OJEN’s Youth-Police Dialogues (YPD) Program is in high gear this fall with the multi-session workshops taking place simultaneously in five communities throughout Ontario. In Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston, Sudbury, and Ottawa, youth and police officers are coming together to challenge stereotypes, build rapport, and improve community relations.
Now in the second year of a three year grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Youth-Police Dialogues provide youth and police officers an opportunity to reset their relationships. By the time the grant concludes in March 2021, OJEN will have delivered at least 24 YPD programs across the province.
OJEN’s Youth-Police Dialogues engage some of Ontario’s most vulnerable or marginalised youth populations, including youth who are homeless, refugees, criminalized, Indigenous, and those identifying as LGBTQ2S. Many of them come to the program feeling distrustful of the police and have a sense of alienation from “the system”.
Resetting Youth-Police Relationships
Over six to eight weekly sessions, the young people spend time with police officers, lawyers, community workers and OJEN staff. Everyone takes part in experiential learning activities designed to build communication and advocacy skills, while sharing information about police procedures, the youths’ legal rights and mechanisms for police oversight. The youth get to know local police officers as individuals.
For the officers who volunteer in these programs, it is a chance to interact with youth in a less formal, less charged environment. The insights they gain from hearing about the young peoples’ lived experiences and views on police relations, give them a better understanding of the issues youth face. It can impact the way they serve the communities in which they work.
Responding to Community Needs
While the general structure of the YPD program remains consistent from group to group, it is also tailored each time to be responsive to the needs of specific communities. The youth participants in the current Kingston workshop, for instance, are newcomers. Some of the conversations in the program explore how policing may differ in Canada from their country of origin.
In Sudbury, youth participants, police and a cultural teacher come together to look at justice issues through the lens of Indigenous culture. Several sessions this fall take place outdoors, where everyone will learn together on the land. In October, police joined youth in a Medicine Walk. On Remembrance Day, police officers will accompany youth to Atikameksheng Anishnawbek, an Ojibway First Nation near Sudbury, to attend a ceremony honouring Indigenous veterans. For Indigenous youth, sharing their values and traditions with police is essential to building better relationships between police and their communities.
Taking Learning to the Next Level
The YPD Program is offered as a two phase program. After the first workshop series, the group of young people, police officers, lawyers and community workers have an opportunity to build on what they have learned and pursue a recommendation or idea which came out of the culminating session. Last year, a group of young mothers chose to create a documentary video as their Phase 2 project. The video featured interviews with each of the young women discussing the challenges and successes they had experienced as single mothers. It also included a dialogue with police officers about the ways in which policing could improve to be more supportive of their needs.
In Windsor, the youth participants concluded their Phase 1 project by advocating for more regular contact and meetings with the police. In April, these youth will begin their Phase 2 project, working with Windsor Police Service to form a Youth Advisory Committee, where their input will inform the service delivery of police in the city.
YPD is a Collaborative Effort
OJEN Youth-Police Dialogues are delivered in communities throughout the province in partnership with community organizations that offer youth services. Municipal, provincial and other police services recognize the value of participating in the program and support the initiative by providing officer volunteers. In many locations, local OJEN committees have helped identify partners and participate in the pilot programs.
Adapting and piloting OJEN YPD programs across the province not only takes considerable policing and community buy-in, it requires substantial funder support. OJEN is fortunate that in addition to funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, the Law Foundation of Ontario, Crime Prevention Ottawa and the Ontario Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services have all provided financial support for this expansion project. These funds allow OJEN staff to travel farther across Ontario and provide a richer range of activities and program opportunities for young people interested in improving relationships with their local police services.
To learn more about OJEN Youth-Police Dialogues, please check out last year’s interview with Mara Clarke and Jess Reekie.