In the middle of May seventy people who mostly didn’t know each other came together at Ellen Melville Hall in central Auckland to talk about justice.
This was the second iteration of JustSpeak’s civic dinner series, aptly named ‘Justice Is Served’. The premise: bring a roomful of people together around delicious kai, and get them sharing their thoughts about justice around the dinner table. The first event two months earlier in Wellington had generated a lot of spirited conversation, and helped draw connections across different life experiences which all tied together into a common thread - that people value kindness, compassion and empathy, and that we want this reflected in our justice system. As it turned out, the people we met in Auckland shared these views.
The guests seated themselves around tables decorated with greenery, mandarins and crabapples, and introduced themselves to each other. The room was a wealth of experience. I heard from people with lived experience of prison, social workers, defense lawyers, students, survivors, policy makers and activists. As Alice Snedden guided the congregation through three questions about justice, conversation flowed passionately across metre-long pizzas and salad.
The unanimous thread was that our justice system harms our most vulnerable citizens, both directly and indirectly. People discussed the colonial legacy that our prisons are predicated on, the undemocratic nature of the prison voting ban, and the urgency with which we must commit to treating drug use as a health rather than a criminal issue. We heard real talk about what life is like in prison - the surreal difficulty of trying to access rehabilitation and the catch-22 situations that stall progress. We spoke with social workers fighting for families impacted by incarceration. And we listened to lawyers navigating the deeply flawed remand system.
As the evening drew to a close we were hit with a sense of hope and optimism. From this beautifully diverse group of people what we overwhelmingly heard was a unified call for change in our justice system. Our guests demonstrated an abundance of ideas and vision and energy for this change, as part of the growing public acknowledgement that things must change if we want to be a truly thriving and fair society. As we cleaned up and shared out the leftovers for people to take home, we talked about transformation, and how many times what ends in radical change often starts with a conversation around a dinner table.