Quenton and Kaitlynn are among approximately 30 youth who attend IMPACT ‘n Communities Youth Violence Intervention Ambassadors program; an initiative with Operation Springboard and one of the many community organizations where OJEN/ROEJ delivers justice education sessions. Their East Scarborough neighbourhood is often in the media due to violence and gang activity. Quenton and Kaitlynn agree that gang violence is a reality in their neighbourhood that they’d like to see change. However, they also find a lot to appreciate.
“Everyone looks out for one another,” they say. “There are lots of community barbeques and other community activities. Newcomers are respected and if anyone needs help, people are there to help them. I know people say bad things about this community but I don’t see it as bad.”
It’s an outlook echoed by many of the youth in the program.
“When my friends ask me where I’m from and I tell them Danzig Street, they say, ‘I’m not coming to your place. I don’t want to get shot.’ It’s not like that. People care about each other,” objects another participant.
Everyone in the program is clear that it’s wrong to paint all the youth in the community with one brush. “We’re not all gang bangers.” Never-the-less, there is a common impression that they are given little credit for the effort they make to do well in school and stay out of trouble. With such low expectations for them to succeed, it can be difficult to stay positive.
Asked about what changes could be made to improve their neighbourhood, Quenton spoke about the need for improved relations between the police and the community. “Sure, they drive through, but they don’t get to know the people who live here,” he says. If they spent time in the community, hosted barbeques or just talked with people, people would trust them more.”
“Police are there to protect us,” he says. “They need to get with us, spend time with us, make sure we’re OK… That’s how they can protect us. If they’re just driving by they don’t really know what’s going on.”
Kaitlynn agreed. “Communication between cops and the community is really big. With communication, things can get fixed over time.”
“When police stop little kids they just assume they’re doing something bad,” Quenton adds. “If they took time to explain why they were stopping them or if they asked them how they were and were friendly, then kids wouldn’t be so afraid of them. When kids are afraid of the police they won’t go to them if they have a problem and need help. I’m trying to teach my younger brother to have a good attitude about police, but he sees them hassling people.”
“One thing that has to change,” says Kaitlynn, “is if there’s even a hint of race motivated action by the police, it has to be taken seriously. Some of my friends think cops are harassing them out of racism.”
Having a School Resource Officer assigned to their school has had a positive effect on youth-police relations, she says. It has helped to show students that there are some police officers who care.
“You get attached to the cop. You know that there’s at least one cop you can trust. It was the cop in my school who told me about this program,” she commented. “We’ve also had speakers come here – lawyers and cops – and we’ve got to meet them in person. It helps to know what they’re really like as people. Some of them told us that they got into what they’re doing because they wanted to change things and it’s easier to change things from the inside than the outside.”
Kids get robbed in the school yards after school and worry about getting home safely. They don’t feel that police patrols are protecting them nor do they feel comfortable going to them for help. Still, there is recognition that the police have an important role to play and they’re open to finding solutions. As youth, from 15 to 18 years of age, the participants in this justice education session may not be well positioned to create change yet, but they have very clear sense of what needs to change.