understanding harsh realities of the bail process, we also gain insight into problems with the criminal justice system more broadly, namely: how insufficient investment in social programs and community health, an underfunded legal aid system, and a culture based on fear harm the lives of vulnerable people and compromise our moral principles.
That being said, a core commitment of the CoLab is to engage audiences in a way that does not overwhelm them with hard truths or make them feel that change is hopeless. We see our efforts as “sustaining and building” momentum for change because leaders in the legal profession have worked for years to change the bail system’s status quo and have achieved some major successes.
We also believe it’s important to recognize that there are many things to be proud of in our legal system and legal culture, especially in comparison to other countries around the world.
What’s one big challenge you see facing in Canada’s democracy? How are you working on this challenge or what solutions do you propose?
A central set of challenges facing Canadian democracy is how we’ll adapt to rapid changes in our information ecosystem and their impact on our personal and social lives – challenges like disinformation, echo chambers, virality, polarization, among many others. Of course, this same rapid change has also opened amazing opportunities to reach and connect with people using interactive digital formats.
We see our work at the CoLab as part of an emerging genre of civic-minded strategic communications that leverages multimedia to engage a broader audience and galvanize action on urgent, social challenges. There’s a lot of room for innovation to discover more effective approaches. We admire many groups who publish multimedia content in this genre including news organizations, like Vox and Pro Publica, and justice-sector nonprofits, like the Vera Institute and the Bail Project.
Could you share an idea or initiative related to increasing civic engagement or democratic participation that inspires you?
Returning to the theme of fostering new kinds of civic education and engagement, there are many US organizations in the justice space that we find inspiring, for example Movement Alliance Project, Brooklyn Defenders, Media Justice, or Color of Change to name a few. We aim to bring this type of innovation to Canada by partnering with leading nonprofits and legal experts.
We’re also inspired by the many organizations who are committed to discovering how to develop and deliver human-centered legal information and services, for example the Legal Design Alliance and the Stanford Legal Design Lab.
Tell us about how the Law & Design CoLab is making its work more inclusive and building engagement with different communities. Any tips or lessons to share with others in the sector about decreasing barriers and increasing participation?
We’ve found that our volunteers – who work as lawyers, legal experts, and creative professionals – come from a very wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Part of this diversity can be attributed to our effort to cast a very wide net when advertising volunteer opportunities and events. For example, last February we held a large Creative Design Challenge and made an open call to creatives of all types that was distributed widely across social platforms and promoted by higher ed programs and cultural/community centres.
Are there specific things you need help with, problems you’re trying to solve or wishes you have for the broader sector?
Securing sustainable funding is a major challenge across the nonprofit, especially during this pandemic. Right now, we’re focusing our efforts on building corporate partnerships that can provide the in-kind and financial support to enable rich multimedia and thought-provoking events for the next phase of the Unlock Bail Reform project.
For people looking to engage with you, how can they get involved? Who can they contact?
The Law & Design CoLab is a volunteer-led nonprofit based in Ontario. We use design and digital media to make legal education and advocacy more impactful. We have a unique model of skills-based volunteering. Our members are both lawyers and professionals from creative industries like UX/product design, advertising & marketing, graphic design, and web development. We work with legal experts and community stakeholders to conceive and create experiences that amplify legal advocacy efforts. Our work is part of an emerging genre of civic-minded strategic communications that leverages multimedia to engage a broader audience and galvanize action on urgent, social challenges.
This is an unprecedented moment for democracy in Canada so we created Sector Spotlight to learn about how leading practitioners are responding to it. Have ideas for our next Sector Spotlight? Get in touch!
Avery Au, Director of the Law & Design CoLab
Avery Au is a lawyer who directs the Law & Design CoLab, a nonprofit based in Ontario. The CoLab engages legal experts and community stakeholders to conceive and create multimedia that makes legal education and advocacy more impactful.