First year law student Eugene Ryder had a challenging upbringing, joining Black Power at 15. He has an intimate knowledge of the law from the side that most students haven’t experienced. He brings a unique perspective to a world often closed to those from his community, and he hopes his journey will help carve a path for others to follow.
It’s easy to spot Eugene sitting in the university café. Among the young crowd he clearly stands out as not being your average law student for Victoria University of Wellington. In fact, there’s nothing average at all about Eugene. He is a man who has led an incredible life and continues to do so.
Raised in a challenging environment he entered state care at a young age. He describes how the people around him so often told him he was going to amount to nothing that that became a goal. He joined the Black Power gang when he was 15 and has stayed in that environment until today.
So why take on a law degree?
“The thing I tell people is that I spent half my life breaking the law, so now I’m going to spend the next half trying to fix it,” he says with a wry smile.
“The funny thing is that when I was young my father told everyone I would be the lawyer of the family, which is ironic as I went in the total opposite direction. I have been in court a number of times but not as a lawyer!”
Eugene’s relationship with the law started young, at 16 he went to prison for bank robbery. He went on to have several interactions with the law before meeting his hoa wahine. They raised two tamariki in a community dominated by negative influences. Years later they had two more tamariki, choosing to make better lives for themselves and their whānau. It’s that ethos that is really behind why Eugene is studying law.
“One of the biggest drivers are my tamariki.
“At my daughter’s 21st we had a family dinner and my son, who was nine, said to me “Pāpā can I get a patch when I get older?”. Not only did our table freeze to hear the answer but the whole restaurant did. And I said, “Yes you can son, as soon as you get a law degree”. He looks at me and says “law degree, sweet” and went back to eating.
“So, I thought I ducked that one,” laughs Eugene.
“But in all seriousness, I don’t want my children to be part of the negativity of gangs.”
Skip ahead a few years and Eugene’s son is at college. Choosing his courses he has some questions for his father.
“He says to me, what do I have to study for that law degree? I thought shit it’s still on his mind, and I said you’ve got to study everything!
“I realised that he didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer or had a law degree to ask or aspire to. So, I decided that I would do law. I said I’m doing this law degree for you son, I want to create a path that you can follow. I know because of my background and experience my path will be a lot rougher than his so I want to smooth it out for him.”
Carving a path
Eugene is someone who has defied the odds. He no longer wears a patch but is still involved with gangs. They are part of his whānau and his world, but they don’t define him.
“People say you’re in a gang, and I say no I’m not, but I am Black Power. Black Power is part of who I am. A lot of people in our community think they will forever be clients of lawyers. No one ever sees themselves as a lawyer or a judge even.
“I know a lot of the community are watching me. Some want me to trip over, to say see I told you they won’t accept you. But others want me to succeed so they can take their first step.”
Looking across the road Eugene eyes the law school that is housed in Government Buildings.
“The funny thing is this world of the law is as closed as the world that I was brought up in. For similar reasons. To keep it unique and exclusive.
“The law is a big scary thing, and it happens in a big scary building. Our community relate this building to the old high court so it’s a place that we don’t feel comfortable in. So, when I walk in there I feel like I’m walking in a place that we weren’t welcome in.
“When I thought about studying law, I picked the place I didn’t want to do it. I picked the place that would be the biggest challenge. I wanted to not only be challenged but to challenge – I know my presence can be challenging.
“As much as I’m challenged by the environment, I meet people who are challenged by what I bring into this environment.”
Bringing a different perspective
What Eugene brings is genuine life experience of the other side of the law.
“I have reflected a lot on my own experience. I have lived the life being discussed in the cases we look at in class and I know that not many students have that experience.
I think I came in at the right time where there is a focus on Te ao Māori which I am a lot more comfortable learning about. I know that I’m walking in a white world but I know that this world is wanting to be more open and more bi-cultural
“I talk to some fellow students about my experiences with the law. We had a scenario about a young person being pulled up by the police with a blade. And that happened to me once! I said this and someone looked very surprised.
“One of my biggest learnings that has really shocked me is that doing the right thing and doing something legal are not the same thing. You can do something legal that isn’t right. We looked at the case of a male who was charged with restraining a female. But he did it to stop her from driving drunk with their baby but the legal case was on him for restraining her. But what he did in my mind is right, but illegal.”
That different perspective is one that Eugene hopes his fellow law students will remember upon graduation and take out with them into the legal profession.
“I would like more lawyers to be open to having people that challenge their thinking on who should be a lawyer. Sometimes there is knowledge and expertise that can come from innate experience. Sometimes clients know what is right.
“When I went to jail I technically shouldn’t have been allowed to go. I was sentenced in the High Court as an 18 year old, as no one believed I was only 16. On my 18th birthday my lawyer rang me and said we found your birth certificate and we’re going to appeal your sentence. I was two years into my sentence then and I didn’t want to appeal as that meant going back on remand and losing the privileges I had built up. I had earnt that position in prison, it sounds terrible to think about but by appealing I was going to lose it all at a risk of nothing changing. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t appeal and kept telling me that I didn’t understand. But I did.
“It’s the same for judges. I was in the Youth Court in Wellington one day when Judge John Walker was sitting. He said to a young person “my role is to keep you out of gangs, keep you away from gangs”. And I said, excuse me my honour, mind if I say something? And I said what you said and what he heard were two different things. What he heard is that your role is to keep him away from dad because his dad is a patch member and is a president of the gang that you want to keep him away from. What you should have said is that my role is to keep him away from crime, even his mum and dad will agree. Sometimes what people say and what they hear are different.”
Te ao Māori and justice
Eugene has a complex relationship with his iwi due to his challenging upbringing. It wasn’t until he met his wahina toa that he discovered the important role iwi and hapū can play in providing a loving and nurturing environment for whānau.
His willingness to speak so openly about his past and his journey reconnecting with his iwi has seen Eugene travel the motu with ‘Te Korimako’ to train community how to best navigate the court system.
Given the focus on incorporating more tikanga and Te ao Māori perspectives into judicial practises it looks to be good timing for Eugene to be studying for a law degree.
“I think I came in at the right time where there is a focus on Te ao Māori which I am a lot more comfortable learning about. I know that I’m walking in a white world but I know that this world is wanting to be more open and more bi-cultural.
“But the more I learn about the justice system the more I can see that it’s the foundation of our laws come from a racist point of view. They are steeped in English history going back to the crusades.
“So, whilst we have people like Justice Joe Williams and Judge Taumaunu trying to weave Te ao Māori and tikanga into the law I worry that it is built on a foundation that doesn’t work for Māori. So why would we continue to build on a foundation that doesn’t work for Māori?”
It’s a good question – but it’s also a challenging question that cuts to heart of our bi-cultural society. It’s also a question that is likely to be asked more openly and frequently as more people bring mātauranga Māori into the lecture theatres and our workplaces.
For Eugene the next few years are focussed on completing his degree. His warm personality and incredibly positive view of the world radiates a man who has left his struggles behind him. But studying for a law degree when you left school at 13 years of age isn’t easy.
“I acknowledge it is hard. People ask how my study is going and I say it’s hard. When I did my Social Work degree at the Wānanga it didn’t fully immerse me into the education world that I had left. This really is.
“I couldn’t do this without my whānau. My wife especially is incredibly supportive. She gives me the space to study, and she knows that I’m helping pave a new future for people from our community.”