Sunday, March 28, 2010

Jamaican Youth: soaring and struggling

Young people were definitely the focus of the week as I attended presentations, sponsored by CUSO-VSO and organised by two of my fellow volunteers, spent most of my time at DRF meeting with students and CHAMPS drew to a close.
The week started with a visit from representatives from two youth serving agencies in Quebec. At DRF we shared with them information about the school suspension programme and several of the students presented and discussed the value of the days they spend with us. This visit was followed by a knowledge sharing workshop during which those from Quebec presented their programmes, as did DRF, and Office of the Child Advocate. The commonalities were many but there was still much to be learned from one to another. An interesting day.
Later in the week a Youth Summit was the highlight. A gathering of approximately thirty important representatives from agencies in Jamaica benefitted from a series of excellent presentations from youth involved in a Kingston Youth Centre, at which they are mentored and provided with daily workshops to improve their employability. Entrepreneurial endeavours will be the source of success for many of these youth and their creativity, potential and diligence were evident in their presentations. As one of the youth commented, "It was a good day" , a poignant remark as she recently lost her mother.

My work with the students focussed on helping a number of them understand and take responsibility for their actions and behaviour. A group of students from one school were suspended due to being in gangs, violence and disruptive behaviour. At first when talking to them individually each was indignant and felt victimised by the Dean of Discipline for being suspended as they had "done nothing" and were simply two groups of friends. By the end of several meetings and discussions their descriptions had somewhat changed. There was acknowledgement by each of them that the "two groups of friends" were in fact warring factions from two different classes and that between them they had brought knives, scissors, machettes and cutlasses to school for use when they warred. The discussions were insightful and courteous. I was once again struck by how much these students want things to change, and how responsive they are to a little time and a respectful ear.

The budget was presented this week and reflected cuts in almost all government funding and additional increases in taxes. As much of the country was focussed on the performance of the many superb young athletes from schools across the country the government announced cuts in education funding, and funding for youth programmes amongst others. It is hard to imagine how a government can reduce the funds available for education and youth when there is unanimous agreement that youth are incresaingly driven into anti-social behaviour due to lack of effective education and legitimate opportunities. 40 and 50 students in a class is not uncommon! Schools without functioning washrooms, with no supplies, students who cannot afford to bring or buy lunch and a country questioning why there is so much anger, violence and disrespect amongst the youth. It would seem an easy question to answer but the will to make it different at an institutional level seems remarkably absent.

In contrast to the struggles there has been enormous energy in the city generated by the 100th CHAMPS Track and Field Meet. The National stadium has been lit up every evening, hordes of students chatting and chanting and proudly sporting their schools colours throughout the city, taxis and cars with flags of various associations and a tremndous pride that this competition has occurred continuously for 100 years and is a showcase for the youth of the country. Despite temperatures well into the 30s, and no water available at the stadium as the competition started, the excitement was palpable and has been infectious. This small country produces some of the best track and field athletes in the world without the support of much funding or sophisticated equipment! This provides cause for celebrating the youth and the future.

Although almost completely consumed by my life in Jamaica I have kept connected to a few other pieces of work, including The Consortium for the Implementation of Evidence-Based Practices and planning of the Global Implementation Conference, that reflect my ongoing commitment bridging the chasm between the academic sphere and the practice sphere. As well I will be part of the National Implementation Research Network team to present at an international invitational event April 18th - 21st at the Briars, Jackson's Point. So I will be in Ontario, very briefly, in April! In finalising plans for the trip I realise it feels as if I am coming as a visitor, perhaps because it is such a brief trip and I am so immersed in things here. It is an interesting feeling though given it has been home for over 30 years. It will be lovely to visit with friends and spend time with Haley and Tasha.
However, before that I have the pleasure of visits here. Today I will see a friend and colleague from Kinark, who provided me with a wonderful send off and introduced me to much Jamaican and many contacts before I left. Knowing of people here on whom I might call was an enormous comfort when I first arrived and it will be delightful to catch up, on island territory! Later in the day my brother will arrive, it will be so good to see him as it has been over a year since our last visit.
As is often said here in response to "How are you?" ...I am blessed.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

March Madness and the month of CHAMPS

March Madness was the subject line used by the CUSO-VSO Programme Manager, Jamaica when he distributed a calendar of events for the last ten days of March. Apparently the "end of fiscal year madness" crosses countries and cultures! This March Madness has brought introduction to interesting new people, a gratifying and successful two day workshop with many learnings including the connotation of colours and the importance of CHAMPS, a lovely dinner in garden surroundings and this week's demonstration of Garrison trouble (nothing to do the the Programme Manager's calendar I hasten to add).

