For many young people, women and gender diverse youth in particular, a career in law may feel out of their reach. Braiding Diversity into Justice and other OJEN career modelling programs help young people of all backgrounds “see themselves in law” by introducing them to legal professionals with whom they share similar experiences. The goal of these programs is to show that there is a place for everyone in the legal profession regardless of socio-economic status, disability, migration, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, or religion.
Braiding Diversity into Justice is a full-day program for young women and gender diverse youth who are interested in careers in the justice sector but who might have additional obstacles on the path to those careers.
A collaboration of women justice professionals
The program originated in Kitchener-Waterloo as the vision of Superior Court judge, Justice Catrina Braid. While attending a judicial conference in the United States, she was inspired by presentations about youth-focused public legal education programming that addressed the “school to prison pipeline” occurring in some American communities. She left the conference with a new goal – establishing a program for racialised or marginalised young people identifying as women to explore options for a career in the justice sector.
With help from OJEN staff, her vision grew into a plan. A sub-committee of the Waterloo OJEN Committee was established to implement the plan. It was co-chaired by Justice Braid and a teacher from the Waterloo Region School Board. A diverse group of women representing a range of legal careers, cultural backgrounds, and pathways to success came together to organise the first event.
Inspiring and empowering the next generation
“We created Braiding Diversity into Justice because we wanted to inspire and empower the next generation and promote diversity in the justice system. We want young women to believe they can do whatever they set their minds to do,” explains Justice Braid.
In the spring of 2018, Braiding Diversity into Justice became a reality. Approximately 40 young women were welcomed at the Kitchener Courthouse. Participants were curious to learn whether a career in law might be an option for them.
Over the course of the day, participants heard women judges, lawyers, police officers, probation officers and others, discuss their careers and the pathways they had taken to attain them. The speakers described challenges they had encountered, how they had overcome adversity, and offered practical advice to the participants.
One participant, a newcomer to Canada, was referred to the program by her teacher. Although she had not considered a career in law at the time, she was excited to learn more about it. She recalls being welcomed to the courthouse by Justice Braid. “At first I didn’t realise she was a judge because she was so friendly and down to earth with everyone who arrived.”
Listening to the speakers discuss their work in the justice system was very interesting, she said. “We were all fascinated. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to talk with all of them because I had so many questions.”
Networking and mentoring are key program features
Networking and mentoring opportunities with professionals who share experiences with the participants is one of the most important aspects of the program. The “speed mentoring” session, where different legal professionals rotate among small groups of participants, is a favourite activity. The opportunity to connect on a personal level gives the youth an opportunity to ask questions they might not ask in a larger group setting. Many of the speakers provide contact information so participants can connect with them after the program with additional questions.
Feedback from the participants has been extremely positive.
“I highly enjoyed meeting so many inspirational women, all of whom have incredible stories and advice to share. I loved this program, I found it inspirational, educational and empowering.”
“I think this program is so, so valuable and informative. It is incredibly important to me to hear the journeys of each woman and how they’ve been able to apply their lived experience to their positions. It’s been amazing to see so many successful women, from such a wide diversity of backgrounds. I am beyond grateful for the behind-the-scenes look this program is very unique and special. I hope that it continues for many years and that one day I can come and give back.”
Promoting diversity in the justice system
Encouraging these women and gender diverse youth to pursue careers in the justice sector is not only important for the participants. In a society, which is increasingly diverse, having a justice system that reflects the populations it serves is critical. In his letter to the participants attending the 2023 Braiding Diversity into Justice event in Kitchener-Waterloo, the Chief Justice of Ontario, Michael H. Tulloch, emphasised this point.
“Historically, the legal profession has not been a diverse and representative profession. While this is changing, there is still room for more improvement in this area. Greater diversity in the legal profession enhances the legitimacy of the profession as well as a greater understanding and appreciation for the Rule of Law. Greater diversity in the legal profession increases its accountability and credibility and allows it to become more responsive to the legal needs of all Ontarians.”
Braiding Diversity into Justice has become an annual event for the Kitchener-Waterloo OJEN Committee. The program has also been replicated in several other communities. In 2023 it was delivered in Durham Region, Thunder Bay, and in Ottawa as a bilingual program. In 2024, there are plans for the program to be delivered in Brantford and for a post-secondary version of the program to launch in Kitchener-Waterloo.
OJEN staff member, Amelia Berot-Burns, was recently assigned to help support committees planning Braiding Diversity into Justice programs in their communities (among her other responsibilities). For more information about the program, visit the Braiding Diversity into Justice webpage or email Amelia at email@example.com.