Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Influential Men...

This week has been one in which many of the activities I have been involved in have been focussed on developing strategies that might better protect children and interfere with the increasing violence of the youth.
Early in the week I had the opportunity of attending a community meeting at which a number of community leaders (the school principals, community pastors and a handful of others) from two "warring" communities had come together to try and develop a strategy to claim back their communities from violence. The communities together probably cover little more ground than a large city block but the stories were chilling. The discussions considered who in the communities should be involved in developing the solutions and there was consensus on the need to include The Influential Men. This is a euphemism for the Dons or gangsters, those who carry and supply the guns, recruit the youth and control the community, it feels like a pretty benign title for those who are responsible for so much destruction.

Other activities have included discussions about how to support the theme the National Child Committee has adopted for the year... All I Want is a Chance to Grow Up. In fairness most children do grow up, and many are successful. This is not a country where famine and drought or disease and war are claiming children by the thousands, but it is a country in which children die needlessly as a result of the influence of those Influential Men, a society in which the majority are stymied by the threat of a renegade minority and the consequences are infiltrating wider and deeper into the social fabric. This is manifest in the behaviour of children at school. The Manager of the Youth Programme at DRF talks about how different her experience at high school was from the experiences she is seeing now. She is 24 and left high school six years ago! In six years there has been a major shift in the schools and there is real fear that too many of the youth are out of control.
Finally, at the end of the week I attended a presentation by a sociologist and professor at the University of the West Indies (a university campus at which 85% of the staff and students is female!).The presentation introduced a predictive model for children vulnerable to failing at school and joining the gangs. I was left wondering at the value of a predictive model when there seems little political will to rein in The Influential Men.

However the week has not been all serious and work. Friends heading to Morant Bay asked me to join them and although the sea was too rough for swimming for me, good conversations and time on the beach made for a lovely day. In the evening I headed up to the foothills for a wonderful dinner of fresh kingfish and more good company, good conversation and the best rum punch in the world. The recipe is guided by an old Bajan rhyme: One of sour, Two of sweet, Three of strong, Four of weak, though the specifics kept secret by the talented producer!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Impact and Accomplishments

When talking to my older brother yesterday, who was liming in a beautiful bay in St Lucia and yet still answering calls from his patients (he is one of those rare and valued doctors who manages to be available to support his patients wherever he is and whatever he is doing), he asked me if I felt that the things I am doing are having an impact. As well, a friend who regularly reads the blog and writes thoughtful and encouraging responses noted that there is little on my "accomplishments" here. I realised that the blog has included little detail of what I am doing and how it is going, so today I will try and fill that gap.

The overarching goal of the work each of us is doing is to increase the capacity of the organisation so that it has a sound infrastructure from which to do its work - which is to further peace and justice through conflict resolution and mediation across the island. In addition, each of us has a specific area of focus, mine is to provide support and advice to consolidate the youth programme and build a plan that will enable it to be rolled out from the current five communities to all schools across the island.

The first three months has been gathering information and understanding the context from which we were expected to develop recommendations for consideration. This phase concluded this week in a report we tabled to the DRF core management team. It was received extremely positively and generated lots of energy for forward movement, which was very gratifying and a successful first step. We now have a joint team moving forward intentionally and collaboratively which would not have been possible without our contribution. By building capacity within the organisation the work it does will have a broader reach and greater impact, and any organsation that can change the response to conflict from violence to mediation and negotiation in this society is really important. The year end statistics for murder indicate why this is important, over 1,680 murders in 2009, of which over 200 were young people under 19 years old.

Before Christmas I tabled my observations and recommendations for the youth programme and met with the team. We have together re-structured and implemented a team response to the youth and the first two weeks following the holidays has seen very positive results and again an energising of the youth peace facilitators, not the least of which are some passionate end-of-day discussions about all we would like to do in the next six months of school! I have become a regular part of the service delivery team for intake and out-take (discharge) of students, which enables me to get to know them a little and work with them indivudally about some particular struggles. The students' group discussions are still a challenge for me to understand however this week the healing circle stories of one group were easy to understand. The question asked was tell us about the worst day you can remember. Of the group almost all told of a day that included being present at the death of a friend or relative by gunfire. It is chilling to begin to understand the life of these young people, but exciting to be a part of something that may make a difference for them.

Through the work I have as a volunteer I get to do all the things I love to do: work directly with some feisty and engaging adolescents; work with service delivery teams to revise and improve what is being delivered; and work to develop systems that will increase the breadth, depth and effectiveness of a positive intervention and through this work contribute to reducing the level of violence and crime in Jamaica, and increase access to justice.

So in answer to my brother's question, this week I can answer yes. Due to the work my fellow volunteers and the staff at DRF are doing together, and the commitment of people who will be here long after me and give considerably more, I believe the contribution I am making is having an impact and accomplishing something useful! Thanks for asking...

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Judgement and Punishment

As is typical I started this blog at the beginning of the week. The process of editing and consolidating that I do at the end before posting has been particularly challenging this week given what I had started with.

