Deepa Mattoo: Centering the Voices and Lived Experiences of Communities that are Underserved and Discriminated Against

  • May 30, 2023
  • Myra Sivaloganathan

Introductionphoto of Deepa Mattoo

From a young age, Deepa Mattoo knew that she wanted to pursue law. She marvelled at the power of law to be a force of change, particularly the law’s ability to challenge the systemic issues of misogyny, oppression, and violence that were pervasive in communities that surrounded her. 

During law school, Deepa cemented her love for advocacy. She seized every opportunity to moot and debate. She graduated with honours and received two gold medals. 

Following her call to the bar, Deepa’s professional career has centered on highlighting the voices and lived experiences of the communities with which she works. 

Today, Deepa is the Executive Director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. The Clinic provides legal, counselling, and interpretation services to marginalized and racialized populations of women who have faced violence. In her role as Executive Director, Deepa manages legal, counselling, and interpretation services, including legal interventions in cases challenging Charter protections. 

Not-for-Profit Work 

Deepa began her career as a criminal defence lawyer in India. 

At an early stage, Deepa realized that her passion lies in working with non-for-profits. Deepa saw the potential positive impact and recognized how acutely underfunded and under resourced non-for-profits are in both a local and international context. 

After completing her MBA in England and arriving in Canada, Deepa began working for the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario as a project coordinator, staff lawyer, and eventually as Interim Executive Director. Shortly thereafter, Deepa joined the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, where she has worked for the past seven years. 

Emerging Legal Issues and Impacts of COVID

As Executive Director at the Clinic, Deepa directly shapes and supervises case management. She runs a social business enterprise to train community leaders as interpreters, and seeks to bring sustainability to the Clinic. Deepa’s educational background is varied, with a law degree, an MBA in corporate social responsibility, and a post-graduate certificate in fundraising. She views legal practice as broader that barrister and solicitor work, and uses advocacy to bring about systemic change. The Schlifer Clinic is at the cutting edge of novel legal and social issues and Deepa leads the charge, piloting new projects and evaluating the work from the perspective of both individuals delivering and receiving the service. 

Deepa seeks to center the voices of those to whom the Clinic’s services are delivered by building trust, introducing responsive policies and guidelines on engaging with communities, and creating accessible pathways to connect with programming.

Early in her term as Executive Director, Deepa directed the Clinic’s responses to COVID-19. Deepa saw that the communities that the Clinic served were disproportionately impacted by COVID due to intersections between gender-based violence and the racialized experiences of violence during COVID. To help mitigate the multitude of challenges faced, Deepa focused on the needs of survivors while ensuring that services were safely delivered and that both staff and communities served felt safe under their care. During this time, Deepa found exceptional solidarity and support as she crafted a path forward.

Wellbeing and Self-Care 

Deepa serves as a role model to her team and ensures that the compassion exuded toward communities is also reflected upon oneself. While working at the Clinic, there is potential for vicarious trauma, so Deepa ensures that emphasis is placed on self-care. 

Deepa seeks to create an open and safe workplace for discussions around burnout and vicarious trauma. She is aware that a significant challenge in managing one’s own mental health and wellbeing is that there is a lot of shame in our society in acknowledging exhaustion. The lack of space to address these issues only serves to exacerbate them. 

Deepa’s work and the people with whom she works bring her joy. Deepa characterizes her team as a fabulous group of women-identifying folx who take care of each other. In addition to fostering a positive workspace, Deepa pursues creative endeavours to relieve pressure and create balance. She practices dance, writes poetry, and attributes much joy and love in her life to her partner, her daughter, and her pet dog and cat. 

Mentorship and Inspiration

Deepa's work has had, and will continue to have, a significant and enduring impact on many lives. 

Deepa explains, however, that she stands on the shoulders of giants. She has been inspired by Pakistani women, South Indian women, Sri Lankan women, Black women, Asian women, and Latina women with whom she works. She has also been inspired by non-racialized feminists, who know how to gracefully make space. 

Deepa noted that throughout her career, there have been key women who have supported, encouraged, and trusted her. These women provided opportunities for Deepa to be vocal and recognized as a leader. Deepa explains that it is important to have people in your corner to support and champion you. Today, Deepa has firmly established her place at the table. 

Deepa is extremely grateful and thankful to receive the Award of Excellence in the Promotion of Women’s Equality. If you would like to support Deepa’s work at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, there are many ways to be involved including donations, community support for legal interventions, and volunteer opportunities. 

Please join us in celebrating Deepa at an awards event on Thursday, June 1, 5:30-7:30 pm, at the OBA Conference Centre in Toronto. Register here.