“If you don’t fight for someone else, who is going to fight for you?”: Steve Castan on the next generation of social justice advocates

Having grown up surrounded by human rights and social justice matters, it comes as no surprise that Steve Castan is an extremely hands-on and invested Chair of the National Justice Project’s Board.

“My father was a lawyer and he used to take me to work as a child, going out to Aboriginal communities and we even went out to Uluru. I was very much exposed to human rights and social justice issues without me really realising until I was older,” Steve explained.

Steve, along with his two sisters, have all studied law and have been heavily involved in human rights and social justice. “We were surrounded by it,” Steve explained, “and I think it was inevitable that my sisters and I were going to be involved in this space. No matter how hard we tried, we all felt the pull.”

Steve’s father, Ronald Castan AM QC, was one of the lead lawyers in the Mabo v Queensland case, along with numerous other significant cases for First Nations people. Steve’s family were Jewish migrants to Australia, and his parents held a strong belief that one does not have the right to stand around and do nothing when they see injustice, which is a sentiment that has embedded itself in Steve and his family.

“I think part of my father’s view was that there is still a lot of work to be done in telling the truth, and in understanding the true story of the formation of this country, so we can allow the healing to begin. I do feel strongly that that is what has been passed down from both my dad and my mum.”

Steve became part of the National Justice Project community when he was living in Western Australia, where he worked on a number of cases, and in 2017 Steve joined the Advisory Board.

“When I came on, I was helping with inquests, cases, fundraising and a bunch of different things. George and I became close friends and collaborators, and last year he asked me if I wanted to be the Chair of the Board. It was a great honour.”

Whilst 2020 was a big and challenging year for everyone, Steve emphasised that it has been fantastic to see the National Justice Project grow, strengthen, and diversify.

“The Board has been very proactive in achieving a really good cross-section of advisory members. We now have great indigenous representation, we have disability representation, and we have a better balance of gender representation. It was really important that we have that voice, and we do now.”

Alongside being the Chair of our Board, Steve is also a supervisor and lecturer for the National Justice Project Social Justice Clinic at Monash University. Having returned to Melbourne at the beginning of 2020 and after seeing the outstanding work at the Macquarie University Clinic, the opportunity came up to extend the Social Justice Clinics interstate.

Under Steve’s supervision, students work on inquests, complaints, research, chronologies, and submissions, which are all linked to the work at the National Justice Project.

“You’re giving students quite a bit of responsibility, and the work they produce is incredible. It has been really exciting to be educating the next generation of social justice warriors! I feel very honoured to work with them.”

“Seeing the next generation of First Nations advocates moving forward and watching them grow in these roles, being empowered with knowledge and skills – is extremely rewarding, and keeps me energised and hopeful for the future.”

After five years of contributing to the successes of the National Justice Project, Steve says that there is still so much work to be done:

“The big dream is genuine and lasting change in society and government. We have to strive hard and we do get a lot of knock-backs. But those breakthroughs and those little (and not so little) victories are enough to keep pushing. One day we will get there.”