The Little Centre that Could

Marius Smith looks back on 14 years at the Castan Centre.

When I started at the Castan Centre in 2005, I could immediately feel the energy from the Law Faculty’s human rights community. The centre was small, but already well run by a great administrator, Kay Magnani, and a group of enthusiastic, early career academics who were really keen to make it a success. Although it took me three years to stitch together enough money to make my role full time, I knew I’d fallen on my feet from the beginning. 

The Centre’s personality was already set before I arrived – we wanted to give students opportunities, bring human rights to the masses and pressure governments to better protect human rights. 

We had an early win when I managed to grab some unused faculty money to create the Global Internship Program. We took a different approach to most similar university programs – instead of giving a little bit of money to a lot of students, we created opportunities that were cost neutral, allowing almost any law student to apply, and making a real difference to the lives of those who were successful. Then we went and found donors to expand the program. 

Over the next 13 years, we supported almost 100 students who have gone on to truly impressive careers. Last week, as part of my new job, I contacted a law firm to find that their new national pro bono manager is a Global Intern. A few weeks before that, I came across another alum working at the coal face in the criminal law system. A friend of mine is working on aid projects in Iraq and Syria right now alongside two former Global Interns. Many interns have told me over the years that the opportunity changed the course of their lives – that network of incredible young people is something I’ll always cherish. 

We put together a few fun programs for students over the years – we ran the country’s first human rights moot comp for law students from all over the country, we funded an essay competition for secondary school students and we gave hundreds of students opportunities through our short-term in-house internship program. 

We really started to have fun when I decided on a bit of a whim to sign us up for Twitter and live tweet the 2009 annual conference. I had no idea what I was doing, and by the end of the day I’d gathered 22 followers, a headache and a complaint from the woman sitting next to me who thought I’d been playing games on my phone all day. 

I gradually worked out what I was doing, and we developed an unusually large following for an academic centre. Soon, I’d also created two Twitter juggernauts – Sarah Joseph and Melissa Castan, who really found their voice on the platform, and were very savvy social media advisors to me.

Social media inspired us to think of even more fun ways to bring human rights to the masses, so we came up with Have You Got That Right?, a series of videos that used humour to educate people about topical human rights questions. We put together a writing room of volunteer uni students, roped in pro bono actors and production people and even got a veteran film and TV producer and editor, Robert Hall, to oversee it all. The result was 19 high quality videos produced on an absolute shoestring that have been viewed almost 200,000 times. 

Doing things on a shoestring was a specialty for us. Although we had excellent in-kind (and some cash) support from the university, we had to raise the vast majority of our money externally. In the early years, that meant learning how to fundraise, in addition to learning how to do comms, produce videos, write submissions and manage a budget with very few staff. We managed to create the illusion that we were quite large.  

From the time I started in 2005, I was trying to work out how we could better use our academic expertise to change law and policy. It’s a tricky dynamic, because our experts are academics employed by the university to carry out two key responsibilities: teach students, and publish high quality books and journal articles. Writing a comprehensive submission to a parliamentary committee, or meeting with a politician on a vital issue is  not part of their job. And even though our academics were keen to volunteer for this extra work, they were often required to do it when they were not available: for example, if the government proposed a change to asylum laws while our refugee academics were each marking 200 exam papers, we just had to let the issue slide. 

That’s why I proposed a policy manager – someone with the research abilities of an academic who would be employed directly by the Centre. The manager would be able to leverage our academics’ expertise to write submissions and policy papers and appear in the media. When we first found some money for that role in 2010, our outputs went up, and so did our effectiveness – not only could we now make more submissions to parliamentary inquiries and correspond with politicians, we could also become more proactive. We could set our own agenda and pursue policy change in the areas where we thought it would have the greatest effect.  

By the time I left, we had put out a landmark report on the need for massive change in Victoria’s education system to better accommodate students with disabilities, we were mapping laws regulating the use of force in all closed environments (prisons, mental health facilities etc), and we were looking at the burgeoning use of AI by Australian governments. We had identified serious human rights risks in each of those areas and we were attempting to put them onto the public agenda. We’d become the coordinated, focused, effective centre I’d always hoped for. 

The thing that really kept me at Monash over all of those years was the people. I arrived at the same time that Sarah Joseph started as Director, and we formed an incredibly close bond as we worked to grow the Centre. We both wanted to support students, be innovative and have real impact. Sarah had a world-class knowledge of human rights and was always great at predicting the future: while I would forever be excited about new projects and exciting ideas, Sarah would see the roadblocks I’d sometimes miss. Every now and then, I’d have to begrudgingly accept that my great idea wasn’t workable. Sarah saved me many times from pursuing projects that ultimately weren’t practical or sustainable, and she made me a much better manager in the process. But most of all, she was the expert who made the things we did possible. She was only meant to be Director 25% of the time while it was my job to think about the Castan Centre all day, every day. Every new idea I had put more stress on her, because she was almost always the one who would ultimately need to oversee a project and ensure that we got the law 100% right every time. For fourteen years, she was an incredible boss, friend and co-conspirator.

There were so many great people who made the Centre hum during my time there – all of our incredible academics, our early-career project officers, our volunteers and our policy managers. But there were two other people who put in an incredible amount of work to make the Centre a success. The first is Janice Hugo, who is really the secret sauce behind the centre – as our administrator, she runs every aspect of our many events, coordinates all of our communications, manages the website, curates our database, books travel, takes minutes, inducts new employees and volunteers, runs our annual appeal and much more besides. And she does it all while flying completely under the radar. Even other Law Faculty staff are astounded when they work alongside Janice on a project and realise just how good she is. 

And, finally, I want to acknowledge Melissa Castan. Melissa was a young human rights academic at Monash when the Centre was named in her father’s honour. I know it was initially disorienting to be involved in an organisation named after her late father. But Melissa grew into that role, gradually bringing her family and Ron’s many friends and admirers into the Centre. She provided very wise counsel and worked incredibly hard to make the centre a success – every two years I would destroy her life for a few months as we organised the biennial dinner, with over 300 guests 70 or 80 auction items, guest speakers and more. But whatever I asked of her, she got it done.

Through my work with Melissa and her family, I came to understand that one of my heaviest burdens was to honour the legacy of a truly great Australian, to ensure that we did work he would be proud of, and to put the story of Ron Castan out into the world. In return, I got incredible support from the Castan family, which I will always treasure. 

Over my last four or five years at the Castan Centre, my focus was on setting it up to thrive after I moved on, and by the end of 2018 I felt that we’d achieved that – we had an amazing team in place, and we had a great financial foundation. 

When I finally moved on in May of this year, I knew that the Centre would not only survive, but thrive. I expect to see it grow significantly in the coming years. I believe that the Centre’s best work is in the future, and I can’t wait to see which mountains it scales. 

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