CMU alumna transforms dream for justice through peace program
CMU alumna Odelia Duffus wanted to be a lawyer after she graduated high school. Six years later, she's liaising with the court—but not in the role she expected.
Duffus is a mediator and caseworker with Mediation Services, a Winnipeg-based organization offering conflict resolution and training to workplaces, families, and communities. She wants to make a safer and more just future for all people involved in conflict, by navigating it in ways alternative to conventional punishment. Through mediation, she acts as a neutral third party that hears each side's perspective and helps create an agreement that benefits everyone and an appropriate solution.
She speaks passionately about her work: "I love what I do. I feel like I'm doing something—it's not just work. I'm meeting people and they say, 'Wow, thank you for listening to me.' All people want is someone to listen."
Duffus graduated from CMU with a Bachelor of Arts in Peace and Conflict Transformation Studies (PACTS) in 2022, but her post-secondary education began in the law program at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, where she's from. The program's negative environment and her lack of passion for it soon had her applying for Canadian universities in the same price range, hoping for more positive experiences and better opportunities.
At CMU, she started taking PACTS courses because they seemed most similar to her interests in law. She began to realize she didn't have to become a lawyer to help and advocate for people, which originally drew her to the field.
Her experience in Jamaica was that the courts system was the only option for solving crime. "Nobody cares about the person who committed the crime, nobody cares about the deep-rooted issues behind them committing their crime, they don't care about restored relationships, they don't care about mending community," she says.
But in her CMU classes, she began learning about a different side of the judicial system: restorative justice. It seeks to facilitate communication between those who experience harm and those who cause harm, to address their needs and feelings, minimizing the likelihood of offenders harming again and empowering victims by giving them agency.
She did her practicum at Mediation Services, fielding intake calls, compiling lists of resources for participants, and observing victim-offender mediation sessions. She says her practicum and studies have taught her a lot ever since that first PACTS class.
"The best and most effective way to [solve] conflict is restorative justice and I'll preach that forever. I did not believe in it when I started at CMU, but now I do. I told Wendy [Kroeker] that does not make sense. That would not work in Jamaica. And she said, 'We'll see if you say the same thing at the end of your degree,'" Duffus laughs.
She used to think, you do the crime, you serve the time—that's it. "I realize now with restorative justice, with victim-offender mediation, with circle sentencing, these processes allow for people to actually be heard, even the offender themselves...if you listen, you'll realize the reason behind the crime is not even sometimes related to the crime itself." By the end of her degree, she had even learned of a case study of successful restorative justice attempts in Jamaica.
When Duffus graduated, her practicum experience helped her land a job back at Mediation Services. Whether dealing with cases on divorce, property disputes, siblings making decisions for their elderly parents, or criminal court cases between accused and complainants, she loves this work that pushes her to learn and grow.
"With the work I do, I'm replacing judgement with curiosity. Before I judge, I'm curious about what's going on. I ask questions, I dig deep. Some people consider it nosey, but I think it's necessary."
It's a rewarding job, but that doesn't mean every day is a good, easy one. Duffus has days where people angrily tell her she doesn't know what she's doing and isn't helping them, and her confidence falters. Just a few years ago, she didn't think she could be a leader. When someone suggested she represent her fellow first year students on CMU Student Council, she didn't apply. She worried her peers and professors wouldn't accept her because her clothing and skin colour were different or because they couldn't understand her. She had to work while studying to support herself and sometimes her family in Jamaica, too. Being an international student was often difficult.
With further encouragement, though, she tested out her leadership abilities, first as co-director of social activities on the student council and then as senior international student assistant, using her own experiences to help international students access health care and banks, learn about Canadian university culture, and discuss racism and code switching. She concluded her time at CMU as the valedictorian of her graduating class.
She's grateful for her program and experience. She made friends that now feel like family and uses strategies and books from her PACTS courses in her work daily. Duffus still hopes to study law, but now she wants to connect it with her mediation experience, working to prioritize the restorative justice process in the current legal system.