Last summer, approximately 70 youth from four Ottawa neighbourhoods met with local police officers for an OJEN justice education program. The purpose of the program was to open communication between police and youth in communities where tension or conflict exists.
Funded by Crime Prevention Ottawa and the Law Foundation of Ontario, this year’s Changing Course: Building Positive Police-Youth Relationships followed up on last year’s pilot program.
OJEN’s Youth-Police Dialogues (YPDs) offer youth a safe space to share their perspectives. They share views about their neighbourhood as well as the causes of conflict between themselves and police. This interactive program promotes positive youth-police interactions by:
- building knowledge,
- developing skills, and
- fostering genuine dialogue between youth, adult allies, police and members of the justice system.
Community organizations with youth-focused programming host OJEN YPDs. OJEN staff and law school students facilitate the sessions. Lawyer volunteers act as coaches, guiding youth through interactive role-plays and scenario-based activities. In the process, youth develop communication and advocacy skills. They learn to frame issues and concerns in a way that allows for a respectful exchange of ideas.
University of Ottawa law student, Tina Yousif, was hired as the project officer, responsible for administering and facilitating the program. She was assisted by Annie Wenan Chen, another University of Ottawa law student who joined the OJEN team for the summer on a self-directed internship.
“It was challenging to present the information in an interesting and fun way so that the youth could retain it,” says Tina. “We looked for ways to incorporate games and interactive activities.“
A Learning Experience for Police as well as Youth
Local police officers also participated in the sessions. Through their interactions, youth had a chance to get to know them as people. At the same time they learned about how police approached their role in community safety.
Tina says she was surprised at how eager the youth were to meet police officers.
“They really connected with the officers and enjoyed meeting them. They wanted to meet more officers to share information with them about their communities.“
The police officers found the experience valuable too. After spending time with the youth they became more aware of the need to re-examine their own assumptions. They recognized that meeting with youth would allow them to better serve their communities.
“I loved the program,” Tina says. “It was great to be able to give the youth information they would find valuable.”
Annie agrees that the program shared useful life lessons.
“They got practical skills with the potential to reduce harm and make their communities safer.“
“It’s a challenging program,” she continues. “The topic is challenging and it requires a lot of focus on the part of the youth. Everyone we spoke to unanimously agrees it’s useful. Many of the youth wanted the program to be longer. They wished it could go on all year. They wanted their friends to participate too.”
Opportunity for Reciprocal Learning
As with many OJEN programs, YPDs offer opportunities for reciprocal learning. As law school students looking forward to their legal careers, Tina and Annie came away from the program with several important insights.
“I appreciated getting to interact with the youth, many of whom had different lived experience than my own,” says Tina. “Since I’m planning on going into criminal law, the contact with lawyers was helpful and I also learned a lot about the police governing body and accountability. “
“I got an interesting insight into [public legal education] as a response to bigger issues,” Annie says. “Speaking with Ottawa police and many communities gave me a big picture understanding not only about why people are OK about their lack of legal knowledge, but why they hesitate to get more information.”
For more information about OJEN’s Youth Police Dialogue program, click here.