Nurturing the next generation of changemakers: How this uOttawa alum uses art to bring legal education to at-risk youth

Public Interest Fellowship
Ocean Avriel
Many people will experience a turning point in their lives where the calling to make one’s voice heard and stand up for what’s right becomes too great to ignore. For uOttawa alumnus Ocean Avriel, that moment came when he was just a teen.

“Being queer and growing up in Newfoundland, there were a lot of issues impacting LGBTQ people in the school system. In high school I began speaking out about some of these issues,” he says.

After high school, Avriel spent four years working with national LGBTQ human rights and youth mental health organizations. That’s where he saw the legal barriers faced by young people. Having grown up in a low-income community, he was well aware of the ways the justice system can harm marginalized groups.

So, when he decided to go to law school, uOttawa, with its reputation for social justice law, was his number one choice. “The lawyers who I felt most inspired by and who had values that most closely resembled my own all came from the University of Ottawa,” says Avriel.

His studies at the Faculty of Law did not disappoint. In fact, they built on the youth advocacy work he had been doing since he was a teen. “One of the things I really appreciated at the University of Ottawa was that you learned to critique the law and question it,” he says. “I feel really lucky to have had some great professors in my first year of law school to start those conversations.”

Combining his experience in youth programming with his uOttawa education, Avriel came up with the idea for StreetSmart Advocacy, an initiative to support marginalized communities in their relationship with the legal system. StreetSmart was made possible through a uOttawa Public Interest Fellowship and guidance from the Faculty of Law’s Career and Professional Development Centre.

The initiative uses arts-based workshops to teach street-involved and marginalized youth and young adults about their legal rights. Participants between the ages of 12 and 29 create art projects and engage in discussions on a variety of scenarios related to housing, drug use and police encounters, areas of need identified by community organizations.

“Youth may not feel like they have the language to express their concerns and experiences, but they’re able to create something and use that as a conversation starter,” explains Avriel, who founded StreetSmart after his first year of law school. “Art allows more opportunities for participation than a typical PowerPoint lecture.”

The goal is that participants walk away from a workshop better able to understand and advocate for their legal rights and know where to go for support if their rights are violated.

StreetSmart trains passionate law students, including those at uOttawa, to facilitate these workshops with not for profits, community centres, schools, shelters and other spaces where youth gather.

“We want to foster a part of students’ education where they can do work alongside the community and hopefully build a network of lifelong community-driven legal professionals,” Avriel says. He continues to work alongside the uOttawa StreetSmart team and is exploring opportunities to more formally incorporate StreetSmart into the Faculty’s existing access to justice curriculum.

Avriel credits the support of faculty and students at uOttawa, as well as financial aid, for helping him create StreetSmart. “Having any bit of financial support helped a lot.” Avriel received the Rovinescu Award of Excellence for Community Service in 2019, as well as two other scholarships during his degree. “That financial aid gave me the breathing room to pursue the things I’m passionate about.”

Avriel says he can’t imagine completing a law degree at any other university. The lessons he learned inform StreetSmart and will do likewise in his future legal practice. “My time at uOttawa really taught me that the law is an incredibly powerful tool, and while it may not always serve communities in the ways that we hope it will, we also have the power to change that.”

At uOttawa we are driven by the urge to challenge the status quo, the will to make an impact and the ambition to become a catalyst for change.

Our key priorities include nurturing the next generation of changemakers and inspiring a culture of wellness, equity and social justice. Empowering students through grants and awards that promote excellence in community service is one way we’re achieving our goals.

Learn more about what we’re doing to respond with integrity and creativity to the demands of our rapidly changing world and find out how you can be part of this exciting transformation.