Six thoughts on the recent rash of attacks on the streets of Halifax.
1) If you believe in community and profess to be a member of the Halifax community, then you also believe that these kids are our kids. They were raised in our community, they have attended our schools, they have accessed the services delivered by our systems. They are not other� from us and we cannot demand more accountability from them than we do from ourselves. We cannot respond to their behaviour with anger and hateful words when we are asking them to be more caring and empathetic. We are their role models.
2) The manner in which we are currently holding young people accountable for crime and violence is not working. I am not here to argue about the ethics of punishment, just to say that an informed focus on actually reducing youth crime and violence should lead us to understand that punishment is not the answer. In the US, where people have the potential of paying the highest price possible for their crimes, there are no studies that show that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. Similarly, more severe punishments are shown to be ineffective at reducing almost all forms of violent crime. Accountability and punishment should not be synonymous. The solution lies elsewhere.
3) Being tough on people who commit crimes and violence entails punishment. Being tough on crime means being tough on the causes of crime on systemic levels---economic disparity, racial and sexual oppression and inequity, etc. No matter what communities we come from, and whether or not we are invested in a Halifax community, if we want to reduce crime we do well to recognize the social causes of crime and that there is no quick fix to these underlying causes. Revamping systems and rebuilding trust among those they are meant to serve and the service deliverers is long-term process and one that can, at times, feel overwhelming. When events occur that cause a reasonable sense of fear and a lack of personal safety we have a natural tendency to want a solution that is immediate. There is no such solution. We would be best served by using the energy and interest caused by such events to begin the long process of change.
4) We do not do enough to teach our kids to care. We do not teach our kids leadership and often when we do we show them the Pied Piper version of Leadership--the one where they are popular and everyone follows them. We do not teach them that sometimes leadership is lonely, that sometimes your views are unpopular, that sometimes great leadership actually means moving away from the crowd, being the one kid to walk away while everyone else is following. We do not teach these things but when our kids behave other than the way we want them to we expect them to know these things.
5) The people I know who are effective in working with the young people we are talking about are struggling. Not in sense that you would think. We do not struggle to do our jobs. Our work is difficult work but it is often the most rewarding work. It is a vocation---not a career. We are struggling for support. We are struggling to be seen as part of the solution. We are struggling to be included in the decision-making processes that affect the people we work for and with. We are struggling to be heard among the many voices that are crying to lock away our kids, to make them pay adult penalties, to essentially give up on these young people and label them as beyond salvation.
6) Halifax is the largest city east of Montreal. We do not have a youth centre. We do not have a place designed by and for our youth. A place with a free gym, a tutor to help you keep up when you are suspended, a nurse you can talk to about your health and well-being, a caring a positive role model available to discuss life decisions, someone to assist you in navigating complex systems. We do not have an alternative school. Nova Scotia is doing an OK job of providing for those who fit within what we have decided are the norms of our society, but we are doing little that works for those who don't. The systems that have been designed to help are bogged down in bureaucracy and policy that does not shift as quickly as youth culture does. Not for profits---staffed with people who see their work as their life's work---need to start being seen as a financially viable, effective and alternative solution to systems that are struggling to be effective and cost-efficient in their service delivery and who often do not have the trust of the people they are supposed to serve. We need people in positions of power to support us.
I want to make it very clear: I believe in holding young people accountable for their actions. I have worked with young people for close to 15 years and I have seen programs that work and ones that don't. At LOVE we have found that holding kids accountable in a caring and compassionate manner has actually had the effect of changing their attitudes, behaviours and decision making processes.I believe that the solutions to youth crime and youth violence require a radical shift in how we address the underlying causes of such behaviour. The solution does not lie in merely pointing fingers at government, schools or parents. It does not lie in more studies or in more short-term projects. The solution lies in listening to their stories, validating their experiences (and sometimes their anger) and then supporting them over the long term to become happy and productive humans who, in turn, give back to their communities what they have received. The solution lies in each of us taking the actions we can to benefit young people in our communities. This includes government, schools, corporations and parents as well as each of us as individuals. If you read this---thank you for listening. I hope it is the start of a conversation that we need to have for the benefit of our young people.
Sarah MacLaren is Executive Director of Leave Out ViolencE (LOVE).