Helping youth through leading practices

August 28, 2014
Winston Blake, The StarPhoenix

Saving the lives of youth is a perk of Winston Blake’s job.

As executive director of the Restorative Action Program (RAP) in Saskatoon, Blake and his team help youth prevent and cope with bullying and conflict in schools. The innovative program puts mediators, known as RAP workers, in schools to help students navigate their complex social environment. The organization’s mandate is to transform the cycle of bullying and conflict affecting youth into opportunities for learning, growth and change. 

“This is not a job for me,” Blake says. “This is fun. This is important. This is about shared responsibility and shared stewardship for our kids.”

The payoff for Blake, a MA in Conflict Analysis and Management student, is hearing that he’s making a difference. Two families have recently shared their stories of how the program saved the lives of their children, and there are likely more.

“Saving a life twice – those are the moments when I know it’s worthwhile,” says Blake, who has been with RAP since 2008, first as a RAP worker and then as executive director.

Blake was recruited by RAP from Peer Mediation And Skills Training (PMAST) in Calgary, an organization he founded. The two non-profits do similar work and RAP was interested in implementing some of PMAST’s programs, such as No More Drama, which is geared to high school girls who are susceptible to relational bullying, which involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships.

With Blake on board, RAP started to see an increase in self- and peer-referrals to the program. “In other words,” he says, “kids were starting to reach out for help and kids were starting to develop a sense of responsibility for each other. If you’re helping someone receive help, you’re less likely to hurt that person by bullying them, making fun of them, or by ignoring their pain. That tells me that kids are becoming better citizens, they’re becoming empathetic, they’re engaging each other, but more importantly, they’re aware of the issues. They’re being part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

Blake is quick to point out that RAP is not just for troubled youth. The program helps kids from all demographics with a simple service model known as PRI: prevention, intervention and reconnection. RAP workers do classroom presentations and are on-site at the participating schools every day with an open door and an open mind. Last year, 850 students accessed the program, which constitutes 17 per cent of students in the schools RAP serves. “That’s a pretty large segment of the population that needs helps,” says Blake, adding that 34 per cent of referrals were self-initiated. “Kids are taking charge of their own lives. That’s where we want things to be and where we want the program to continue to go.”

RAP is unique in that it’s supported and funded by the community (through the Rotary Club), the provincial government and the public and Catholic school boards. It’s believed to be the only program of its kind in the country that’s welcomed external workers into schools and given them permanent office space. RAP started in 2003 as a partnership between one high school and the Rotary Club, which wanted to get directly involved in a youth initiative. Today, RAP is offered at seven schools with plans to reach every school in Saskatoon.

Leading RAP to growth and success is a dream job for Blake, who fell into the field of mediation. As an undergrad student at the University of Saskatchewan, he was trying to impress a woman he was dating, now his wife, by showing interest in her sister’s work as a mediator. Blake ended up accompanying his future sister-in-law to a mediation involving two young men who had been in a bar fight. The experience shattered his preconceived notions of how offenders and victims should make amends.

“It became very obvious that it wasn’t about punishment, it wasn’t about retribution; it was about restitution. It was about understanding. It was about empathy. It was about listening,” he recalls. “It also taught me not to look at crime as about person A and person B. It’s about repairing the harm done to the community and, more importantly, restoring the ability for people to rejoin the community.”

From that day forward, Blake looked for opportunities to train as a mediator. It was that zest for learning that brought him to Royal Roads soon after becoming executive director of RAP. Blake credits the program – in particular the courses on organizational change – with helping him implement important changes within the organization. Blake recalls doing papers on the challenges he was facing at work, getting his instructors’ feedback and then applying his theories on the job.

“Winston and his work for RAP is a great example of how our Conflict Analysis and Management students and alumni bring together theory and practice and initiate change by supporting others to deal with conflict more constructively,” says Prof. Eva Malisius. “Every interaction that RAP initiates among youth will leave an impact on how they deal with each other in the short-term and how they interact with differences and conflict in the future. Winston’s contributions make the classroom come alive and he has been able to share his experiences and expertise with fellow cohort members and alumni, and even by hosting an internship.”

It was also at Royal Roads that Blake learned to do more than just implement best practices, but to strive for leading practices.

“Royal Roads gave me the confidence to make change, but it also gave me the opportunity to have change supported because people could actually see that it was part of proven practice, a leading practice. The program has been invaluable to me.”

Photo by The StarPhoenix.