When I first ran for bencher, four years ago, I knew I had the qualifications, experience and track record to excel in the role. Yet I found myself questioning whether merit alone would make me a competitive candidate. As a female South Asian lawyer working in the government, I did not see myself mirrored in positions of influence. I certainly did not see myself reflected among the benchers of the Law Society of Ontario. I wondered if the profession was ready to assess my leadership potential based on my qualifications rather than the colour of my skin.
To inspire confidence among voters, I had to challenge their imagination. They needed to envision leadership in a way that would encompass contenders such as myself. So I decided my campaign had to be unique.
I teamed up with an incumbent bencher and ran a joint campaign. We shared resources, merged our networks and attended events together. And our campaign was successful: in 2015, I became the first female South Asian to be elected bencher in the Law Society’s history.
It’s been four years since that historic win. During that time, I’ve worked to make the profession better for the public, racialized licensees, those with mental-health issues and Indigenous communities. I am running for re-election to continue that work.
But this time, I wanted to help uplift a new voice in the profession, just as had been done for me. So I asked Jayashree Goswami, a litigator and in-house counsel at Intact Insurance, to be my running mate. Voters can, of course, vote for us separately, but we wanted to team up to run joint ads together, share resources and ideas and make connections. We have also challenged each other to be better and more informed.
Jayashree is an incredible running mate: a racialized woman who is smart, pragmatic and thoughtful. She is also a former president of the South Asian Bar Association, a past president of the Roundtable of Diversity Associations and my former colleague on the Equity Advisory Group at the Law Society. In other words, she is exceptional and much needed at Convocation.
We all know that diverse organizations make different and better decisions. But it’s also true that the most prominent strategy that experts have suggested women deploy in order to ascend the corporate ladder — and, yes, I’m talking about “leaning in” — does not work well for racialized women. “Women of color and working-class women have been leaning in since day one,” Minda Harts, an advocate for women of colour in the workplace, told Fast Company. “There has to be an intentional structure in place to make sure that women of color have an opportunity to advance.”
When I became part of a joint campaign in the last election, we created a new structure. And that is what I am hoping to do for Jayashree. I believe in the power of championing others as a way to effect change — and in the importance of women lifting up other women.
I also believe it doesn’t matter that we don’t have Bay Street connections or budgets, or other privileges that might help other lawyers win elections. If you want something, don’t expect it to happen on its own. Do something amazing. Do something different. And do something to help champion the voices that you want to be heard.
Isfahan Merali is a bencher in Toronto and tribunal counsel with Ontario’s Consent and Capacity Board, with a focus on administrative and mental health law.