This member spotlight features an interview with @kenyajade and Brittany Twiss from Level. Changing Lives Through Law in Ontario, Canada. The Indigenous Youth Outreach Program (IYOP) was established in 2012 and adopted the legal empowerment approach.
What is your organization’s mission?
We level barriers to justice by disrupting prejudice, building empathy and advancing human rights.
What is the #1 aspect of your organization that you would like other network members to understand?
Level is committed to empowering youth to envision themselves as leaders and change-makers who will disrupt barriers to justice and ultimately change the face of the justice system. You can take a look at our 2017 Annual Report to see more.
What kind of issues does your legal empowerment work address?
Unlike access to education and healthcare, access to justice in Canada is not well understood. Canada’s history of colonialism, the legacy of residential schools, and continued systemic racism, have resulted in Indigenous communities facing the harshest consequences of unequal access to justice. In Canada today, Indigenous youth make up just 8% of the general population but represent 46% of of youth incarceration rates. We believe that the people who should be influencing change are those who experience the barriers to justice firsthand; we are committed to creating spaces and opportunities for Indigenous youth and their communities to share their stories and guide the development of resources and services that bring about real, systemic change. We also believe that the justice sector is often ill-equipped to represent the communities they aim to serve. Responding to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, we empower law students and lawyers to be better advocates and allies through cultural competency workshops as well as innovative mentorship, leadership and research opportunities.
How are you using legal empowerment to address the problems?
We disrupt prejudice and build empathy to increase access to justice through innovative youth empowerment and human rights advocacy projects
i. Indigenous Youth Outreach: Working with Indigenous youth aged 11-14 across Canada, we deliver specialized justice education workshops, including mock trials and sentencing circles. The program is culturally anchored and is designed to empower youth to develop greater knowledge of the justice system through experiential learning. The project aims to encourage youth to become leaders in their classrooms and communities, and to consider careers in law. We also empower Indigenous youth to be agents of change in their communities by creating spaces for them to be directly involved in innovative research and resource creation. In 2018, Level supported Indigenous youth across Canada to contribute their views in identifying barriers to justice in their communities, and provided them with leadership opportunities in the creation of an innovative Indigenous Youth Justice Toolkit…
Since 2012, Level has engaged over 900 Indigenous Youth across Canada (IYOP). After participating in IYOP, students tell us that they have a better sense of the criminal justice system, including what constitutes a crime and the consequences associated with their actions. Students indicate that they have learned about Indigenous peoples’ relationships with the Canadian justice system–including the reason for Gladue principles and sentencing circles. Most recently, three alumni from IYOP have shared their desire to go on to law school and become future advocates.
ii. Human Rights Advocacy: We work with undergraduate and law students produce and promote important human rights research. We use a multidisciplinary, design-thinking approach to inspire leadership and empower students to raise awareness about and to research innovative ways we can disrupt barriers to justice in Canada.
iii. Training and Mentorship: We work with justice sector professionals, including law students and lawyers, on increasing their cultural humility and empathy through specialized training led by Indigenous Elders and Knowledge Keepers. We also connect law students with daring lawyers who have blazed their own trails to success through a unique mentorship program.
Annually, Level provides justice education and meaningful learning and mentorship opportunities to over 300 Indigenous youth and 125 volunteer legal professionals. As the program expands annually, these numbers grow. Level also empowers 55 law students leaders across Canada to engage in unique leadership and research opportunities in Canada. This work reaches and engages over 3000 law students annually.
Effectively engaging with young people is an iterative process. What may work in one year, may not be as effective the next. Remaining innovative and dynamic is key to staying connected to the people one aims to serve and support. At Level, innovation means creating space for organic and strategic growth. We understand that laws–and by extension the legal issues that communities are faced with–are not static. When faced with change, and with guidance from our Theory of Change and Strategic Plans, we are able to pursue new opportunities. For example, following the Truth and Reconciliation Report’s call to actions, we galvanized resources to provide meaningful research opportunities that empower Indigenous youth and students across the country to deconstruct and create a vision for the future of the Canadian justice system.
Is there an aspect of your legal empowerment work that is particularly innovative?
