ANU graduate Farzana Choudhury is empowering people from marginalised communities to fight for their rights, as a lawyer and through #DogsOfInstagram.
Like many pet-owning millennials, human rights lawyer Farzana Choudhury runs an Instagram account for her dog Prudence.
A two-year-old whippet with a fondness for fetch, Prudence is all about community education and social justice.
In one of her videos on @juris_prudence101, the civic-minded canine petitions the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly for adequate fencing at her favourite oval. In another post, she reminds patrons of Summernats — Canberra’s annual car festival — that they mustn’t drive without a licence by citing the territory’s transport legislation.
“She hasn’t gone viral yet,” Choudhury says. “But it’s fun.”
Social media is not the ANU graduate’s only platform for advocacy. Choudhury, who completed a Master of Laws in 2016 and was named the University’s Young Alumna of the Year in 2020, was the first community lawyer to be elected President of the ACT Law Society.
In her work as a solicitor for local legal centre Canberra Community Law (CCL), Choudhury sees many clients struggling to make ends meet. The shortage of public housing in the nation’s capital means there are families who can’t find accommodation that suits their needs.
“There is a lot of stigma against people who are in public housing or experiencing homelessness,” Choudhury says. “But the reality is cost of living is an issue that affects everybody. And I don’t think people realise many of us are one step away from being in a really difficult situation.”
Her passion for supporting people facing marginalisation comes in part from her own background as the daughter of Bangladeshi migrants.
“Some of my personal experiences probably help in terms of being really empathetic and wanting to help lift others up,” she says.
“I’ve experienced and witnessed racism, I know what it’s like to deal with financial hardship. It’s an honour to be able to work in this space with the privilege I now have, trying to make a small difference.”
Though her focus at CCL is on disability discrimination and supporting clients who have experienced mental ill-health, being awarded a Churchill Fellowship was a chance for Choudhury to combine her interests in discrimination law and homelessness issues.
In 2022, she spent eight weeks investigating the effectiveness of poverty discrimination laws across the United States (US), United Kingdom, New Zealand, Ireland and Canada.
During her travels, she met with human rights experts and homelessness service providers, as well as people with lived experience of homelessness.
“From my research it was very clear that even when people are treated really unfairly, taking legal action often isn’t front of mind,” Choudhury says.
“People are often more focused on having basic needs met, such as food and housing. But there is practical benefit in strengthening anti-discrimination regimes across Australia, based on the overseas experience.”
In the US, Choudhury met with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH), an organisation that assisted in the first litigated case under the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless.
After more than a decade of living on the street, then 62-year-old Robert Henderson was devastated when he discovered local council workers had seized everything he owned — including vital heart medication and obituaries of his loved ones — and thrown it into a garbage truck.
With the help of the coalition, Henderson filed a suit against the city and was eventually awarded compensation. No longer homeless, he now volunteers with CCH and a soup kitchen.
While Henderson’s case was the reason Choudhury visited Chicago, she never expected to meet the man himself. But after a chance encounter at a CCH-run poetry night, Henderson shared his story with her over pancakes and coffee.
“I was almost starstruck,” Choudhury recalls. “He was pretty incredible. It was amazing to see the positive impact that homelessness discrimination laws can have and to learn directly from a grassroots leader.”
She is hopeful her report and its examples of how discrimination laws can work will provide guidance for jurisdictions without such protections in place. In 2017, the ACT became the first jurisdiction in Australia to make discrimination on the basis of accommodation status and employment status unlawful. Since then, the Northern Territory has passed similar reforms.
“The challenge we have is that there are so few complaints raised in relation to homelessness and poverty discrimination. It probably speaks to a broader challenge when it comes to people’s awareness that these laws exist and the barriers to making complaints.”
Rather than being disheartened, Choudhury channels her natural optimism into doing what she can to improve the system.
“I love seeing the practical outcomes we can get through discrimination complaints and preventing people from entering homelessness by defending their evictions and supporting them to access and maintain safe, secure housing,” she says. “It can be exhausting at times, but it’s also really rewarding work.”
It helps that she has a creative outlet outside her advocacy work.
The self-proclaimed band geek plays the trumpet and cornet and is a member of the ANU Open School of Music’s New Orleans Rehearsal Hall jazz program. She performs with Canberra Brass and was recently part of the orchestra for the Canberra Philharmonic Society’s production of CATS. She is set to do Oklahoma later this year.
“People do ask how I’ve got the energy to do all these things,” Choudhury says. “And it’s because I just really enjoy it.”
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