Jennifer Kanis at the second Alumni Law Breakfast: “We are hoping to build up the community to make a difference.”

On Friday 23 September 2016 the La Trobe Law School welcomed Jennifer Kanis, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)  as the keynote speaker at this semester’s alumni breakfast held at our City Campus in Collins Street.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

Jennifer began by taking the members of the audience on a visual journey as she painted a picture of the ASRC’s premises in Footscray. Each section of the building, from the reception to the food bank to the communal eating area where lunch is served every day, has been carefully planned. “The ASRC welcomes some of the most vulnerable people in our community to a safe space where they can have a hot meal, shop for their groceries at the food bank, and find a sense of community by interacting with other people.” In addition, the organisation provides a spectrum of legal services from basic legal advice to acting for applicants in their more complex cases. The students of La Trobe Law School will be assisting the centre through the student clinical legal education programs whereby students can help the lawyers at the ASRC with the large volume of  applications for protection  through the Government’s ‘Fast Track’ system. By using the skills developed in their law degrees, combined with the strong social justice ethos which becomes engrained in our graduates, this partnership will both help prepare applications for people seeking asylum  and provide meaningful clinical legal education opportunities for students.

Persuading the fifty percent

Jennifer then spoke about the need to change community attitudes towards people seeking asylum, and highlighted the ASRC’s research and work in this area.  In 2015, the ASRC commissioned research to find ways to improve their advocacy in an issue that has become deeply polarised. The research, called “Words that Work” has given the ASRC a pathway to change the conversation and help change community attitudes. Language is important – for example, ‘person seeking asylum’ is a more humanised approach and elicits a far more compassionate response when compared with the commonly used term ‘asylum seeker’. The research also found that starting a discussion around common values had a more positive and persuasive impact when asking people to support a more humane approach to people seeking asylum.

It enables them to engage with the bulk of the population who often put the issue in the ‘too hard basket’: “For too long people who are passionate about  refugee rights  have focused their effort in arguing with  the people in favour of more draconian policies – this has done little to change attitudes or policy.” Jennifer Kanis said, “Instead we should focus on those in the middle who are open to new ideas but unconvinced by battles fought in mainstream and social media – instead, such ‘shouting’ makes them switch off.” Jennifer encourages her staff to emphasise a positive message instead: “We find that when we talk to people about values like family, safety and peace we are far more convincing than when we speak about rights, obligations and problems.”

Power to the community

In Jennifer Kanis’ opinion, engaging with people who have lived experience seeking asylum is a key aspect of bringing about social change: “Through the ASRC, we are providing intensive workshops for people with lived experience, allowing them to be trained in lobbying, media skills and story-telling. Our aim is to help people obtain the skills to be  advocates in a safe and rewarding way.” By giving participants the tools to make a change, Jennifer Kanis and the ASRC are hoping to build new community engagements and alliances to make a real difference for those people seeking asylum amongst us.

We would like to thank Jennifer for taking the time to so warmly and generously educate our alumni on the incredible work that the ASRC continues to do.


La Trobe