I attended and gave a talk yesterday at a workshop-seminar here in Davao for coconut farmer-leaders. I was with two other lawyers from the organization I presently work for. The night before, while preparing for my talk, one of the lawyers I was with told me, “you know when I was a young lawyer and still scared of talking in events of this sort, I would tell myself that ‘no matter what, you still know more than they do‘”. They, of course, referring to community organizers, peasants, small fishers, and various other representatives from the basic sectors.
I suppose that is correct, in the sense that people who went through law school and passed the bar do have the upper hand in terms of legal knowledge and skills. Public interest lawyers who decide to pursue development work do bring with them the learnings from law school and from text books and use these as tools in their advocacy.
In the course, however, of my still-very-limited experiences as an advocacy lawyer of two years, I have realized that I have learned far far more from my “clients” (for lack of a better word) than they have from me. Bravery, a sense of justice, of righteous indignation, yes, but beyond that, there is a wisdom so organic and so ancient — born of the bosom of the earth and the depths of the sea. My friend Aison, who works for Saligan and is also an agrarian reform lawyer, understands perfectly what I mean. “They look at the moon, Jae, and they know it is a good time to fish,” he said, telling me about one night when he joined small fishers in a small banca go out and fish. In turn, I told him about Ka Cenon, our Akbayan peasant leader, who can explain RA 6657 or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law as good as or better than any hotshot lawyer out there, and can predict the onslaught of a typhoon by looking at the alignment of the coconut leaves.
When I am asked what it means to be a public interest lawyer, I would explain it according to how I have learned it from my favorite law professor, Marvic Leonen. Public interesting lawyering is about agitating and interrogating the system, debunking the myth that the law is this solid and unshakeable firmament of black and white, when in truth, the large areas of gray-zone indeterminacy provide avenues for cooptation to reinforce existing power arrangements.
That’s still valid, of course. But to that, I add the concept of “bahaginan” — something that is not present in law firm attorney-client relationships. It is a word I find beautiful, and a word I use during talks or paralegal trainings before the basic sectors. “Ako po si Jae, tayo po ay magbabahaginan.” I will not teach, I will share. And you will share back. Because there is no primacy, no superiority of knowledge. The universe contains a vast plenitude of knowledge. And the part, the small part given me, is some knowledge of the law and the legal system.
Deeper than that, deeper than sharing, is sharing of the self. Pagbabahaginan, from the root bahagi. Bahagi ko, bahagi mo. I see the work that I do not simply as a profession, but as a commitment. And it is not even a commitment to “help” because “help” to my mind, carries the baggage of charity — a concept I do not like. It is a commitment to give of myself, to do what I can to perhaps bring the world 1,000,000th of a centimeter closer to our vision of a world that is just and right and fair. I give of myself to you, and you give of yourself to me. We will work together, laugh together, weep together, struggle together, fight together. As equals. Towards a world of equals.