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Jennifer Fernandez Owsianka

February 28th, 2020

Guest blog by Jennifer: how willing are you to serve?

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Jennifer Fernandez Owsianka

February 28th, 2020

Guest blog by Jennifer: how willing are you to serve?

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

One of our fantastic Student Volunteering Ambassadors, Jennifer (LLB Law, 2020), got the opportunity to interview the manager at the legal advice centre she volunteers with, Jasmine Ashley-Tagoe. In this amazing piece Jennifer explores Jasmine’s passion for the work they do at Toynbee Hall and how she got into her role as manager of the Free Legal Advice Centre.

It’s the end of a long day. We’ve been sorting through the overwhelming number of new clients requesting legal advice. Volunteering here for almost 2 years, I’ve realised that long days with unfinished tasks are frequent.

I have a tight time frame to interview her. The woman who recruited me, supervises me, and leads the oldest pro bono centre in London. Jasmine Ashley-Tagoe, the manager of the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) of Toynbee Hall. Her confidence, ease, and calm never stops inspiring me. She sits down, eating the lunch she didn’t have time for I’m guessing, and listens.

Raised by a single mother, her “super-woman” role-model, who taught her the value of independence and self-reliance. She graduated with an IB Diploma in Canada, and moved back to England, by herself, at the age of 17. Her taste for law started early. She helped someone navigate the British immigration system at 16, which is amusing in hindsight, as she is now a qualified immigration lawyer. The desire to fight social injustice inspired her through her time studying law at university. She was introduced to the pro bono sector while working with vulnerable asylum seekers at Refugee and Migrant Justice, a pro bono centre that later closed because of legal aid and funding cuts.

When studying the BVC (now the BPTC- the qualification course for barristers), she tells me, she gravitated towards advocacy. But realising she wanted more client contact from the outset, lead her into a complex cross-qualification process to become a solicitor, while working at the same time. This is where her timeline becomes interesting, working in private practice and providing legal advice for other charitable organisations. She laughs, not knowing how I’ll untangle it. I realise I don’t need to.

Growing up on three continents, she saw real poverty, as well as, the wealth of UK’s resources. Before coming to FLAC, her time working with vulnerable women with no recourse to public funds, made her want to be an advocate for those with “literally no chance’” of navigating the legal system or accessing much-needed services. She experienced first-hand the huge impact of legal aid cuts on decreasing access to justice.

She was recruited by FLAC to relaunch the Women Only Service, a bi-monthly legal advice service for only female clients provided by only female staff, and to supervise the evening immigration sessions. She also helped launch the Legal Capabilities project. A project dedicated to empowering clients through public legal education. Her involvement with projects and with supervising more advice sessions, lead her to getting to the position she holds today.

Now, what drives her, is figuring out how to be of service, to ensure efficiency and growth. I recall the Saturday afternoons, long-after the clients have left, spent brainstorming with the volunteers how to make vulnerable clients feel more at ease, or how make the physical environment more appealing…etc. Every day she walks in, she asks herself ‘How can I best serve?’. Her positive problem-solving mentality is one I witness and learn from all the time. It allows her to put things into perspective, to positively contribute, to go above and beyond, to work longer than is expected. As does her team, of course. “It is not about you” she says. It’s about being “client-focused”.

Grateful to be in a position of responsibility and influence, she draws strength from her female clients, who persevere through their most distressing experiences. The continuous cuts to mental health services have a spill over effect on the pro bono sector. Her role requires “serious resilience” she tells me. Clients suffering from trauma are always walking through the door, and the risk of secondary trauma for front-line workers is high. This led her to launch PIE (Psychologically Informed Environment). A project designed to develop adequate frameworks around mental health concerns, to seek qualified experts, and to assist staff build resilience.

Volunteers benefit from her “inclusive” leadership style, with ample space for growth. Everyone has “something valuable to bring to the table” she tells me. The commitment and patience of volunteers inspire her to do her best, and help her get through hectic or overwhelming moments.

I’ve been on a constant learning curve since I arrived at FLAC. Providing administrative support is “central” to its efficiency, and scarce resources is part of the challenge. It allows me to learn about the organisation, to deliver a pleasant client experience and develop clients’ trust. What I admire is her consistent work ethic, and how fearless she appears. Because as she tells me “I don’t see limits”. A philosophy I should definitely adopt.

If you were inspired by this blog, it’s not too late to get your volunteering started! Check out one of our other 200+ ongoing opportunities or book a one-to-one with David Coles, the Volunteer Centre Manager if you have more questions. If you are short on time, then take a look at the one-off opportunities happening over the rest of Lent Term, organised by the LSE Volunteer Centre. If you want to share your volunteering experience with us, why not write us a blog? Have a scroll through our blog page to read what other students have written and get inspired!

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About the author

Jennifer Fernandez Owsianka

LLB in Law (2020)

Posted In: LSE Careers | Volunteer Centre

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