Interview with The Justice Desk
Meet The Justice Desk, an award-winning Human Rights Organisation operating in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe which empowers local people to understand and defend their Human Rights in order to build safer communities for all.
As an organisation, The Justice Desk educates, trains, advocates for and equips youth, vulnerable groups, civil society, and governments in Human Rights, justice and advocacy. They work primarily in township areas and vulnerable communities, empowering and equipping local people with the necessary skills and platforms to lead their own change. It is a partner of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, and The Queens Commonwealth Trust. Since 2013, TJD have changed the lives of over 250,000 people!
Jessica Dewhurst, the Founder and Executive Director of The Justice Desk, is a human rights defender and ERI UN Youth Ambassador from South Africa. She has worked across the globe, and holds various qualifications from UCT, the UN, and Cambridge University. She has been named one of Africa’s and South Africa’s most inspiring youth for her work; and has received countless awards and recognition from the likes of the South African presidency, Prince Edward, Countess Sophie, The Obama Foundation, and Lead SA.
Purpose Pioneers: What inspired you to start the Justice Desk?
Jessica Dewhurst: I started as a 14-year-old girl, volunteering in multiple NGOs while in school. I worked with children infected/affected by HIV/Aids, refugee children, and children who have been victims of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. I continued to work in NGOs, until my personal dream to educate and empower other to defend and claim their human rights was ignited.
I was 18 years old when, one evening while walking, I was attacked by four men – one of whom was arrested. After a few months, I was asked to attend the court hearing and face the man who once hurt me. When I saw him I was shocked because he didn’t look the same. He was so skinny I could see his bones, he smelt like nothing you could ever imagine. His clothes were torn, and he was terrified. I have no idea what came over me, but all I wanted to do was hug him. All I wanted to do was say that I was sorry for the life he had to live.
I went on to learn more about the man who had hurt me. He was born in a broken-down shack in Khayelitsha. His father left when he was five and his mother was unemployed. She was a refugee and many people turned their backs on her. He didn’t get an education because his school was overcrowded and he couldn’t afford books or a uniform. His home frequently collapsed and didn’t have anything like water, electricity or security. He was continually harassed by gangs threatening to kill him if he didn’t join them, and because he didn’t finish school, he couldn’t find a job. When he was sick he couldn’t go to the hospital because he had no form of identification, and he had to wake up, sick, hungry and tired, at 4 am every morning to make the long trip to the city to beg for money so he could feed his mother, who was dying of HIV/Aids.
I reflected on how he would see the bright lights of the city, and smart cars as they drove past and he wondered what was wrong with him? Why was he not loved or important enough, or valued enough to be like them? He begged, and begged, and his dignity was chipped at again and again – until one day, he snapped and he did something terrible. But what dawned on me in that moment, was that not for one second did I believe that HE was the problem. His actions were wrong, yes, but this man was not his actions. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not condoning what he did – what he did was wrong – but not for one second did I believe that he was the problem.
He was a young man who had grown up unprotected, forgotten, abandoned, and forced to live in unimaginable conditions. Here was a young man, who grew up having his rights violated on a daily basis, who was failed again and again by those who said they would protect the children of this country. We left him, hungry, uneducated, sick and abandoned – and then we blamed him for it. From that moment on, I dedicated my life to fighting for the rights of everyday people, especially those most vulnerable. I realized that I could no longer simply engage in charity work, handing out food, clothes, making children smile, and then sending them home. What was the point if I was sending them back to broken homes and dysfunctional communities, where people had little to no respect for the rights and dignity of others?
PP: What advice would you give your 18-year old self?
JD: Get more sleep, eat well, take care of your mental health, and never forget that you are not alone.
PP: What is your definition of Purpose?
JD: Purpose? It’s why you were born, and why you wake up each day. Some may think they’ll never find it – but I guarantee you that if you look closer, into the hearts of our fellow South Africans – you will find it there.
PP: What do you see as the cornerstone of YOUR purpose?
JD: A fierce and determined love and passion for people, and the unyielding belief in the inherent goodness that is within us all.
PP: What has been the most pioneering / trailblazing moment for The Justice Desk?
JD: What I am especially proud of, is that we are a wonderfully diverse organisation of young people, which is run by young people, for mostly other young people. All major leadership positions are also held by women, which I love. We constantly face criticism because of our ages and gender – but every single time we have responded with brilliance. I am incredibly proud of my team for being true to themselves, for never thinking small, and for breaking every boundary that has been placed in front of them. They are the trailblazers!
PP: What challenges are the youth of today facing? How can we fix this?
JD: Youth are often told to stay quiet, as it is the older generation’s responsibility to lead, make decisions and solve the world’s problems. This often baffles my mind because, who were the ones that caused these problems in the first place? It’s heart-breaking to see that one our youth’s biggest obstacles can be the very people who are supposed to support and raise them up. Youth have the ability to be different, dynamic, to create like never before, and to throw caution to the wind. They dream without boundaries and think out of the box. They have energy, passion and are often found together. They have access to thought processes and technology that could be game changers for our world in the years to come. We must guide them yes, but we must also ensure that we are not one of the very challenges they need to overcome.
PP: What specific skills do our next generation need to focus on and how do you think we can close that gap?
JD: Critical thinking, the ability to disagree with someone yet still care for them, and the determination and belief in ourselves as youth, that we can and will make a difference.
PP: What values and principles are important to live by?
JD: Empowerment, responsibility, equality, justice and human rights are always the values I try to live by. They guide everything I do.
PP: How do you think people can live more meaningful and purpose-driven lives?
JD: Focus on your why. If your why is focused solely on you and your own life – then I think you have some more thinking and growing to do. But when your why starts to focus on “us” and not “me”, then you are on the path to living a meaningful and purpose-driven life.
PP: Who is your role model and why?
JD: I was blessed to be born in a country of incredible champions for justice. Nelson Mandela, Thuli Madonsela, Steve Biko, Helen Suzman, Nkosi Johnson, Miriam Makeba, Albertina Sisulu, Desmond Tutu, Nadine Gordimer, Zackie Achmat, Yvonne Chaka Chakaand Johnny Clegg… we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants.
PP: What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
JD: If I do leave a legacy, I want it to be one of people removing people’s blindfolds, and challenging all systems of oppression, in all spaces – to ensure that we all live happy, healthy, free and empowered lives.
To find out more, check out the Justice Desk!