Often, justice sector volunteers (including but not limited to law students, lawyers and judges) come to their first OJEN program excited to bestow their knowledge about the Canadian legal system upon interested youth. Seldom do they approach their initial program thinking it will be an opportunity for professional development, beyond the law based preparation required. Rarely is this their viewpoint at subsequent sessions. Once having volunteered in an OJEN justice education program, volunteers realize that they are as much as a learning opportunity to them, as they are for the youth.
Motivated by gut instinct and a pure, unrefined notion of justice – youth challenge volunteers to move past precedent, polices and laws to reflect on impact, collective and individual. Of course, nothing can challenge a lawyer more, than having to explain complex jurisprudence, sentencing considerations or legal doctrine to a youth audience, eager to stump the expert! Youth push. “Because it’s the law” is not an acceptable answer. Conversations can quickly lead to ideas for legal reform and activism.
Volunteering in OJEN’s programs provide justice sector professionals with the opportunity to connect with youth and learn from their lived experiences. On more than one occasion, youth have shared experiences that demonstrate that the law on the books can differ significantly from the law “on the street”. While challenging, these encounters encourage volunteers to engage in open, honest dialogue; acknowledging power imbalance, socio-economic factors and the real role systemic discrimination or bias can play in our legal system. Both youth and volunteers walk away from these exchanges enlightened.
But I won’t ask you to just take our word for it. In fall 2015, OJEN partnered with Greenwood Secondary School to put on a four session workshop on Human Rights. In this workshop the students in two English as a Second Language (ESL) Civics classes were introduced to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They explored situations in which the Code and the Charter apply and what recourse they can take if their human rights are violated. Lawyer volunteer, Omo, was then asked to share her reflections on the program. Here is a short excerpt of what she shared:
The experience of teaching the two classes caused me to reflect on how much the level of language proficiency impacts one’s life experience and confidence and how we unconsciously equate language proficiency with intelligence. The students in the first class seemed to be quieter and less engaged on the issues while the students in the 2nd class seemed more precocious, “quicker studies” etc. As far as I’m aware, the difference between them was mostly language proficiency. It made me think of how much of a priority it is to provide newcomers with the resources to develop language proficiency. The lack of it creates all sorts of vulnerabilities and changes who one is. Glenn and I talked about how we would likely have had a very different sense of the personalities of the students in the first class if they had greater language proficiency or if we were conducting the training in their first language and conversely how we would likely have had a different experience of the students in the 2nd class when they were newly acquiring English proficiency.
The experience also made me think of how important this OJEN initiative is. Young people and newcomers can be particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses primarily because of their lack of knowledge about their rights and opportunities for recourse.
ProgramVolunteer Omo Akintan, Lawyer, City of Toronto
By Mara Clarke