By RON FANFAIR
Always interested in building positive relationships between the police and Black youths, Mary Anne Chambers approached her two sons’ high school principal nearly two decades ago to see if there was a way he could help to forge constructive bonds between his students and law enforcement.
Chambers was not prepared for the response.
“He bluntly told me it would never happen,” she said. “I never forgot that as I felt there must be a way for young people to meet police officers under positive conditions because it seems their first interaction is always negative.”
The former provincial minister used her influential position to make it happen when she assumed the Minister of Children & Youth Services portfolio.
While formulating a government strategy to address youth needs, she was approached in 2005 by former Toronto Police deputy chief Keith Forde and then board chair Alok Mukherjee whose Service was looking to employ 20 youths.
There were, however, no funds and the Service’s financial resources were stretched to the limit.
Out of these discussions emerged the Youth in Policing Initiative (YIPI) program a decade ago as a summer employment opportunity for young people from some of the city’s designated priority neighbourhoods to gain valuable work experience.
However, the program was not readily embraced by the Black community.
Some leaders were certain that young people would be opposed to working with the police when the idea of the summer employment program was floated.
“I had many people in the Black community tell me no one would apply,” said Chambers. “Some even said they didn’t want their kids to be police informers.”
They were wrong on every count.
The first year, close to 1,100 youths applied for 100 spots.
Nearly 1,800 students have graduated from the summer and winter programs in the last 10 years. The YIPI winter program was launched four years ago.
Of the 1,231 applicants this year, a total of 400 were interviewed and 155 selected to participate in the innovative program that caters to high school and university students, between 15 and 18, who come from City of Toronto-designated Neighbourhood Improvement Areas and who often struggle to find summer employment.
For 17-year-old Samir Abdulhadi, this is his first summer job and he’s looking forward to the experience.
“I also applied to Canada Wonderland, but I was thrilled when I was accepted into the YIPI program,” said Abdulhadi whose father, Abdul Haphiz Osman, is a court services officer.
The North Park Secondary School graduate is enrolled in Humber College’s paralegal program.
“I hope to secure valuable work skills and experience from the YIPI program,” said Abdulhadi.
Because of the program’s overwhelming success in Toronto, 22 police services in the province, including Nishnawabe-Aski in northern Ontario, are part of the initiative.
In 2008, the YIPI program was permanently incorporated in the Ontario government’s list of youth programs and, a year later, the Ministry of Children & Youth Services increased its funding to the program to accommodate a 50 per cent increase in hires.
The Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services collaborated with the TPS in 2009 to participate in the program for the first time, hiring eight students to work at Mimico Correctional Centre.
This summer, 11 students are assigned to the South Detention Centre and five probation offices across the city.
“This program is about giving young people an opportunity to see law enforcement and criminal justice professionals in another light,” said Association of Black Law Enforcers founding president, Dave Mitchell, who is a Ministry of Community Safety & Correctional Services director. “It also enables them to make good decisions around career choices.”
In addition to gaining valuable work experience, youth participants’ attitude to police and policing improve and they feel positive and confident about their experiences which they take back to their communities. They also recognize, develop and pursue some of the career aspirations that attracted them to the program initially and the program facilitates positive and sustained personal relationships between the youth and Toronto Police members.
“This is an amazing opportunity for young people,” said human capital development leader, Dr. Catherine Chandler-Crichlow, who attended this summer’s YIPI program launch last week. “Part of the challenge we face in this region is that there are so many kids graduating and can’t find jobs. This program is providing them with vital workplace skills and networks. There is also so much our youth need to learn about policing.”
Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) president, Adaoma Patterson, said investments in youth intervention programs pay dividends.
“With the work I do through the Peel Poverty Reduction Strategy Committee and the JCA, I know first-hand that these kinds of programs and interventions can make the difference,” she said.
Toronto Police Service Chief Mark Saunders openly welcomed the new intake into the Service’s fold.
“The YIPI program enhances the link between the Service and the neighbourhoods we serve,” he told them. “This incredible initiative empowers you by giving you an opportunity to develop job skills while fostering positive relationships with us.”
Lou Ann Micallef, the Ministry of Children & Youth Services regional manager, represented Minister Michael Coteau at this year’s launch.
She urged the youths to make the most of the summer opportunity.
“We all knew this was the beginning of something wonderful as many young people from across the city would have opportunities,” said Micallef who was at the program’s launch a decade ago. “We want you to succeed because when you do, it positively impacts your family, friends and your community. Try to get as much as you can out of this summer job experience because it really is an awesome opportunity. There will be many situations down the road where you will be able to influence people’s thinking by standing up and acknowledging what you have learned here. We are depending on you to take that leadership role into your communities.”
Micallef acknowledged Toronto Police for its commitment and dedication to the program.
“This fantastic learning opportunity would not be possible without your support,” she said. “You continue to provide a positive work environment for these young people and you give them a chance to show off their talent. You have also helped to make the program a success elsewhere in the province by sharing information, knowledge and experiences with other police services. For that, we acknowledge and thank you.”
Earning $11.25 an hour, the YIPI students will be exposed to the Service’s 17 Divisions and 48 support units.