News / Toronto

African Canadian Legal Clinic honours youth who have overcome struggles

It’s been four years since Segun Akinsanya was released from prison after serving time for killing a man in 2006.

Akinsanya had been an out-of-control 18-year-old, an angry misfit whose life imploded in a split second. That was when life ended for Danilo Celestino, 17, fatally wounded after a heated argument “escalated into a battle and turned ugly,” said Akinsanya.

Charged with second-degree murder, he “took responsibility,” pleading guilty to manslaughter. He spent three years in a federal penitentiary where, Akinsanya said, he became a man.

“Seeing what I saw in jail, I knew I didn’t want to become that,” said Akinsanya, now 25. He knew that if he didn’t change his ways, prison would become a revolving door.

Behind bars, Akinsanya wrote about his train wreck teens. “I didn’t know myself, I had no identity,” he said adding the writing was cathartic.

The years haven’t dulled the elation he felt when he left jail. “I did back flips,” Akinsanya recalled. “It was an opportunity to start again. The feeling can’t be matched.”

Time hasn’t faded the vivid nightmares he still has of that fateful day in April 2006 either or his determination to help youth steer clear of crime and violence.

After his release, Akinsanya set up Bright Future Alliance, a non-profit agency working with at-risk youth. He’s still involved but now focuses on the African Canadian Legal Clinic’s Youth Justice Education Program. In program director Mobafa Baker, the young man found a mentor who continues to influence his life.

Akinsanya is one of eight young African Canadian men from Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods who are employed as youth justice workers under the three-year pilot program.

After the first year, participants have all completed high school. They earn a living working with troubled youth at the legal clinic and attend classes at night.

By studying African Canadian history and the contributions of its pioneers, the young men understand where they’ve come from and map where they’re going, said Baker.

“It’s been a tremendous success so far,” he said, noting that two youth are in a post-secondary education transition program and one attends university.

The youth are also reconnecting with their families and communities. “In many ways, the program is a miracle,” said Baker.

In May, they’ll explore their roots while travelling through Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. Akinsanya will record the journey in a documentary.

“It’s all part of the process,” he said. “We have to tell the story for the next generation.”

They’re also preparing a training manual for other youth. In the third year of the program they’ll conduct training at GTA schools and youth agencies.

To celebrate the successes achieved so far and raise money for the Africa trip, the African Canadian Legal Clinic is holding the inaugural Imani Awards on Sunday. Four Youth Justice Education Program participants will be among the honourees.

Imani is the Swahili word for faith and it encompasses what the award stands for: faith to overcome struggles, faith in a higher being and faith in one’s community, said Baker, adding the youth being honoured “had the faith not to give up.”

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