Ounce of Prevention helps racialized people in criminal justice system
Shellie Green credits a new program spearheaded by the Delta Family Resource Centre, in co-operation with four Toronto-based community organizations, for giving her the opportunity to thrive as a Black woman.
“Throughout my journey, I never thought I would be where I’m at today, and many people didn’t think I’d be where I am today,” said the 33-year-old client of the Ounce of Prevention (OZ) program, an Afrocentric initiative that helps Black and racialized youth and their families that are involved in the criminal justice system.
OZ, which kicked off earlier this year, provides free family and individual counselling, support in court and assistance while incarcerated and after release, while also helping with connections to community support systems.
For Green, OZ has become a safe place for her to show up as herself. In the past, she’s attempted to access many different agencies, organizations and services, but says the biggest barrier for her was that it wasn’t culturally relevant or culturally sensitive.
“A lot of times, I’d have to deal with services providers who are extremely anti-Black, whether that’s consciously or unconsciously,” she said.
“This service has been very integral in validating me and my experiences as a Black person. Even more particularly as a Black woman, there’s not a lot of services like this in the city. I think it’s very crucial that this is a starting point and that this can hopefully branch out and more agencies can be like this.”
Green dropped out of high school when she was a teenager, spent some time in the shelter system and was involved in the criminal justice system a few times.
In her mid-20s, she wanted to go back to school and took community and justice services at Humber College. She finished the year there, then went to another program at George Brown and got her diploma.
After mental health stressors started taking a toll in 2018, she said she began accessing OZ counselling this past May.
“The OZ program was definitely a positive for me because I was finally connected with a counsellor and therapist who gets me,” said Green.
“When we talk in our sessions, it doesn’t feel like a counsellor-client type of relationship. I feel like I’m just talking to someone that I know. And for me, that’s huge because I’m very big on energy, and if I don’t get a good vibe or good energy from you, it makes me kind of shut down.”
Green said the staff at OZ truly care and are invested in you and they show it, always willing to go beyond their scheduled time together to make sure she’s all right, which is different than any of the other mainstream services she’s experienced. She added that the organization also provided food vouchers, fresh food boxes and connections within the community.
OZ program manager Ken Williams said the dozen staff members are mostly made up of people from marginalized communities who understand the struggle Black and racialized people face in the city of Toronto.
“What I really want people to know is whatever you may be going through, there’s probably somebody on my team that has gone through it before and that can relate to you in some way and is ready to just listen,” said Williams. “We don’t necessarily give people advice; we sometimes just listen to people.”
Funded by $5 million for five years from Public Safety Canada, he said OZ is now serving more than 180 clients, either through self-referrals or referrals from lawyers, the court system, police and others.
He said the new organization had to adjust quickly when the pandemic struck in March, providing services with virtual sessions and some face-to-face meetings with social distancing protocols. They also found creative ways to connect with young people, whether that be through phone, text or even Instagram.
The four Toronto-based community organizations involved with the program include the For Youth Initiative (FYI), Somali Women and Children Support Network, Think 2wice and Urban Rez Solutions.
Jessica Robinson, the manager of youth justice and employment at FYI, said the OZ initiative is very important in uplifting the community they serve and reducing recidivism.
“We want to ensure that the overrepresentation of Black youth in the criminal justice system is in fact no longer a thing,” said Robinson. “We’re working hard out here in the streets to see how we can decrease that overrepresentation and offer youth alternative options.”
Meanwhile, Green is now back in school, studying mental health and addiction with a goal, she said, to help address the lack of Black support systems when it comes to mental health.