Youth in three Toronto newcomer communities received legal information and developed leadership skills that will help them as leaders in their communities.
Newcomer youth fill a unique role in their family and community. Due to their stronger English language skills, newcomer youth often act as interpreters and source of information for their family members. However, complex issues such as legal problems can be difficult for newcomer families to navigate. The Newcomer Community Justice Program equipped youth with information to help their families and community members find the resources needed to resolve legal issues—often in their own language.
OJEN’s Newcomer Community Justice Program
The Newcomer Community Justice Program, funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation and Law Foundation of Ontario, introduced newcomer youth to areas of law commonly effecting newcomer families: Housing Law, Employment Law and Immigration and Refugee Law, with a focus on failed refugee claims.
From April to July of 2019 OJEN partnered with the Afghan Women’s Organization (AWO), Parkdale Collegiate Institute (PCI) and the Centre for Spanish Speaking People (CSSP), delivering the program to 47 youth. Participants attended six to eight weekly sessions where they met with justice sector professionals to learn about law, received leadership training and planned a public legal education event tailored for their community members’ needs.
Engaging the Community Through Public Legal Education
To assist with program administration and delivery, OJEN recruited youth project officers from each of the three communities where the program ran. The Youth Leadership Team (YLT) worked with OJEN staff in relationship-building efforts with partner organizations and promoted the program in their respective communities.
OJEN tailored the program’s public legal education content in each community, by taking into account the project officers’ understanding about their community’s issues. As youth in newcomer families, the project officers brought insights to each project based on their knowledge and lived experiences. They also assisted in facilitating weekly sessions, handled logistics for the culminating activity and helped in program evaluation.
Each group of youth chose a different approach to their community event.
At the AWO, the youth held their event during Ramadan, a month during which Muslim members of their communities fast. The youth delivered a presentation, sharing legal information to the community members who had gathered to pray and break their fast together. Speaking clearly and confidently, each youth participant stood in front of an audience of 150 community members.
Amar, the youth project officer from AWO, mentioned that the event was bigger than she had expected. “Together they [the youth and OJEN] planned this amazing and informative event comprising lawyers, translators and paralegals. It was a very successful and positive event,” she said.
The group of youth at PCI organized a legal information booth with resources in several different languages. Students picked up legal information resources to take back to their friends and families. The youth engaged their 200 of their peers at Parkdale with a fun initiative: each time someone asked a legal question, they would receive a slice of pizza. They walked away from the booth with important legal resources and some delicious lunch.
Meanwhile, the youth from CSSP found several unique opportunities to distribute legal information. With the assistance of justice sector professionals, they wrote a script in Spanish, providing legal information on issues they identified as important to their community and designed handouts to accompany their presentation. They delivered their presentation and gave out the handouts at El Cafecito, a local community event for Spanish-speaking people.
ONDAS FM radio and Silvia Méndez ¡Ahora! online television show — Spanish language media channels — invited the youth to discuss how the Spanish-speaking community could access legal resources and legal help.
“Something that stood out for me was everyone`s willingness to participate and speak in the presentations. We were a quiet group, however, in the presentations, everyone seemed to be confident in what they were saying and seemed to find importance in it, as well,” Saul, a youth project officer from the CSSP, observed.
Kate, another youth project officer at CSSP, said, “The youth start to understand that they have a participation in the community [and] that they have a role in it. They come back with their parents, their families, with a message.”
Gaining Leadership Skills and Building Legal Capability
As part of the program evaluation, youth project officers considered how the program impacted them and their peers.
“The youth benefited from the program because of the information they learned. They can teach their family and community about refugee resources, which is a big step. Youth also got to be leaders and they learned about event planning,” Jozsef, the youth project officer at PCI, told OJEN.
“This kind of program is important because there is a lack of information between refugee families, as they are immigrants. Most of them don’t know where to get information from and how to ask for legal advice. They are also not very fluent in English. That’s why it’s important to have youth in the program, so they can explain everything to their families,” Amar said.
Saul pointed out that the leadership skills youth developed during the program, such as public speaking, organization skills, and script-writing, would benefit the youth in educational or professional settings. Kate added, “Access to free legal help for the community is something that everyone should be around. Letting the youth know that they have all the tools to introduce themselves and their family [to the justice system], all the legal help that they can get—that’s something we should be proud of.”
Newcomer Community Justice was a youth-lead progam. Much of its success was a result of tailoring program content based on each group’s understanding of the issues facing their own community. Youth participants aquired new skills in the process of organizing, promoting and delivering their public legal education events. At the same time, they developed more confidence in their leadership abilities and contributed something meaningful to their communities. Well done!