Level takes an innovative approach to youth empowerment and human rights advocacy by grounding our work in empathy building. We believe that legal professionals must go beyond seeing only themselves as agents of change, and focus more time, energy, and resources outward, to the communities they aim to represent. By grounding our work in empathy, and creating meaningful opportunities for young people to enact change for themselves and their communities, we believe that our impact will be greater. Specifically, we take an empathetic approach to empowering others by employing design thinking, cultural awareness and two-way knowledge transfers in our programming.
i.) Design Thinking- A design thinking approach engages beneficiaries and stakeholders throughout the program’s life. Level employs a design thinking approach in program creation and evaluation. We are committed to engaging stakeholders in all stages of program development and review. Most recently, for example, Level created the Indigenous Youth Justice Toolkit, which outlines the biggest legal challenges facing Indigenous youth across Canada and provides content to help youth navigate these issues, both within the justice system and using traditional Indigenous justice models. Indigenous youth led the creation of the Toolkit, including defining the problems, development, and, ultimately, shaping the final product.
ii.) Cultural Awareness: Level takes an innovative approach to justice education by incorporating culturally-anchored learning opportunities. In our Indigenous Youth Outreach Program, for example, Level incorporates Indigenous pedagogy like sentencing circles, the use of the eagle feather in the courtroom, and Gladue principles as tools for teaching students about restorative justice in the Canadian criminal justice system. These culturally empowering justice education experiences unique in justice education programs in Canada and are important for youth to learn about the relationship between the Canadian justice system and Indigenous peoples in a safe space.
iii.) Two-Way Knowledge Transfers: Level’s approach is also innovative for creating opportunities for learning and growth. For example, Level’s Indigenous Youth Outreach Program is not only designed to directly benefit the youth who participate in the mock trials and sentencing circles, but it also creates learning opportunities for the legal professionals who serve as volunteers. We know that many Canadian legal professionals are ill-equipped to serve Indigenous clients. Through cultural competency and mentorship trainings, we create a safe space to disrupt prejudice, unconscious bias and provide lawyers and law students with the skills they need to approach their work from a space of allyship and friendship.
What are the strategies you employ to ensure the long-term sustainability of your work?
In order to deliver the Indigenous Youth Outreach Program, Level has cultivated strategic partnerships with key stakeholders including elders, educators, school boards, community leaders and legal professionals. Level maintains an awareness of organizations with similar mandates, and, where possible, endeavors to create meaningful partnerships. For example, every year, Level partners with Northern Youth Abroad, a Canadian organization that facilitates meaningful experiences for Indigenous youth. We collaborate to host a two-day event in Ottawa, Ontario, where the youth engage in a modified mock trial activity, visit a law firm, and attend a Supreme Court of Canada tour. Diverse Funding Sources Over 4 years, Level’s operating budget has quintupled. This new funding is diverse and includes government grants as well as support from private foundations and multi-year funding, supporting the long-term sustainability of Level’s growth. Engaged Volunteers Level is proud to work with engaged educators and lawyers across the country. Before any IYOP programming is delivered, volunteers receive comprehensive cultural competency training. Our programming thrives because of a lively and engaged core team of volunteers who facilitate student preparation for mock trials.
Do you have any advice for other organizations about achieving scale?
Since 2012, Level’s Indigenous Youth Outreach Program has grown significantly and is being delivered on reserves and in schools across the country. The program has grown from a small pilot program in Toronto, to a program that is currently being delivered in 10 communities reaching youth from Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Level increases the scale of our work by setting out a clear vision and identifying potential partnerships. Relying on our Strategic Plan and Theory of Change, Level is growing its reach by identifying potential opportunities for growth to new stakeholders and beneficiaries. Achieving scale requires financial sustainability and strategic vision and Level is fortunate to have a dedicated team that is committed to achieving both.
While we focus on the justice sector, we feel that all sectors can benefit from critical self-reflection and learning directly from the communities experiencing system barriers. Those who are facing the barriers are best equipped with the knowledge to advance lasting change.
Are there any areas where you would benefit from collaboration with other network members?
Level emphasizes the power of two-way knowledge exchanges between like-minded organizations, as we believe that this can spur lasting systemic change. We always open to exploring opportunities for collaboration and partnership.
If you have questions or thoughts to share about this member’s work, please share them below
Member Spotlights are short profile articles focusing on members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network. Spotlight articles use case studies to provide useful insights into the work of other network members. Whether you are working in the same country, with similar issues or want to understand new legal empowerment approaches, the Member Spotlight is a useful learning resource. You can read about organizations in our network here (https://community.namati.org/tags/spotlights)