Sunday, July 4, 2010

Community Development and Celebrations

This week has provided a broad range of activities at work which contributed to a busy, demanding and interesting week, but limited time and energy for other activity so a Kingston-based week. In addition to my role at the youth programme, I have joined the West Kingston Communities Working Group and the Steering Committee for a recently approved project "Young Man Nuh Lingah" targeting "corner youth" in 10 communities in 3 parishes.

The West Kingston Communities Working Group has a mandate to develop and implement a co-ordinated support and re-building process for the three communities most directly affected by the May 24th action. It includes a wide range of community-based organisations, non-governmental organisations and government agencies. The discussion ranged from strategising about how to deal with the depth of the trauma that has been identified through screening 400 school children to how to develop a template that can be applied across all the Garrison communities and communities of 'informal settlers" across the country, all this in an environment of economic constraint. There were a number of things that were striking to me in the meeting. One was the apparent surprise of those who completed the trauma screening at the depth of trauma identified through the screening and how many students are suffering from severe trauma. This was striking to me as it has been my experience that the majority of the students who are suspended and attend the Youth Programme demonstrate indications of severe trauma, and this not as a result of a single event but as a result of their exposure to the "usual" violence perpetrated in the Garrison communities. It is hard to imagine the gulf between "uptown" from where most of the psychologists analysing the screening come and "downtown" is so great that there is little understanding of what children and youth are facing daily in their communities.

Another thing that was striking was the use of language. Just as at a previous community meeting I had noted the use of the term "influential men" which seemed to sanitise the real role these men play in the community, two of the terms used in the meeting were "regularising" and "informal settlers". "Regularising" is applied to the action being taken by the Jamaica Public Service and the Ministry of Housing and Water to re-institute charges and billing for electricity, water and rent. One of the indicators of how powerful the gangster control was of Tivoli is that residents were not required to pay the government agencies for utilities and housing as the gangsters would not let the authorities into the community. As can be imagined "regularisition" is not necessarily a well supported activity! "Informal settlers" is the term applied to squatters. There are many abandoned buildings in downtown and many are utilised by squatters, in fact the history of the Garrisons is founded on squatters. Historically as a result of the migration from the countrylarge numbers of people looking for work in the city squatted on the grazing lands (Pens) around Kingston building shanty towns. This was how the communities were first populated and built. The term "informal settler" is used with much greater respect than is implied by "squatter" and appears to legitimise those who have been forced to find shelter this way. This was encouraging to hear. I learned a great deal and look forward to my continued involvement with the group as, despite the differences, there are many similarities across cultures and countries about developing integrated community responses and I am hopeful I may be able to offer a constructive contribution.

The "Young Man Nuh Lingah" project is a challenging project targetting the engagement of "corner youth" in 10 communities in three parishes - St Catherine, Clarendon and Kingston. "Corner youth" are the young people, predominantly young men, who are unoccupied and hang around in little groups on the corners. As one travels through the poor communities the sight of these groups is notable and there is often a somewhat threatening feel about them. They are typically young people who have left school with few skills and have no opportunity for legitimate gainful employment and are as such very vulnerable to being engaged in gangs and crime. The project has very limited funding, so again will depend on a co-operative effort between existing community service providers both formal and informal. It will provide me with the opportunity to be involved in a number of communities at the community level over the next few months and connect with young people who I would not get to meet through the school suspension programme.

As well as work there have been celebrations this week. In my travels through the city I have seen endless Graduation Celebrations. It seems every location that can accommodate an event has been utilised this week and as I walk past there are the sounds of applause; singing and music, speeches thanking teachers, parents and the young voices of Head Boys and Girls who will moving on to their next phase in life. The halls are full of students - girls dressed in gauze, taffeta, satin and silk, boys in crisply ironed shirts, ties, dark suits and shined shoes. Laughter and giggles, shuffling in the queues as they wait to receive well-deserved certificates and proud parents dressed formally and looking extremely proud. These are the students for whom the future holds some promise and on the day of their graduations they can enjoy the praise of the adults who have supported them so far and look forward to the possibilities ahead.

Of course the volunteers also had a reason to celebrate on Canada Day on Thursday. A couple of the more patriotic volunteers had contacted the High Commission to explore what was being planned, only to be told that due to financial constraints the celebrations this year would be limited to only Distinguished Guests and volunteers do not qualify! So people gathered to celebrate together and I would hazard it was probably much more fun than a formal gathering at the High Commission would have been. I walked home after our gathering as it was not late and the High Commission was shut up tight with no evidence of a celebration!

I had hoped to spend the rest of Sunday at the beach but the day is once again cloudy so I will explore the weather forecast before I venture out. The beginning of hurricane season has brought significantly more rain and cloud than I have yet experienced here. Next week I am looking forward to a visit with a friend from Ontario who is here with her son doing volunteer work for the next two weeks.

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