Renatta Austin, JD 2012

From the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Nexus.

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photo by Michelle Yee

Renatta Austin, JD 2012, is a city girl. So landing an articling position in the City of Toronto’s legal department is the perfect launching pad for her career in municipal planning and policy, and eventually pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning.

She’s a strong proponent of community building, beyond the technocratic work. “I’m a big believer in opportunities.” And she wants to ensure students who have a dream, just like she did many years ago, can fulfill them.

“I want to live in a city where opportunities are available to everyone; I want people to have options, and that’s why I’ve been so involved in programs at the Faculty of Law that allow people to have options,” says Austin.

As a Grade 11 high school student at Bloor St. Collegiate in downtown Toronto, where the multicultural flags popped out during World Cup season, she took advantage of University of Toronto outreach programs. One of them took her to the Faculty of Law for six weeks, to a summer mentorship program—and mentor—that changed her life.  She remembers the law student’s name.

“Virginia Huang [JD/MBA 2005]. She had such an impact on me. She was just the most down-to-earth person I met at the law school, and she reminded me of my high school classmates ... If you come from a family where you have not been exposed to the profession, you don’t have a realistic view of what lawyers are like or what they do. They’re regular people, like you and me.”

When she was accepted to the Faculty of Law, after completing her undergraduate degree at U of T, Austin says it was important for her to pay it forward.

And she did, by revamping the See Yourself Here annual open house, which was traditionally held for black students, by opening it up to a variety of multicultural groups largely under-represented in the legal profession. The sessions were jam-packed.

She also volunteered with the LAWS program, Law in Action Within Schools, which provides law-themed courses and mentorship programming to six inner-city high schools in the city. Her volunteer dedication (including with Pro Bono Students Canada) landed her a prestigious U of T Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Award, recognizing outstanding students committed to service.

“I remember what it was like to be a student with a dream, and to be uncertain if that dream would become a reality. To see young people at the stage where I was five or six years ago is great. I look forward to seeing where they land in the future.”

She hopes it’s in the legal profession. “It needs to be more reflective of the community, particularly in certain areas of law, such as criminal, family and immigration law.”

 “It does happen,” says Austin. “These programs work.”