Sunday night provided the first experience of "weather" I have had in Jamaica. Powerful winds and driving rain meant a sleepless night as everything inside and outside my apartment appeared to be banging and crashing, creaking and moving. It was an impressive display of what nature can do and a reminder that the weather here is not always benign. It made my thoughts turn to hurricane season and how quickly things can change as a result of a natural event. By morning all was calm, though somewhat colder than usual.
A night of wind and rain, however extreme at the time, has obviously paled in light of the event of Tuesday in Haiti. I was walking home at the end of the day when I received a call from the CUSO-VSO Programme Manager checking to see if I was alright. I had not heard of the earthquake at that point and had not felt it on the busy, noisy street but it had been felt throughout Kingston by those in buildings. The call is part of the safety protocol used by CUSO-VSO in caring for its volunteers, voice to voice contact must be established in certain circumstances. It is a reassuring process. It also illustrated how quickly events in one of these island nations affect the others, and although each is different much is shared in common.

The earthquake in Haiti has been the focus of discussion this week. For Jamaica it has raised anxiety about the advent of another major earthquake here. It is over two hundred years since the last major quake submerged the then capital of the country, Port Royal. In 1692 the city was lost , and almost all in it, as a result of a major earthquake. The ruins of the city are still visible beneath the waves. People wonder if another earthquake is due here and if the activity in Haiti will cause further instability in the area. The fragility of this lovely environment seems palpable.
Conversation at our Friday staff meeting was about what can be done to help Haiti, and how to make preparations at home.

In addition to what help can be offered, the other major theme of discussion regarding the earthquake, so closely on the heels of three major hurricanes (2008), in Haiti is about why. Jamaica is a country in which Chrisitianity is deeply embedded. Prayers start most meetings and gatherings, Devotion starts every school day and reference to the bible is frequent and reflects a quite literal interpretation. The question many seem to ask is: "Has the wickedness in Haiti brought the judgement of God?" There is a view that Haiti has let "wickedness" grow strong and flourish and by doing so is now vulnerable to the judgement and punishment of God. There is also a concern that God will judge Jamaica's response to Haiti, and that this is an opportunity for Jamaica to show compassion to those who have embraced wickedness, or perhaps a need to show compassion to ward off the potential of punishment here.
This response has raised my consciousness of how judgement and punishment are integrated into the way of life in Jamaica, it is something to which I will give greater thought.

As I look out over the green, lush view toward the mountains and the sun rises on a quiet Sunday morning it is hard to accept that others, not far from here, are living in abject poverty and constant struggle, and that even then events occur than can make their lives, impossibly, more horrific. I do not believe judgement and punishment is a useful perspective. Hope and compassion strike me as offering a better future. However, courtesy and etiquette will restrain me from sharing this opinion in most discussions here, and that is a topic for another entry!

Regardless of judgement or punishment Haiti is foremost in the prayers and thoughts of all here and whatever support can be offered will be generously provided.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Back to Work

This week started bright and early Monday morning for the first week of work of the new year. As I got organised to leave I noticed a definite lack of traffic and apparently no buses, so headed out on foot to discover the cause - overnight the road had been closed for construction! There will be no bus for the next month or more, so an additional walk has been added to my journey to work.
It was a very busy week at work with a varied range of tasks (re-structuring the approach to the Youth Programme in Kingston, coaching the Manager, writing funding proposals and 'ask' letters, completing a summary report on the organisational capacity for DRF) and at the end of the week it felt as if it had been a productive week. The environment and context now feel very familiar, I am comfortable asking almost any question of my co-workers and colleagues (some topics will be forever taboo), my ability to contribute feels as if it has increased and I understand almost all the conversations in patois as my co-workers joke around at the end of the day! It was good to be back at work.

Watching the road construction progress through the week has been interesting. The work is moving quickly and efficiently. The crew works vigourously and for long hours and what is most notable is that there is a constant stream of good-hearted banter amongst the workers. They are loud and talkative with each other, with those passing by and with the motorists that are held up by the work. There is always a "good morning" for me as I walk past on my way to work, and "Everything alright?" as I return at night. It has added a pleasant element to my day!

As the other volunteers returned from holiday visits to Canada (complaining vosciforously about the cold!) there have been indignant discussions about the proroguing of parliament yet again, dismay at the apparent failure of the system, and wonder at the silence from those who, on behalf of Canadian citizens, are supposed to vigourously oppose the sitting (or apparently not sitting) government.

In contrast here the Jamaican Opposition rallied quickly and loudly to hold the Government accountable for a set of tax increases that were introduced and scheduled to be implemented without House debate. Despite the Christmas holidays debate had to be scheduled and occurred, and citizen protests, thankfully peaceful, were organised and effected in very short order. It was exciting to see passion about and involvement in the political process. Does this illustrate another dichotomy? The effective use of the political process in a place where it is commonly understood that both political parties are intimitely connected to corruption and violent, criminal elements?

Be it energy on the job at the road construction or engagement in the polictical process, there's a lot of vitality and passion under that "no problem Mon" Jamaican exterior!