The Former Human Rights Commissioner on Advocacy, Community, and Doing the Work
In Conversation with Kristen Hilton (LLB/BA/Dip. Lang. 2001)
Kristen Hilton is an astonishing woman.
It’s been a long day. I’ve come home from law school to log a few hours at work and if I’m honest, am keen to promptly tick this interview off on my endless to-do list. Yet when Kristen bounces onto my screen, I can feel myself mirroring her energy. We start by discussing what it’s like to have Ian Malkin and John Tobin as teachers (essentially: very fun, for different reasons). “We need each other”, she says earnestly, when I ask about her biggest takeaway from the pandemic, “community is important.” Kristen was the Victorian Equal Opportunity Human Rights Commissioner from 2016 to 2021 and has spent much of her career tirelessly advocating for vulnerable and marginalised people across her community. I knew she would be knowledgeable, I just also expected her to be slightly jaded. She definitively is not. Instead, she is kind, considered, open, and authentic, wholeheartedly embracing the kind of necessary change it takes to make the world a better place with a refreshing level of self-awareness.
I ask Kristen whether she’s always been so passionate about fighting injustice, and she describes just how impactful her upbringing was. “The smallest acts of kindness, like the ones you see growing up in a country town, make a big difference” she explains. Her parents were active community members, always welcoming open dialogue and instilling in her the importance of education. Kristen has four sisters, and shares that in being surrounded by women, she feels she was mostly spared from experiencing firsthand the differences in how girls and boys are treated. “All of us feel the world quite heavily,” she states candidly, “and there are positives and negatives to that.”
I ask whether it was a bit of a culture shock for her moving from Kyabram to Melbourne, and she shares two formative and illuminating experiences from her youth. Explaining the first, a trip to South Africa at ten years old to visit her aunt, Kristen paints a very personal and confronting picture of apartheid, from which arose an innate understanding that the world is inherently unfair. She goes on to describe a trip to Denmark on exchange at sixteen and lights up sharing her experience of the evolving social democracy and progressive gender equality movement in 1990s Scandinavia. Kristen’s lifelong interest in advocacy, it seems, was born out of an upbringing that encouraged open, critical thought, and fed by her transformative experiences abroad. Melbourne, it seems, was not so confronting after that.
Kristen tells me her favourite things about our city, made a little more precious by the last three years, like going out to eat with family. She tells the story of how she took up running during lockdown, dabbling in “cold water immersion therapy” where she would run with a with a friend by the beach, finishing with a dunk in the freezing sea. I admit that I had trouble leaving the house at all, and we both laugh a little. I get the sense that these are easily interchangeable feelings living through the last three years in Melbourne — wanting to be outside as much as possible, and not wanting to leave your home at all.
We move onto her work in the human rights space. During a secondment from a commercial firm to a community legal centre for homeless youth, Kristen quickly found her purpose working within the pro bono space. “Essentially I never went back”, she says, relaxing into her chair with the ease of someone who is at peace with the decisions she has made.
We ruminate on these decisions — I question whether was an easy or a difficult one to take on the role of Commissioner. On balance, it seems it was both. We discuss the need to balance being a present parent with fulfilling your professional potential, and how to reconcile these choices at a time when you are arguably at your most productive, which leads us to discuss the structural inequities present in the legal field. Being a woman in leadership is often a statement in itself. There are limited options available for women to make it all work, but women are expected to do so. “It’s hard to have two equally demanding things that you want to do well,” I say with feeling, and when Kristen agrees with me, I feel incredibly validated. Kristen stresses how opportunities will come at different times, and to take the opportunity that feels right at the time. I forget for a minute that this is an interview and go to write down the advice in thick black ink at the top of my notepad — so often as women there is this overwhelming pressure to take any opportunity given to us, in fear it won’t be offered again. It’s heartening to hear from such a well-established woman that more will come.
I ponder if the work ever feels ‘done’ when addressing human rights issues, through a constant stream of developing atrocities and ongoing hardship. Kristen answers me by emphasising that all of the wins have been very hard fought, stemming from generations of suffering and tireless work. She’s hopeful that things are changing, and what gives her that hope is connecting with individuals who’ve experienced real, tangible change from the Commission’s work and claimed back some sort of justice.
I ask Kristen how she works to empower other women, and she immediately speaks to the importance of prioritising a diversity of background, ability and of thought; “I just think they make for better teams” she states candidly. She speaks of personally encouraging women in her team to go for opportunities, and the importance of giving them adequate space to do so, to avoid professional development simply becoming an additional workload. I ask Kristen if she has any advice for young women in law, given the lack of management training in the legal field, and she muses on the challenging yet rewarding role of managing people and embracing their complexities. I get the sense that again, building and maintaining community is important to Kristen, both for the longevity of your team and the quality of your professional relationships. ‘Humans are beautiful and frail and weird and interesting’, she adds, and connection is important. If you can balance the gravity of your work with a little humour, everyone around you is better off for it.
Before our interview, I sent Kristen a preview of the questions I would be asking, very clearly noting she could opt out if some questions didn’t serve the conversation. I expected she would bypass my question on furthering the Commission’s reform work with Victoria Police in 2020 during the Black Lives Matter movement abroad and at home. In what I’m now seeing is central to her character, she addressed this head on. We first discussed the work, focussed on the discrimination of women in the police force, and what it meant for officers to realise that the treatment of their colleagues impacted their ability to serve their community; in how they were perceived, and to what extent they were trusted. “We all have bias”, she says earnestly. “Unless you’re constantly checking your own bias and assumptions, unless there is very deliberate reflection, you will continue to see behaviour that is discriminatory.” In short, Kristen is hopeful, acknowledging that while cultural change takes time, and that addressing entrenched attitudes and behaviours can be a confronting experience, if we’re able to be open to understanding how we’re part of the problem, we can also be part of the solution.
Finally, I ask, what’s next for Kristen Hilton? Currently she is leading the cultural review of Victorian prisons commissioned by the Andrews Labor Government, work which she admits is “quite heavy” but still very rewarding. Otherwise, Kristen lets me know she’s very much looking forward to writing the next chapter. I for one cannot wait to read it.
Prepared by: Eliza Dean