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From the OJEN Blog

Having Meaningful Conversations Online: a reflection on OJEN’s Youth-Police Dialogues program in the time of COVID

By Zoë Paddock

Zoë joins OJEN this summer as a Social Justice Fellow from the University of Windsor Faculty of Law

I don’t know if starting a new virtual job will ever feel entirely normal. You miss out on the office tour, the lunchtime conversation, and a lot of those casual opportunities to make connections with new colleagues. When I joined OJEN for the summer as a Social Justice Fellow from the University of Windsor Faculty of Law (phew, what a mouthful), I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to have the same kind of experience as I would in person. As it turns out – I can’t, but I’ve also had a chance to realize that at its best, online work and online learning can offer us opportunities for ingenuity and communication with people who may be left out in a traditional in-person format.

During my time with OJEN I’ve been lucky enough to attend one of our justice education programs, Youth-Police Dialogues, a province-wide program funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation which offers young people a safe, inclusive space to share their perspectives about their neighbourhood and the issues that cause conflict between youth and police. Over 6-8 weekly sessions, lawyers help youth learn about criminal law, build their legal capability, and develop their advocacy skills.

We held our final culminating session with an amazing group of youth from Kitchener a few weeks ago, and recorded the session to be turned into a podcast so that we can share the insights from participants more widely. As we were having our final discussion, I enjoyed seeing how smoothly we had all settled into an online space. The difficult parts of moving programming that relies on connection and collaboration online are likely clear to us all – how can we read body language? How can we make sure participants are engaged?

These concerns are especially relevant when the intention of the Youth-Police Dialogues program is to discuss challenging topics that require a great deal of sensitivity. Often, many of the youth joining the sessions have had their own experiences with police or the legal system which bring an added layer of vulnerability. Creating an environment that is comfortable for young people to share these thoughts and experiences can be challenging even in-person, and it is even more difficult to gauge how everyone is handling the content online. Beyond the new challenges of online life, asking young people to speak about their thoughts on very difficult topics in a space with many adults can be tricky. Online or in-person, working to meet the youth participants where they are is an essential part of running programs like this.

While these potential challenges are something we are working on constantly, I can now say that there are also many new ways to make connections online, and to potentially benefit from methods of learning together that aren’t available in-person.

Most of the time during our weekly sessions the youth participants kept their cameras and microphones off, choosing instead to communicate through the chat function of Zoom. In many cases, the youth are joining us after a full day of “Zoom school” and are at the end of their capacity for “face to face” online interactions for the day. In other cases, some of the participants may not be able to turn on their camera and mic for privacy reasons set out by the participating school board or organization. Others still may not be joining us from locations with a stable internet connection or their own space. Regardless of the reason, I think all of us can understand the exhaustion of participating through visual and audio formats day after day. I think we can also all see from our own experiences that the decision not to go on camera is not always an indicator of a lack of interest or a sign of disrespect.

 While on its face it may seem like the absence of voices and faces would make it even more difficult to create a shared space of trust and communication, we found that by dedicating a member of the OJEN team to read out loud the messages we got from the youth we could open up a whole new avenue of collaboration. In a face to face setting, OJEN staff are always trying to instill a sense of validation for the youth in our programs. We use body language to convey the message that they are being heard and understood. In the best of circumstances this works well, but because of different styles of communication, sometimes we humans can miss the mark. In a virtual setting though, by reading aloud the messages from the youth we can immediately convey that we have heard, understood, and appreciated what has been shared with us. This has been an incredible tool in facilitating a space in which the youth participants feel respected, valued, and heard. As well, contributing over chat allows folks who may not be comfortable sharing in person the space to do so virtually.

It’s true that we don’t get to know the youth leaders in exactly the same way in a virtual setting. There are many less casual conversations about the visual markers we all use to understand new people (who has cool new sneakers, who supports the Blue Jays, etc.), but we get to understand who the youth are directly through their ideas. Especially when we are discussing complex and difficult subjects like the role of policing in Canada, communication only through written word can be a meaningful inroad to diving right into what everyone thinks. Being able to communicate over chat can help with the worries that can sometimes accompany sharing thoughts on a tough subject in person. As well, there are many ways to let people know that you care about them.

I loved learning from our experienced facilitators about the importance of staying tuned in to the specific issues and events impacting each group that we work with. So often, creating connections is more about paying attention than anything else. We also benefit hugely from working with community partners who have pre-existing relationships with the young people who join us. Their connections to the youth help us with keeping up attendance in an online world, and with so many other aspects of staying connected and running meaningful sessions.

For our part, the facilitators usually have both our cameras and microphones on. The combination of different methods of communication has allowed us to balance the sessions – our reactions can be seen and our voices heard so that the youth participants never have to wonder if they’re being understood correctly. We also haven’t shied away from including some silliness in our sessions through games, a little healthy competition, and just letting our sometimes goofy personalities show through. We were rewarded for our authenticity tenfold by the youth, who were never shy about sharing their own silliness, thoughts, and questions.

The justice-sector volunteers rose to the occasion as well, providing some incredible insight for the youth on the various legal issues we discussed. While an online interaction through chat may not have been what they were expecting, the justice-sector volunteers jumped right in and helped us cover some really important issues. They were also a welcome addition to our games (if a little bit too good at knowing the answers). As we got to know each other, and came to some of our last sessions, it was great to see the young people retain and apply information about their rights and communication tools in the context of interactions with the legal system.

If I had to distill my take-aways from online programming into one message, it is this: communicating with intention always has the power to create a space of amazing collaboration. Despite not seeing the faces of the youth who joined us for the program, we were all able to collaborate to make a place with a sense of safety, connection, and honesty by always being clear about our intention for the space, and our respect for everyone who took the time to join us.

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