The street is lined with the razor-wired walls of factories and warehouses, downtown. Not far away, two long-necked cranes on the wharf lean into the sun. Trucks rumble down the road. I arrive at a heavily secured gate.
The setting is a little forbidding. But the gate is shaded by a mango tree, and the guards have friendly smiles. Beyond, a tent nestles among blue and white buildings. Young men in polo shirts walk around the compound in a more or less purposeful fashion. One is wearing a hoodie pulled over his head, with hands in pockets. Isn’t he unbearably hot, I wonder? Certainly, those seated under the tent are warming up, but mostly with anticipation of the event to come. And the blue and white buildings? We are at the National Tool and Engineering Institute, a division of the HEART Trust/NTA skills training agency.
This is the launch of the Addressing Violence in Youth Through Interventions Programme, managed by the Voices for Jamaica Today Foundation. This is a two-year project incorporating training in vocational skills, business development and entrepreneurship and the all-important skills that help you cope with life. It is funded by the European Union in partnership with RISE Life Management Services, a non-governmental organization of considerable longevity, who are administering the overall Civil Society Boost Initiative (CSBI) programme.
Out of fifty non-profit organizations that applied for funding under the EU initiative, just four were selected for funding. The other three are Eve for Life, Deaf Can! Coffee, and Woman, Inc. I had the pleasure of conducting a day of social media training at RISE with an amazing group of NGO representatives under the CSBI last year, prior to the grant awards. I just hope that they all now have their Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram accounts up and running!
Today was Voices’ day, and the Executive Director, Patricia Keith-Johnson had just got off the plane. She confessed to being tired, but smiled broadly and continuously, receiving hugs from several of the trainees. Abena Chevannes, Director of another partner organization named Sustaining Our Urban Livelihood (SOUL) took us through the programme. The young people, in their branded aqua polo shirts, participated actively in the event throughout – whether it was through loud whoops and cheers of appreciation for other speakers or actually taking the stage to speak themselves. Two girls did a sketch, which involved a bag of cheese trix and bag juice, bringing gales of laughter. A young man embarked on a DJ rap, but nerves overcame him. His peers cheered him on; he did not give up and soldiered on to the end.
Sharline Bent-Mattocks, a Youth Empowerment Officer at the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, emphasized the positive. She noted that youth unemployment was at 33 percent in 2015, and is now at 22.3 percent (still so high). There’s a long way to go, but she urged the trainees to “stick to the plan.” She reminded them of the saying:
If you waan good, yuh nose haffi run.
In other words, if you want to get positive results, you will meet with challenges. Ms. Bent-Mattocks added: “God is a God of second chances. Take the opportunity.”
Three young people gave testimonials. Coil McGregor began in a diffident manner, describing himself, sitting on the corner: “I wasn’t ready,” he said. Now, he is enjoying Maths, and data entry. Victoria Lingard called herself a former “stay at home Mom” with two children (with her round, freckly face and engaging smile, she looked like a child herself). She was happy to declare, however, that she had just received a certificate for entrepreneurship: “I didn’t finish high school. This was my first certificate!”
The tall, confident and serious Richard Murdock read out an inspirational piece about brokenness, healing, and forgiveness. “Happiness is an appreciation of what you already have, and what you can do with it,” he added.
Then there is the crime and violence, hovering in the background. Guest speaker Dr. Olivene Burke, who heads the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Social Services Department, described UWI’s history with the neighboring community of August Town, which it had “adopted” under the aegis of Professor Barry Chevannes. Young people are at risk globally, she told us, with an average of 565 youth per day dying from interpersonal violence. Along with several partners, UWI had worked on sports, education, skills training, and peace-building initiatives, as well as parenting classes in basic schools (the little ones). In 2008, over fifty August Town students received training at UWI – an investment of J$40 million. More than half graduated and got work; they are just proudly graduating a lawyer.
August Town celebrated 2016 as a year of “zero murders.” Coming from a history of struggle with gang violence – much of it politically motivated – this was truly something to be proud of. Then something slipped. Dr. Burke suggests that those who had worked so hard to bring peace rested on their laurels a little. “We dropped the ball, somewhere,” she concedes. “We thought August Town could manage on its own.” The violence crept back in, proving to them all that social intervention programmes must be a sustained effort.
“It cannot be a ‘stop and go’ situation,” said Dr. Burke. “It took us years to reach that far – and it must go on.”
She recited lines from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (The Ladder of St. Augustine). Many in the audience knew it by heart, speaking along with her:
The heights by great men reached and keptWere not attained by sudden flight,But they, while their companions slept,Were toiling upward in the night.
Sergeant Alex Bloomfield of the Hunts Bay Police Station, a member of the Community Safety and Security Branch, did not downplay the problem of crime in his Division, which is St. Andrew South. There have been 69 murders this year to date, he noted – a 200 percent increase on last year. In my own view, this depressed part of Kingston has made little social and economic progress over the years. It needs a shot in the arm.
According to Commissioner of Police Major General Antony Anderson, there are 31 (!) active gangs in the area, many of them funded by people from outside – even abroad – who are in “the business of crime.” Sergeant Bloomfield described the enormous challenge of policing the small pockets of “garrisons” aligned to one or the other political party (well, that is the definition of a garrison, isn’t it? You don’t have to mention politics, explicitly, but it is in the mix). The police officer emphasized:
The only way out of poverty is education.
That, in a nutshell, is it.
Let us not end on a note of gloom, however. This programme is aimed at the community, not just a group of individuals. The community must come together, or all is lost.
One person who is never gloomy, but keeps on working, is the young Director of Programmes at the Voices for Jamaica Today Foundation, Alecia Jones. I know her as Nazneen, and I hold her in the highest regard. She never stops. She has a quiet voice, fabulous hairstyles, and a relaxed manner, but don’t let that fool you. She has incredible drive, and simply works her socks off. She persists.
Kudos, Nazneen! I wish there were a million like you.