Saturday, March 17, 2012

What I'm Doing Now (writing scholarship essays?)

For those who are curious about what I'm up to these days and where my head is at, here's an essay I wrote in order to apply for scholarships through Menno Simons College at the University of Winnipeg. I know, I know, I thought I was done with universities for good too. Just read the essay and you'll understand my perspective (although it's a sanitized version of reality; talk to me if you want the real scoop).

Ever since I took Law as an elective in grade twelve and felt the adrenaline rush of participating in a mock trial, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. I felt passionately that becoming a criminal defence attorney would be the best way to advocate on behalf of the disenfranchised and the best way to push back against our deeply flawed “justice” system. I would work pro bono as much as possible and win huge precedent-setting cases that would erase unjust laws from the books in one fell swoop. In university, I signed up for every law-related class I could and watched Law & Order religiously. I needed two attempts, but I passed the LSAT with flying colours and was accepted at the prestigious University of Manitoba law school.

Then, after two weeks of mental and emotional anguish, I dropped out. Every fibre of my being rejected the closed-minded, uncritical nature of the classes and my fellow students; yet my whole life had been building towards having the privilege of being in those very classes and working with those very students. At the time it felt like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute, but in hindsight, dropping out was the best decision I've ever made.

In the subsequent two-and-a-half years, I dedicated myself to exploring as many aspects of myself and social justice work that I could in an attempt Рas clich̩d as it sounds Рto find my life's calling. To add another layer of clich̩, I chronicled that journey of self-discovery in a column in the Manitoban (which, if you are so inclined, you can read here: The culmination of that journey is me envisioning a career in mediation services and hence, writing this letter to you.

Before we get to the present day, you'll probably want to know some more details about my experiences at university and during those two-and-a-half years of self-exploration. I enrolled at the University of Winnipeg immediately following high school and I received the President's Award of Merit for having one of the top five highest grade averages of all students entering the Faculty of Arts that year. It took a few years to get my feet wet, but I eventually became very involved in all sorts of extracurricular activities at the U of W (including several that I don't have space to mention).

I used to be a huge music geek, so my first foray into non-academic participation at the U of W was writing album reviews for Stylus Magazine and the Uniter. My ties with the Uniter later led to a job as assistant to the business manager. Soon after I began writing reviews, I got a gig as a volunteer DJ for the U of W's campus radio station, CKUW. For a about a year I had my very own very early morning (4:00 am to 6:00 am) music show called (sound of impact.), the title of which is an obscure reference to an obscure bootleg album from the obscure post-hardcore band Big Black (did I mention that I was a music geek?).

In early 2008 I got involved with a group on campus called Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy that advocates for just and humane responses to the social problems associated with drug use and abuse. I was elected to the position of vice-chair where my major responsibility was to moderate the discussion at meetings and ended my tenure with CSSDP as the chairperson of the chapter. Highlights of my time with CSSDP include giving many classroom presentations at the U of W, attending a national CSSDP conference in Ottawa and meeting with several MPs and finding out how very little they knew or understood about drug policy.

I had some direct involvement with the University of Winnipeg Students' Association during my first stint as a student at the U of W as well. I ran for Vice President Advocate in 2009, and in order to do research for that job, I attended many UWSA board meetings as a non-board member (which earned me a lot of strange looks from people who had to be there) and participated in the Executive Review Committee which evaluated the performances of the current UWSA executive. Although this taught me a lot about how the UWSA was run (mostly not very well), it didn't end up helping me to win the election. Looking back, I'm quite glad that I lost because if I had won I would probably still be sadly embroiled in claustrophobic bubble of student politics rather than being happily embroiled in the claustrophobic bubble of radical politics as I am now.

The three major activities that occupy my heart and mind these days (aside from CRS-1200) are volunteering with the John Howard Society, volunteering as a collective member of Winnipeg Copwatch, and co-hosting another CKUW show called Black Mask.

Through the JHS, I'm able to work directly with incarcerated men and help improve their lives in whatever small way that it is possible to do so. I spend every Friday night in Winnipeg Remand Centre with these men and teach them literacy skills through one on one tutoring. I hope that the skills they learn might eventually improve their lives in some way, but the job is mostly about helping them to stave off the crippling boredom of incarceration and to treat them like the human beings that they are. Besides tutoring, I also run a JHS program called “Get the Story Out”, which involves having the inmates read storybooks out loud into a recorder and then sending out the recordings and the books to their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc. who they have either limited or no access to while they are behind bars. Prior to volunteering with JHS, I worked with the Elizabeth Fry Society doing a very similar program for the women at the Remand Centre.

Winnipeg Copwatch is an anti-police brutality collective that does regular street patrols in order to deter police violence and misconduct and also puts on Know Your Rights workshops at schools, community centres, and social service agencies to teach people what their rights are when they are dealing with the police. Besides patrols and workshops, I've helped organize International Day Against Police Brutality events for the past three years. Through Copwatch I have become fluent in the process and values of consensus decision-making, which I believe all mediators should understand and use. Perhaps what I have gained with the most value from Copwatch is a systemic analysis of our society; in other words, an understanding that problems don't exist because of a “few bad apples,” but because the barrel itself is rotten to the core. I have learned that capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and other systems of oppression infuse society and are deeply destructive.

I made my return to CKUW this past summer to join the Black Mask radio collective. Black Mask is an anarchist-based news and views program that focuses on interviewing people that can give an alternative and critical view of the world that is not found in the mainstream media. I've been able to interview radicals and non-radicals alike, both local and international, including an animal liberationist, a critical prison theorist, indigenous rights activists, and feminists of all stripes. I believe that the skill-set required to be a good interviewer overlaps significantly with the skill-set required to be a good mediator: active listening, knowing the right questions to ask, and being able to challenge while not offending or embarrassing.

After all that time and all those pursuits, and after participating in a mediation myself, I fell in love with the notion of being a mediator. My epiphany came in late December of 2011 and I was sitting in my first Conflict Resolution Studies class just days later. Now nearing the end of my first semester as a CRS student, I can honestly say that I'm more adamant about working in the field of mediation than ever. In many ways I see mediation as checking the same boxes that I thought being a lawyer would check. It will allow me to help people in transforming and resolving conflicts that may or may not involve a so-called “crime” in a far more humane and collaborative way than could ever be possible within the confines of our inherently inhumane and adversarial “justice” system.

My plan is to begin volunteering with Mediation Services this summer and to earn a BA major in Conflict Resolution Studies by the spring of 2013. After graduation, I will endeavour to provide mediation services to the social justice, non-profit, activist and radical communities of Winnipeg. Having come to intimately know these communities and the people within them, I believe I will able to effectively help them transform and resolve their conflicts while being especially sensitive to the nuances and peculiarities that make them different from traditional work places. While doing this work I intend to stay active within JHS, Copwatch and CKUW in order to stay grounded in those communities and to truly be of those communities.

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