Reflections on 15 years at the Castan Centre

By Sarah Joseph, Castan Centre Director

Wow. What a wonderful ride it has been to be Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law for the last 15 years.

First, I must pay tribute to Ron Castan AM QC. It was a huge privilege to run a Centre named in his honour, and I can only hope that we have gone some small way to living up to his tremendous legacy. And I have been enormously grateful for the continuous support of the Castan family: Nellie, Lindy, Steve and of course the marvellous Melissa.

Second, I have to be proud that the Castan Centre has always been able to attract the best people. Seriously, they have all been an inspiration to work with: Tom Davis, Katie Mitchell, Erica Contini, Andre Dao, Sarah Austin, Caitlin McInnis, Adam Fletcher, Eleanor Jenkin, Alice Dowling. That continues to this day – with the recent appointments of Karin Frode as Policy Manager and Andrea Olivares-Jones as Project Officer. And I have great satisfaction that those that have left have gone on to excellent human rights jobs (with a disproportionate amount heading to Victorian Legal Aid!)

I must single out Marius Smith, who was Manager of the Centre throughout all of my time as Director less just a few months. Before departing in May to become the CEO of VACRO, which offers crucial support to prisoners in their transition back into the community, Marius was the engine of the Castan Centre. He cajoled us academics to aim far outside (as well as within) the ivory tower – hence we produced not just articles and books but also reports, policy papers, videos and blogs. The Centre was an early adopter of social media and remains prominent in that space. Marius foresaw the academic focus on impact long before it became a job requirement, and he probably still understands the concept more than most in the tertiary sector. I must thank Marius for his tremendous energy and loyalty for nearly fifteen years, and his ongoing friendship. One could not have wished for a more dedicated co-worker …

… apart from, perhaps, our ongoing administrator, Janice Hugo. She had a hard act to follow in succeeding Kay Magnani, our super first administrator, in 2010. There has been little cause to worry about the running of things in the Centre, because Janice is always on top of it. It became silly to ask her if something was being done, as generally she had already done it. And again, the loyalty and willingness to go the extra mile is extraordinary. The Centre is in great hands while Janice is organising its stuff: everything just … works.

My wonderful academic colleagues in the Centre have ensured its success. Centres are necessarily voluntary on top of other parts of academic work, so the key ingredient in making Centres work is enthusiasm, and the Centre has that in spades. I must thank my predecessor, David Kinley, who established the academic culture of the place. The “older-timers” include Melissa Castan, Julie Debeljak and Paula Gerber, and also Adam McBeth who left for the bar in 2016. And around 2010 the Centre exploded with a new generation of academics: Tania Penovic, Joanna Kyriakakis, Maria O’Sullivan, Ronli Sifris, Az Dastyari … and of course the Associates, a dozen more academics dedicated to the Centre. Again, it is in great hands with all of you people at the helm.

We’ve long been inspired by our students, and we are proud to have sent dozens away on life-changing Global Internships (with the help of generous donors), and to have increased our capacities immeasurably with our in-house interns. The Castan Centre moot has attracted constant praise from (real) judges, impressed with the standard of student argumentation. Many of our Castan Centre alumni are now in key human rights positions, a trend that will undoubtedly continue.

We have had wonderful external support, especially from our patron, Michael Kirby, who launched the Centre back in 2000. Lawfirms have supported crucial programs, including Maurice Blackburn, Holding Redlich, and King & Wood Mallesons. We have had excellent relationships with many organisations, including the Human Rights Law Centre and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And I must also thank our dedicated Advisory Board, including our Chair Katherine Teh. And thanks again to our many donors.

Highlights. There are too many. I have always been particularly proud of the quirky Check out those videos – they are genuinely educational and funny. We have conducted training programmes in Australia, Myanmar, Indonesia, and most recently Vietnam. We host a fundraising dinner (with the first one emceed by one Hannah Gadsby) and an annual conference with the best vibes. And multiple visitors have come to talk to our members (mostly for free), including a wide array of special rapporteurs and UN treaty body members, judges, human rights commissioners, celebrated academics, activists and civil society, journalists, celebrities, and human rights victims.

I am proud that we have made an impact in many areas of human rights, too numerous to mention over 15 years. Sometimes it feels as if human rights entail many steps backwards before going just a bit forwards. But those steps forwards add up, and are crucial. And while human rights is a serious business, I can genuinely say that leading the Castan Centre has been a lot of fun, an essential quality for fulfilling work.

David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Pacific and a speaker for us on multiple occasions, once asked me what it was like to have the world’s best job. His question was well-founded. I hope he is wrong, in that one always hopes that the best job is in the future not the past, but if he was right (and it will be hard to top this), I can only say it was an honour and a treat. Together we have made a difference to human rights, and I have made many life-long friends.

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2 responses to “Reflections on 15 years at the Castan Centre”

  1. Sad to see you leaving the Castan Centre – its human rights videos and the annual conferences are a highlight – so thought provoking and eye-opening. Wishing you all the very best in your future endeavours.
    Roz Germov, Barrister and Registered Migration Agent

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