Tanya (Toni) De Mello is the Director of Human Rights at Ryerson. She has worked in multiple sectors over her lifetime including as finance consultant at Deloitte and Touche LLP, for the United Nations in West Africa, South Africa and at the HQ in Geneva in humanitarian aid and is currently working at Ryerson University as the Director of Human Rights.
In 2015, she ran for federal office in Canada and although she lost, she shares that it was one of the most meaningful things that she has ever done - and she continues to give her time and money to listen to the voices of those that are under-represented in her community.
LET'S START WITH THE BASICS. DID YOU ALWAYS IMAGINE YOURSELF GOING TO LAW SCHOOL?
No, I remember watching TV and thinking that law was a very glamorous occupation. But I never thought that I would be a lawyer. To be honest I grew up in a community where I did not see a lot of lawyers and it wasn't until much later that I thought I could practice law.
WHAT MAKES YOUR CAREER LAWFULLY UNCOMMON?
I think that a lot of people think there is one path and that's going to take you to where you are now. For me, part of what my career has been, is just following what I'm passionate about and what I think will be effective in terms of change. It's not about taking steps one, two and three and ending up in a glamorous position. But rather doing the groundwork in making contributions in a variety of ways - not just one. For example, I started off in business and did a lot of work in finance and audits. On the side I was running two NGOs. So it wasn't so much "Okay I'm going to do finance and audits to eventually become a chief partner" or working in NGOs to eventually be in the public sector, but rather, I'm going to do what I find interesting and it really helps you in the end because even if you don't get to some end point you had envisioned, you genuinely love what you are doing at the moment. People need to think more about doing work that is meaningful rather than work as a means to another end goal.
AT WHAT MOMENT DID YOU REALIZE THAT YOU WANTED TO DO LAW YOUR OWN WAY?
In second year law school I experienced a series of moments and events that were eye-opening. I noticed that we needed to talk about the power dynamics that play out in the world - dynamics that law doesn't really address. The reality is that you can have all the laws you want but if they aren't enforced equally, you don't have justice. Just saying "this is the law", doesn't really help people. In second year law school I started to see that I wanted to work more in the practical defense and justice work rather than in the court system. I was working with South East Asian women and giving them legal information about their rights and they were laughing at me. They knew their rights but felt powerless to enforce them. And I realized that we had to do more work around this perceived and real sense of disenfranchisement.
WHAT GOT YOUR JUICES FLOWING OR TICKLED YOUR FANCY WHILE AT LAW SCHOOL?
I think two things. At McGill, we study common and civil law at the same time. I found that eye-opening. We had such a different way of learning with two different lenses to look at every problem. What I started to love about law was looking at it from the perspective of Aboriginal law and also looking at it from the perspective of human rights. What really moved me was that there is not one solution in understanding all the factors that affect an outcome. That's what we call the transsystemic approach. I think that was progressive and helpful for me.
WHAT MADE YOUR BLOOD BOIL OR MADE YOU SNOOZE AT LAW SCHOOL?
I don't know if I'd say made my blood boil but maybe something that I wanted to see more of was bringing more of the community into the classroom and bringing the law school to the outside. I felt that often it would be helpful to have members of the society come and talk about how the law impacted their lives. I spent a lot of time trying to get people to leave the law school and be in the community to understand how the actual law works.
DO YOU STILL SEE LAW ALL AROUND YOU?
Yes! I'm in human rights, discrimination and harassment/assault work, where I see how the law affects people's daily lives and how much access matters.
YOU ARE AT COFFEEHOUSE SPEAKING TO A FIRST-YEAR LAW STUDENT. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE THEM?
I would say "expose yourself to the ways in which the law plays out in the community". Do volunteer work at legal clinics, do internships. It's not going to serve you well to just read the case law without understanding the communities that are affected by these realities. And I mean that in every course of study. We need more exposure. A lot of people were anti-corporate law, but I think every person should do corporate law and understand how that business works. Likewise, I think every person should do Aboriginal law to get the exposure to understand the facts about that. We need to be exposed to the many different ways in which the law impacts people.
WHAT DOES A DAY IN YOUR LIFE LOOK LIKE?
I just started a new job - I'm the director of human rights at Ryerson. I talk to folks about the different ways in which they are struggling. We focus on ways in which we can be a more inclusive community. I collaborate with a lot of partners across campus and so that means a lot of meetings. Working very closely with students and understanding what student complaints are. Creating educational activities that increase awareness, enhance critical thinking, and use a critical race and anti-oppressive lens. I also do a lot of work with faculty and staff about initiatives that they are doing. I do a little bit of that in my every day as well.
IF YOU WERE GIVEN THE BLESSING AND CURSE OF AN EXTRA HOUR EVERY DAY TO DO WHATEVER YOU WANTED WHAT WOULD IT BE?
Read. I haven't read a book for so long! I often listen to podcasts on my way to work and stuff like that but I don't read anymore. I read blogs and online articles but I don't read books as much as I would like. The last book I read was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie which blew me away.
In my daily job I think what I would do is have more time for reflection. The work required is so high in volume that I wish I had half a day to just reflect on the work and be more strategic.
To process and to reflect. It's almost cliché because I think this is an issue we're having more generally. There's just very little space in our lives for processing and reflection.
I did some articles in corporate law, and for me I don't think it was the right path. I really wanted that exposure and I wanted to understand why 80 percent of people went into corporate law. So what I would say is that I wish I had more opportunities to understand the different avenues of law in law school. You end up having a specific focus because you only have so many electives. I took one business law class, I took one Aboriginal law class, I took two international law classes, but I wish I had more time to get a better grip. If I had to say that I had a focus it would be human rights. But even then I'd say we have so few electives so I kind of wish that we had, if anything, more opportunities to see different fields of law.