Learning from the source, teaching from experience
Chancellor Anne Mahon’s first visit to Law Faculty with former gang member, leaves law students with new perspectives
On November 21st University of Manitoba Chancellor Anne Mahon and therapist/former gang member Matt Willan, spoke to law students on the realities of gang life and the rehabilitation of former gang members. Chancellor Mahon discussed her experience and lessons learned while writing the book Redemption: Stories of Hope, Resilience and Life After Gangs (Great Plains Publications, 2017). Matt Willan currently works at OPK (Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatawin), an organization that attempts to get gang members to leave the life, where the staff are former gang members themselves: “We’re a gang of good guys,” Willan explained.
Willan, with his gold chain, gold teeth, and numerous tattoos, still bears the physical marks of his past. However, the stories he had to share about his up-bringing, his experiences, and the normality of a life-style that most of the students in the audience couldn’t imagine, reveal a far deeper impression left on his life. Mahon, with her experiences working with reformed gang-members, was able to share similar stories and engage in discussion with Willan.
The focus of this session was on Willan’s story and first-hand experiences with getting involved in and living the gang life. He detailed how his childhood, his socio-economic circumstances, his ethnic-background, amongst many other factors, all contributed to his involvement in gangs. Mahon alluded to her experiences while working on her book, reading certain excerpts, and speaking to some of the commonalities she heard from the people she interviewed, that they shared with Willan.
Both Willan and Mahon expressed how happy they were to speak to the law students. Willan mentioned how his criminal defence lawyer as well as his family lawyer had enormously impacted his life and that of his family in a positive way. He was clear that, for himself and many of the people still engaged in the gang life, their defence lawyers are often the only people who have ever shown them support. He emphasised that a major difference between him and friends he grew up with who did not get involved with gangs, was that they had parents who cared about them and protected them.
He said that demonstrating genuine care for people who see their gang as the closest family they have, can be the thing that makes them choose to leave their life of crime, or never get involved in the first place. “People need to know they’re cared for,” he explained. “Some have never heard the words ‘I love you.’ People have to know they’re loved.”
This was a very powerful discussion that left a substantial impression on the law students in attendance. The Chancellor said she was thrilled to be able to come and speak to the group, that she loves engaging with student groups, and would be happy to return in the future.