One of the fundamental principles of Learning Together is community. Each Learning Together community is co-produced, evolving, compassionate, active and inclusive. The Learning Together Network is growing steadily, as are our existing communities within prisons, as students complete courses and move on to mentoring and facilitating roles and new collaborations emerge beyond individual courses. Within our own community we continue to draw energy and inspiration from a wider group of people and initiatives that share our vision and values.
Last week, I journeyed to Brixton to visit an innovative legal advice project, called ‘Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen’. The first thing that was evident about the project, established by lawyer Twanieka Alcindor, is that they too are fundamentally committed to community. Brixton is a community that is changing fast, though, despite the area’s constant state of flux, Twanieka tells me that she remembers going past the Soup Kitchen on the bus as a young child with her mother and watching the men outside playing dominoes. Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen is not a misnomer; the project is a drop-in legal advice clinic which takes place once a week for a few hours in a room above a working soup kitchen. It has quickly become a community fixture and a valuable local service which prides itself on the fact that they never turn anybody away.
This is the project’s third year of giving free legal advice to the Brixton community, Twanieka explains that for most of their first year she was the only volunteer in the soup kitchen providing legal assistance. Now, two years later, the project has ‘a coachload’ of students at their disposal, ranging from first year law students all the way through to lawyers who are completing their training contracts and qualified barristers and solicitors.
The project has gone from strength to strength and is about to release its own film, ‘Brixton on Trial’, which was filmed in the Royal Courts of Justice and stars young people from the community in a mock murder trial. As Twanieka tells me more about the film, it’s clear that the project is innovative from start to finish – young people at risk of knife, gun and gang crime were recruited from the local area, surrounded by positive role models from the legal profession, and taught about rights, the police and the law through acting in the film. This was the first time that cameras had ever been allowed inside the Royal Courts of Justice, they were told on numerous occasions that cameras were not allowed before finally getting the go-ahead to film. Many would be discouraged long before this point. But Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen persisted and have done the previously impossible.
Another striking aspect of this particular project is the support for the law students volunteering their time. Twanieka is providing another service alongside the obvious – she encourages her team to debate legal topics between clients, shares interview tips and highlights her own experience of failure. It is encouraging that this next generation of lawyers will have such guidance. Primarily, however, the project is about providing quality, compassionate, and free legal advice to the Brixton community. Twanieka tells me that despite changes to the local community, the one unifying factor is that everyone who comes through the project’s door is in need of help. I am struck by how hands-on and practical the Soup Kitchen’s work is – one client, who is battling with the Council to keep the flat she has lived in for 30 years, is told by her advisor ‘I’ll call the council first thing tomorrow after I have taken my kids to school’. This is a different service to some legal advice clinics which may take two weeks to draft a letter of advice to a client before any action is taken. Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen understand that many people need help now.
Twanieka told me that the project quickly gained attention for what they are doing in the Soup Kitchen but that the harder part has been to help people to understand why they are doing it. I leave the soup kitchen and start my journey back to Brixton tube station. I pass seven police officers surrounding a man whose hands are cuffed behind his back. The man is crying and pleading with the police. I am once again reminded that although Learning Together and Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen are two distinct projects it is the human element that connects them. This work is often about despair, pain and power but always about compassion, hope and love.
Follow @LISKBrixton for updates on Lawyers in the Soup Kitchen
Jack Merritt, Butler Law Course Convener