“Though it cannot excuse a war criminal from his actions or be used to paint a murderer in a good light, the fact that the defence of following orders is legitimate cannot be denied.”
In the span of a two-hour writing project, Brandon He of the team at Youth Voices in Criminal Justice (YVCJ) had not only adopted a new-found viewpoint, surprisingly and profoundly different from his original belief, but learned about the fascinating social implications of authority in the Milgram Experiment in doing so.
Perhaps it is not immediately intuitive but, often, the most engaging and valuable intellectual exercise is that of accident. The discovery of X-rays in 1895 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was the product of experimentation with cathode rays. Military operations in the Second World War that emitted microwaves gave birth to the modern-day heating technology of the same name in 1945.
I am a member of the Canadian National Debate team, and one of our most cherished mechanisms of expanding knowledge is the process of simply writing articles. The process of research, and merely thinking hard about a topic of social relevance, often sprouts nuggets of new, unexpected learning.
It is this practice that both brought YVCJ to life and motivates the way in which the team seeks to make change.
YVCJ is an online magazine that encourages individual critical thinking about criminal justice. Writers are assigned, or given the freedom to select, a topic connected to criminal justice. The short opinion piece is then shared on the website.
The team comprises members representing Canada at the World Schools Debating Championships, the International Economics Olympiad and the highest levels of The Future Business Leaders of America. More than 20 high schools have representation at YVCJ — the valuable opportunities have enabled students at Webber Academy (Calgary), Burnaby North Secondary (Vancouver), Thornhill Secondary (Toronto) and more to actualize their expressive preferences.
Despite our incredible team, we recognize the power that high schoolers hold in public policy, politics and justice reform is limited. Our team works with the goal of fostering a deep interest and love for criminal justice, individualized to each writer’s unique preferences, through the pursuit of intellectual stimulus.
YVCJ has hosted workshops about the potential value of criminal law teaching in schools and fundraised for the Innocence Project. Yet, the most precious contribution of the group is the inspiration that we breathe into criminal law among youth. Whether it is through a discussion of laws surrounding financial securities or a criticism of prosecutorial discretion, we craft an environment that supports the exploration of one’s passions, through the lens of criminal justice.
In the team’s eyes, this is the most productive and accessible use of the capabilities available to us high school students.
Armed with a strong foundation of both information and passion for criminal justice, even Leo Zhu, a potential econometrician, or Jin Zhou, an aspiring politician, will pursue their professional dreams with an understanding of how their careers connect to law.
The experience with YVCJ is one that leaves writers with not only a more holistic understanding of their interests, but knowledge about criminal justice that is valuable in itself.
Barry Gu is a member of Youth Voices in Criminal Justice.
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