The week started with Garrison trouble. On Monday, as I returned to the Youth Programme office early in the afternoon one of the Youth Peace Facilitators told me that there was trouble in Hannah Town. The trouble included a shoot out between bad men and the police, an armed Defense Force helicopter circling above, three dead bad men and three injured police officers. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon! The time children are leaving school, and most people are moving around their neighbourhood doing business. The CEO circulated through the office letting people know the office was closing and anyone who wished could head home as no-one was sure if the trouble would escalate further. In Ontario the CEO decides if the office should close due to a snow storm, in Kingston the decision rests on a bullet storm.
There was no further escalation, the police had "got their men" though the reaction across the city (ours was not the only office to close) reflects the nervousness about the instability discussion of the extradition of "Dudus" is causing. Initially it was thought the trouble was in Tivoli (Dudus' community) following his birthday party the night before.
No threat developed outside the Garrison and gang in which the trouble was experienced. Many of us, who did not need to check things at home, felt it best to stay at the office where there was no immediate danger, until the situation became clearer. As I walked home in the late afternoon I was again struck by the different worlds in which people live within the boundaries of Kingston and Jamaica. My walk home at sunset was as restorative and relaxing as usual but less than two kilometres away a community was dealing with the aftermath of a mid-afternoon gun battle. A country of dichotomies!

The Building Organisational Capacity Workshop was a great success. Nearly a hundred people attended over the two days, there was energetic discussion and extremely informative presentations from DRF's external partners including CIDA, UNDP, UNICEF, Jamaica Social Investment Fund, Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Education. All acknowledged with great appreciation the partnership with DRF and spoke to its continuation, which helps provide optimism about funding stability in the future. DRF staff and volunteers left hoping the discussions will continue, which will frame my next piece of design work for this project!
One of the acitivities during the Workshop required pre-determined groups. We had decided the groups would be denoted by colours and I requested coloured dots of five different colours from the supplier. I was careful to select colours that had no particular connotation to my knowledge, important I thought in a country where each of the 2 political parties is absolutely aligned with a particular colour (PNP - orange, JLP - green) The supplies arrived, three colours, orange, green and purple! We checked with the supplier, no other colours on the island so we carefully constructed combinations to neutralise any connotation and applied them to name tags. The activity went ahead, no issue to my relief. However, at the conclusion of the day there were a number of allusions to the "colours". What I had failed to understand was that this is CHAMPS week! CHAMPS is the annual track and field meet in Jamaica, a huge event in the National Stadium that brings together the high school track and field teams from across the island. Given the incredible record of Jamaican track and field athletes there is enormous and justified pride in the performance of the athletes and much riding on it as it points to the stars of the future. There is also serious competition between schools - all of which have colours, including one which sports purple and gold! Oops....despite my best intentions!

There are new volunteers arriving, visitors from CUSO-VSO Regional office in Costa Rica, VSO UK, and Canadians from two children's justice organisations in Quebec. All of which has served to make me feel like an old hand here, well past the initial stages of settling in! We had dinner at a lovely restaurant tucked behind buildings in New Kingston. An oasis of peace and tranquility in a lovely garden-like setting. There are advantages to an urban placement!
There will be lots of meetings and events in the coming week, typically being organised by my volunteer colleagues, and I am looking forward to stimulating presentations and discussions.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Workshop, interviews and political dilemmas

This week work included finalising the activities for the DRF 2 day workshop, interviewing candidates for Youth Peace Facilitator in Spanish Town and meeting with a visiting consultant for one of the funding proposals submitted. In the wider sphere the political environment has been more active with extreme measures to satisfy the demands of the IMF, interesting dialogue about the US extradition request of "Dudus", allegedly one of the Influential Men previously described and the finalising of the sale of Air Jamaica to Caribbean Airways.
Workshop planning is coming together, with the help of many and the use of only one checklist! The venue is booked, the menu confirmed, invitations issued and accepted, the agenda developed and the budget adequate, thanks to CUSO-VSO. Next weekend will be the proof of our success, and I am hopeful it will be a stimulating and engaging two days.

The trip to Spanish Town to participate in interviewing for a Youth Peace Facilitator position was an interesting excursion mid-week. Spanish Town is one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean and still has remnants of each of the colonising powers of its history. Narrow winding streets, lined with old buildings reminiscent of either Spanish or British architecture, make getting around in a car quite challenging. Walking is not much easier as the pavements are narrow and lined with old stone drainage gullies completely inadequate for the current dense population. However, it is full of commerce and bustle, street vendors with fruits and vegetables from the surrounding country, household wares and electronic goods. Taxis wending their way impatiently through streets too narrow for quick passage, hands on horns and yelling warnings out of the windows. The sun streaming down and the streets steamy in the humidity. Occassionally an old stone building confronts one with the reality of how much history is held within this busy, vibrant, though struggling town.
The interviews were quite different in content to those I have conducted in Canada and included questions about comfort and strategies for venturing into local, warring communities. As well, the dominance of Christianity as a way of life was evident in the number of candidates who openly referred to faith as part of their guiding philosophy.

