Adventures in PLE, part 2

Guest author Barbara Hurd, a long-time community legal worker, joins us today to talk about a challenge she faced when trying to meet a need expressed by one of the community groups she worked with.

Perhaps the most important part of preparing to set up and deliver public legal education and information (PLE) sessions is knowing your audience – what kinds of things they want to hear about, and why. I’d like to share one experience in which I forgot this core principle, and the disappointing results.

I’d had a request from a Chinese seniors’ group I was working with – they wanted a seminar on wills and estates law. Most of them were on low incomes and living in rent-geared-to-income housing, so could not afford to pay a lawyer to make a will. This is not an area of law the community legal clinic I worked for practiced in – and, to my knowledge, that went (and goes) for most community legal clinics. So, unlike other areas of law such as housing or social assistance, I couldn’t rely on one of the lawyers I worked with directly to conduct a PLE session.

Finding an effective way to deliver this type of information proved elusive in the end.

Photo by "Information"  by elaine is licenced under CC BY 2.0

Information” by elaine is licenced under CC BY 2.0

I first tried to enlist the Pro Bono Student Canada Wills Project – a project run out of law schools, aimed at low-income people, and therefore either low or no cost. I learned that they had restrictions on who they would take on as clients. Also, they couldn’t provide a general information session through a Mandarin interpreter.

I then checked into a list of about 12 Mandarin-speaking lawyers who practiced wills and estates law. For various reasons, I was not able to get anyone to take this on. One lawyer to whom I described the potential audience pointed out that these people likely don’t have much money or property, so they felt the “estates” content likely wouldn’t be relevant.

Because of this observation, I realized after the fact that I needed to find out know what this group of seniors was looking for – why did they want information about making wills and estates? Was it concerns about “Who will pay for my funeral?”, or something like that? I did try to ask these questions of the seniors’ group several times, but due to language and cultural barriers, I wasn’t able to clarify what they wanted. So after a while, I stopped trying. I felt badly that I’d disappointed the group, but couldn’t see a way to enlist the help or get the information I needed.

Had I to do this over again, I would have tried to clarify up front with the group why they needed this information. I think this would have made it easier to narrow down the scope of a PLE session that would meet their needs, and to “market” it to the lawyers who could help out with it. Or, the group may have decided that they needed information on another topic instead – saving all of us time and frustration.

Barbara Hurd has worked in the community legal clinic and community agency sphere as a tenant advocate, municipal activist, community legal worker, and volunteer board member for over 35 years. She helped found West Scarborough Community Legal Services and a housing co-op in Scarborough in the 1980s, then coordinated a provincial tenants' association for several years. More recently, she was a community legal worker at Kensington-Bellwoods Community Legal Services in downtown Toronto for 19 years, until she retired in March 2016. Barb continues to be interested in housing issues and municipal politics.


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