Afsana Gibson-Chowdhury

Afsana Gibson-Chowdhury

Breaking barriers and shaking up the world of ADR

This profile was written by Mashal Khan, a law student at Queen's Law.

2012 was a big year for Afsana. Not only did it mark her move from the UK to Canada, but also the beginning of a career change from civil litigation to alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and a battle of tackling systemic barriers for lawyers and mediators and the communities they serve. Afsana’s practice as a civil litigator helped her thrive as a young lawyer. Making space for herself and others to be heard as racialized minorities in a white and often male dominant culture, was not always easy. For Afsana, this was all soon to change.

For Afsana, transitioning to a new country and area of law was not easy, but she deeply believes that “if you love something enough, then nothing could really stand in your way.” 

This is how she feels towards ADR. She first became interested in ADR in law school and appreciated that mediation and negotiation often resulted in a better deal for clients. Even as a litigator she always made sure that the outcome was a fair deal for everyone involved and not just her client. What makes ADR most special to Afsana is the unique opportunity to provide parties with an open and safe space to talk. She says that having a neutral mediator psychologically helps each party see what the other is saying and allows them to engage in a way that encourages understanding.

Beyond her work as a mediator, Afsana is the Co-Founder and Senior Vice President at the Diversified Dispute Resolution Institute of Canada (DDRIOC). DDRIOC is a non-profit organization that employs a roster of qualified ADR professionals with diverse backgrounds to build a structure that is accessible and representative to all Canadians, including marginalized communities.

As a woman, and especially a woman of color, DDRIOC means a great deal to Afsana. She realized early in her career that there continues to be active racism and systemic barriers in ADR that don’t favour people like her. Looking back, Afsana could see how these barriers slowed her progress as a professional, compared to her friends and colleagues. However, she says that it never occurred to her back then that she had been experiencing such barriers and effects of implicit bias all along.

It was not until 2019 that Afsana felt it necessary to take positive action to tackle the systemic barriers, both for the sake of professionals like herself and for clients from marginalized and underrepresented communities.

Soon after moving to Canada, Afsana learned about R v NS 2012 SCC 72, a case decided in 2012 by the Supreme Court of Canada where the court examined whether women should be allowed to wear hijab when testifying in court. This case stuck with Afsana. She recognized how none of the judges on the panel looked anything like NS. It occurred to her that none of the judges could fully understand what it must mean for a woman to take off her hijab; how indignant that would feel for a woman.

Soon after, Afsana conducted some research to better understand why racialized mediators were not being selected to mediate. Later in 2022, Afsana co-chaired a report with an Ontario Bar Association (OBA) Working Group, called the “Neutral Diversity in Ontario” which showed great disproportionality of women and racialized professionals actively working as mediators and arbitrators across Ontario. This was not reflective of the Ontario population. The case of R v NS and many others like it, along with the stark gap in representation, Afsana found in the report, was the start of her shaking things up in the world of ADR. Afsana realized that, with her three children looking up to her, she could no longer “carry on [and] pretend to get on with a dominant culture that doesn’t even accept [her] yet”.

As well as developing a mediation practice, Afsana diverted much of her energy to working towards encouraging open dialogue and closing the stark gap in representation in ADR. For Afsana, closing that gap has dual meaning. One, it means that the qualified women and racialized professionals in ADR are given the same opportunities to practice and grow in the field, as their majority counterparts. Second, it means that the clients from marginalized populations have lawyers, mediators and arbitrators who could effectively represent them through  a cultural lens; lawyers who could highlight all the idiosyncrasies that go along with different cultures and religions that are not understood by the dominant culture. 

When Afsana was asked by the CEO of DDRIOC to join the organization, she jumped on board with all hands-on deck. She is now creating a roster of talented and qualified professionals with an emphasis on all marginalized communities – “anybody who has the talent and experience to work in the industry but isn’t given the opportunity to do so”. They have also developed a 4-day course for all professionals called the Intercultural Communication and Diversity for Professionals, to help those seeking to build their cultural competence. 

For law students and aspiring lawyers looking to get into alternative dispute and resolution, Afsana’s advice would be to really understand what it takes to be a mediator.

“Network with people in the area and find mentors early on. If you put the groundwork in place from an early stage then once you are ready to pursue that career, it makes it a lot easier.” Finding the right career path might also lead you, like it did Afsana, to an opportunity to shake up a system that needs change.

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