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Community service

Community service

Helen Campbell OAM has spent much of her career providing legal assistance to society's most disenfranchised. The CEO of the Women's Legal Service NSW tells Claire Chaffey why leading a…

Helen Campbell OAM has spent much of her career providing legal assistance to society's most disenfranchised. The CEO of the Women's Legal Service NSW tells Claire Chaffey why leading a community legal centre requires passion, performance and planning.

Arriving on the doorstep of the Women's Legal Service NSW, one could be forgiven for thinking they'd come to the wrong place.

Hiding in a quiet suburban street in Lidcombe in Sydney's west, the red brick building in which it is housed is largely non-descript. There's no signage or visible activity, nor the slightest indication that a bustling legal service thrives behind its locked security door.

Once inside, however, it is a different story entirely: posters depicting the empowerment of women, condemning domestic violence and advocating for the rights of gays and lesbians brighten the waiting room walls, and an air of ordered chaos occupies the busy halls and offices piled high with files, books and boxes of documents.

Leading the bustle is Helen Campbell, the organisation's chief executive officer and recent recipient of a Medal of the Order of Australia.

Upon first impressions, Campbell is somewhat like the organisation which she heads: welcoming, colourful, no-nonsense and absolutely passionate about using the law to assist women in need.

She is also acutely modest about her achievements and exudes no air of self-importance as she confesses to being a workaholic unable to simply do her day job and feel she's giving all that she could (she did give up her positions on the six boards on which she sat in 2010 in order to "have a break", she says, but her plan only lasted six months and she was last week elected as chair on yet another committee).

Given that Campbell has spent the vast majority of her career working in community legal centres, her work ethic and cheery demeanor perhaps come as no surprise.

After all, lawyers who work in such organisations are generally known for their deep social values and willingness to forego high salaries for the sake of providing access to justice to the underprivileged.

For Campbell, while joining the community legal centre fray at the start of her career was not necessarily a targeted decision, it is one which she would never change and, to a certain extent, one which she believes was fateful.

"I have never regretted turning to community legal centres. It is a wonderful place to have a career," she says. "I know it doesn't pay very well, but there is a huge amount of flexibility and freedom to pursue what you're interested. I wanted to make a difference and law is the structure of society. Grappling with the architecture of society is where you get a chance to build things in different ways."

Campbell's first experience in a community legal centre was working for the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) in the late 1980s. Here, Campbell relished the chance to work with an organisation which was tackling black deaths in custody cases, and join the action as land rights protesters used the 1988 bicentenary to plead their cause - with many being hauled off to the police station for their efforts.

"It was terrific to start at the ALS because [Indigenous people are] a very oppressed group of people," she says. "It was an exciting time to be around. It's a terrific community to work with because they're so resilient and good humoured. Given what has happened to them, they are remarkably cheerful. Unlike a lot of countries where there has been that history of dispossession, they are not out there ... lobbing bombs at us. When you think about it, they have been very tolerant."

But not all was well at the ALS, and Campbell soon realised the extent to which Indigenous women were being further marginalised by the very service supposedly there to assist them.

"During that time I really came to see the extent to which Aboriginal women were not being well served by that organisation ... A lot of the issues that Aboriginal women were facing were not being well catered for," she says.

"The ALS quite sensibly had a policy of not doing black against black cases, because we had enough on our plates doing black against the rest of the world. So if there was a dispute between Aboriginal people we wouldn't do it. That effectively meant that a lot of the things Aboriginal women were dealing with, such as family law issues, were not dealt with."

Campbell's experience at the ALS is one which has stayed with her throughout her career.

While she did dabble in private practice for a year, largely in order to qualify for an unrestricted practicing certificate (something which was not an option within community legal centres at the time), she soon realised where she did - or didn't - belong.

"I did one year in private practice. I made less money than the photocopy boy. I was hopeless at getting the clients to pay me"

Helen Campbell, CEO, Women's Legal Service NSW

"I did one year in private practice. I made less money than the photocopy boy. I was hopeless at getting the clients to pay me," she laughs.

Throughout the 90s, Campbell did stints at other community legal centres, in a government department and even in politics, but in 2002 she landed a role as executive officer at Redfern Legal Centre, where she stayed until 2010.

Essentially, it was her role here which earned Campbell her OAM - something which came as quite a shock.

"I was very surprised, because I've had a lifetime of being a stirrer, really," she muses. "I didn't actually think the powers-that-be would give me an award. It's proof of what a democratic nation we are: the Government not only funds me to criticise them, but they give me a medal for doing it!"

On a more serious note, though, Campbell says she is grateful for the recognition the award brings to the work of community legal centres in general, as well as her years of hard work and dedication to a community about which she is quite obviously passionate.

In a career that has spanned more than 20 years, Campbell's time at the WLS has been relatively short. There is thus, she says, a lot more for her to achieve in her role of CEO before she considers taking it easy. And doing this, she adds, allows her to indulge her passion for management and leadership, which she likens to a theatrical foray.

"Leadership is a performance, and it is a performance that has to be convincing enough to get people to follow you," she says.

"There are a lot of things that go with that: confidence, reliability, being interactive, being interruptible, but it is also about inspiring people. You want to create a place where the atmosphere is energised. It is not only that people are enjoying being at work, but that they're busy and engaged and dedicated and focused on what we do."

Campbell says that sincere and effective leadership is particularly important within an environment such as a community legal centre, largely because funding is so scarce.

"Because we have a few crumbs of resources that have to be distributed, we really have to count every crumb to ensure that we are getting maximum value," she says. "We have to be focused and we have to max ourselves out. The only way you can operate at full strength all the time is if people are really enthusiastic about putting themselves into it."

While Campbell is optimistic that organisations like the WLS will continue to forge change through their case, policy and community education work, she laments the bigger picture when it comes to allowing everyone in society to have an equal playing field in both life and the justice system.

"I am really concerned with vilification and people being labeled because of what they look like, what religion they practice, or the manner in which the arrived in Australia. Like all prejudices, it is basically laziness. It says, 'I can't be bothered getting to know you as an individual and trying to understand your circumstances. I can just tell at a glance what label fits you and then I don't have to bother thinking about you anymore'," she says.

"The more prevalent that is, the less likely the recipients of those labels are going to get a fair go. While ever we go about the place labeling people, the more risk of people feeling they don't have a justice system that cares for them. And the more people around us who don't feel they've had a fair go, the less safe we all are."

Like this story? Read more:

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Community service
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