One evening, 16-year-old Divya Sharma found herself participating in a typical high school rite of passage.
She gathered with her classmates following an after-school program to talk about their futures — where they would go to university, what they would study, and what dreams they might pursue. Divya, a Grade 11 student at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, had just finished a science topics class, an after-hours course where students explore topics such as astronomy or forensic sciences.
That’s when she was struck with the idea for a passion project.
"We sort of had this discussion about how there aren’t enough opportunities for students who are interested in law and want to pursue the field of advocacy," Divya explains in a phone interview.
"There are so many opportunities for people who wanted to go into the field of medicine — you can go and shadow a doctor — but you don’t really see that with students who are interested in law."
Divya set out to create that very opportunity, brainstorming what would eventually become Law and Witness (L.A.W.): an organization dedicated to connecting youth with a passion for law and advocacy to professionals in the field through monthly virtual (and one-day in-person) meetups.
Divya’s own passion for law and advocacy began early, as a child growing up in India guided by the concept of "seva," meaning selfless service.
As a young girl in India, Divya said she didn’t have as many opportunities to volunteer or get involved as she may have liked. After immigrating to Canada in the fifth grade, some doors began to open.
Over the years, Divya has nurtured her passion by joining a laundry list of clubs, anti-racism groups, and youth philanthropy organizations dedicated to that very same service.
"I instantly realized how the Canadian culture revolves around the idea of empathy, compassion and giving back, ultimately," she says. "Volunteering has helped me shape my identity to what it is today.
"This passion, volunteering with a diverse group of people with different cultures, religions and gender, has probably been one of my biggest sources of strength."
Now, Divya is angling towards a career in criminal law, with specific hopes to advocate for Canada’s Indigenous populations.
To get there, however, she’ll need some guidance, which she hopes will come about through L.A.W. sessions.
"We really wanted to get one-on-one experience," Divya says of the organization’s goals. "The idea is that this would be a program started by people who were interested in law and would be used to help other youth."
Khushee Patel, a 19-year-old student taking online classes at McMaster University, met a young and enterprising Divya through a Manitoba Youth Parliament information session.
The two chatted about their mutual interest in law, when Divya brought up the upcoming L.A.W. project.
"She said: ‘I’m working on this passion project and I could really use a partner like you,’ and that’s where it all started," Patel says with a laugh during a phone interview.
"I just really love the idea behind what we do... There are a lot of students just like me who want to go into law, but there’s just so much to do and it’s so unexplored when you’re in your undergrad."
Patel is in her first year, taking "all the usual pre-law courses," such as philosophy and political science. As a high school debater who "loves to talk," Patel decided to pursue law after taking a history class with an influential teacher when she was in Grade 11.
"For me, this organization is an opportunity to work on not just my future but for the future of my friends and peers around me, as well," she says.
Patel is hoping to pave the way for students coming after her to access support and guidance pursuing a law career. Even in her undergrad, Patel said there is a lack of formal guidance on the types of law, how to apply for law school, what resources are important, and wha t the field ultimately looks like.
"When you’re unsure of what you want to do, you’re sort of scrambling," she explains. "If you have a knowledge of what your future’s going to be like, there’s sort of a comfort in that."
To that end, Law and Witness is now putting the wheels in motion to host its first gathering, after launching its website in March.
Like most budding groups this year, its initial plans to hold an in-person meeting at the University of Manitoba were hampered by COVID-19 restrictions, but Divya and Patel are now poised to host a Zoom meetup — with a guest lawyer speaking — May 14.
As the group grows, Divya and Patel hope to bring a wide variety of perspectives, from across Canada and some international locations, for youth to learn from and network with.
"(We want) lawyers from all different countries sharing what their perspective is, how they got into different programs, and really understanding what each sector holds," Divya says.
"It creates that network, so when people like me who are interested in the field of law step into the field of law, we’re already connected with real-life lawyers who can guide us when we become lawyers."
L.A.W. and its founders are ambitious, hoping to see the program expand to other cities across Canada over the next several years, to ensure youth from all backgrounds and in all places have an opportunity to chase their passions.
Sessions are open to any interested high school and university undergraduate students who want to connect with professionals and learn more about the legal field. Meetings will be hosted online — for now — and will be announced on the Law and Witness website (lawandwitness.com).
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.