On April 1st many of the tax hikes and cost increases required to access the most recent IMF loan will be implemented. This apparently includes a hike of over 100% for bus fares. Needless to say the only segment of the population on which this has an impact is those with the lowest incomes. It will likely limit the ability of some children to attend school and will reduce the available income for many for basics such as food and clothing. Once again those most vulnerable are being victimised.

The request to extradite Mr Coke (Dudus) generates much discussion and illustrates the role of the "dons" within the communities. Many believe he is the protector of the Tivoli community and if removed there will be more bloodshed and unrest, others believe that the harm to Jamaica's reputation if being seen to protect allegedly violent criminals has far-reaching consequences and others talk about an attempt of interference from an "imperial" power in the internal issues of Jamaica. All note the link Mr Coke has to the current political party in power and recognise this is a true political dilemma.The complexity of the power relationships in Jamaica is quite baffling and the way through and out is hard to see.
I have not been entirely pre-occupied with work and the politics however as this week both my daughter and my brother confirmed they will visit in April. April will be a month of fun!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Can't see the view for looking for the potholes

If I ever collect up these thoughts into a book this will be the title (or something like this approporiately editted to be snappy. Where is tfh when I need her?) It sums up so much of what I experience in Jamaica. There is such a pressing need to pay attention to what is immediately in front, one cannot look at the "view". The biggest threat I face in my extensive walking in Kingston is the potholes in the pavements. Despite Kingston's horrendous violence and murder rates I feel no more threatened by random violence here than anywhere else in the world, however I am constantly at risk of breaking an ankle or taking a tumble given the state of the places left for pedestrians to walk. To avoid the hazards I am required to look down at the few metres in front of me when I am walking. This means I cannot see the view, which is almost invariably spectacular. It has recently struck me that this is an appropriate analogy for how the country works. So little thought seems to be give to looking at the distant horizon, the big picture, the whole, because everyone is pre-occupied with the immediate threats. The immediate threats are unquestionably real and hazardous, the country's debt, the level of violence, the gangs, drugs, guns, but this is also a place of tremendous potential if one looks up and out. If a clear vision of the future was developed would it help to address the immediate?
These thoughts have been promoted as a result of one of the tasks with which I have been absorbed this week, providing leadership in planning a two day Building Organisation Capacity Retreat to engage all DRF stakeholders in the CUSO-VSO/DRF five year project (the Retreat Planning referred to in the last entry). With only 3 weeks to do the planning this is proving challenging but there is a great team at the task and I am sure it will come together. I find myself forging the path between the culturally dominant approach (last minute, casual and chaotic) and the more linear approach with which I am more comfortable. Forging this path feels as if it is contributing to a less stressful experience for the team and, I hope, integrates the best from both approaches. The event is only part of a five year plan to achieve the ambition of DRF, which is what has promoted the thoughts about looking at the distant view. In a country where the well being of an individual or organisation may be genuinely threatened it really is difficult to look up and out.
Other activities this week were the Peace Day Event, which was an extremely moving vigil held at Emancipation Park. There were many testimonials from those who have been the victim of or perpetrated violence and then moved to rise above it. 168 candles were lit, one for each ten people murdered last year. This was a very powerful symbol but more powerful for me came after the event. The Committee (of which I had become part) was cleaning up and I was asked to blow out the candles and collect up the stands in which they had been placed. I found it to be a difficult task as, in blowing out each candle I was conscious of the ten people it represented. As I proceeded one of the young men cleaning up the sound equipment turned in passing and said casually "you're killing them again" - it reflected exactly what I was feeling and was a chilling moment mitigated only by the experience of the vigil that illustrated the commitment from so many to change things and interfere with the violence.
At the Youth Programme things are moving along well. The staff have embraced the programme changes and are working well as a team. Working directly with the students, who generously share their experiences, continues to be very gratifying. This week ended with several students talking about violence they had been subject to at the hands of the teachers, with one student showing the marks on her leg left by a beating from the Vice Principal. The staff were able to provide the students with names and numbers so that they can hold those who hurt them accountable, an important strategy to teach them as typically the advice from angry parents is that if a teacher hits you, hit him back. There is much work to do not only with students but with teachers, administration and parents and only 4 months of funding left. One of the proposals submitted last week has garnered a visit from the funder from the US, which is a positive sign, though only a first step and very far from a sign off on funding.

And finally last evening was spent watching a dance performance at UWI, which was wonderful. Dance is understandable even in patois so I could enjoy every moment of it!