Emma Halpern (LLB’06) has been around the world and lived in many places, from Vancouver to Serbia.
But ask her why she chose to raise her family in Dartmouth after completing her legal education at Dalhousie and she has a quick answer: the community.
“I felt immediately that the values I espouse for my life were very present here,” she explains.
Those values – community, family, relationships and volunteerism – are also what recently led to Ms. Halpern, 33, being named one of Chatelaine magazine’s “Women of the Year.” She was one of five finalists in the “Everyday Heroes” category.
Ms. Halpern, who has a bachelor’s degree in international development studies and English from McGill in addition to her LLB, has been active in community work from an early age. But it was her experience working with at-risk youth in the notoriously tough neighbourhood of Harlem that made her want to enter law. At the time, in the days leading up to and following 9/11, many social programs for young people were being cut in favour of spending on defence and the military.
“I became engaged in activism, but felt I needed more tools to have conversations at higher tables, and to have a say in policy and programming.”
Restorative approaches to justice
While at Dalhousie, Ms. Halpern took a class in restorative justice with Professor Jennifer Llewellyn. She recalls writing a paper on how a restorative justice approach in Nova Scotia schools could keep more young people out of the criminal justice system. Restorative justice involves victims, offenders and their communities in the process of reparation after harm is inflicted. The intent is to punish offenders without excluding them from their communities, and to have various community stakeholders involved in the justice process.
Later, when Ms. Halpern was articling in Yarmouth with Nova Scotia Legal Aid, the idea began to really take root. Ms. Halpern met with a local organization, Tri-County Restorative Justice, and together they launched a program called Bringing Restorative Justice Into Schools. The concept is now in place throughout Nova Scotia – in large part as a result of Ms. Halpern’s unwavering efforts.
“Sometimes, as a student, you’re putting out passion and you feel like it gets shelved,” she says. “It was exciting to do something in my schooling that had some practical applicability.”
Tanya Bain, executive director of Tri-County Restorative Justice, has worked with Ms. Halpern for over five years and was one of the nominators for the Chatelaine award. She admires Ms. Halpern’s compassion and sense of social justice, along with her determination in creating and implementing a program that is now used province-wide.
“She has the ability to provide both theory and practice, which I think is very rare,” says Ms. Bain. “It’s hard to be able to both get on the level of young people, as well as to think about bigger things.”
A focus on community
Along with her seemingly tireless dedication to restorative justice, Ms. Halpern works full time as an equity officer for the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society. She’s responsible for programming and policy in the areas of equity, discrimination and access to justice. She is also the mother of a three-year-old, as well as the unofficial adoptive mother of a young man from her neighbourhood whom she took in when he was facing homelessness.
Her CV of professional and community volunteer work is long and impressive – she has worked on literacy outreach, sexual education, violence prevention and numerous other issues that touch a wide variety of people every day. So what drives her to commit so much time to such efforts?
“I believe there are two important things in my life: my community and my relationship with others and myself. Not only is [community work] really important in building a strong healthy society, it’s also the most important thing for my own personal sense of well-being and happiness.”
And what does the Chatelaine award mean to her? Ms. Halpern is honoured that the women she works with every day, those she deems ‘incredible’ in their own right, took the time to nominate her.
“The meaning has been the impact on me locally, people that I know being very supportive and congratulatory. That’s been pretty incredible. It’s made me realize I need to go out there and tell more people what great work they do on a regular basis.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2012 edition of Dalhousie magazine.
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