'No more war' - Eastern Peace Centre uniting rivals
Years of political tribalism and gang wars resulted in predictably horrific consequences for residents of Mountain View, Rockfort, and neighbouring communities, but the establishment of a ‘safe space’ in the community has been a welcome development and today the residents are reaping the dividends.
The safe space was created in 2002 following yet another bloody general election campaign and occupies the grounds of the former Norman Washington Manley Skating Ring at 121 Windward Road.
Dubbed the Eastern Peace Centre, the safe space is being hailed as one of the initiatives responsible for transforming some of the Corporate Area’s most polarised communities.
Co-founder of the peace centre Orlando Hamilton said it represents one of the tangible outcomes of a meeting that was hosted by representatives of the Peace Management Initiative, the Dispute Resolution Foundation (DRF) and the Area Youth Foundation following the election.
At the time, opposing fractions fortified by political allegiance had the community under siege and rivals and innocents alike were the casualties as the criminals traded bullets.
Representatives of the three groups were dispatched following the flare-ups and a plan was hatched to bring area leaders from seven communities in Mountain View together for peace talks.
Hamilton was at the time one of two area leaders for Burgher Gully and the peace meeting left an indelible impression on him as it did the other 13 other area leaders who later formed the Mountain View Development Council.
All 14 were trained by officials of the DRF in conflict management, and they eventually became mediators.
It quickly became obvious to Hamilton however, that there was a need for a physical space where people could come to mediate their conflicts and so he and his colleague Michael Moore lobbied to get the skating ring for this purpose.
“We started out in the earlier days with homework classes and we started out with youth clubs,” explained Hamilton who is now the chief executive officer for the facility as well as a peace facilitator at the DRF.
They started football teams and netball teams and with the help of sponsors, were able to create a computer room and library where sessions were held with the youths after competitive matches.
“I would take them to the classroom and then I could impart the conflict resolution lessons and anger management skills. I could also impart whatever knowledge I had as it relates to developing themselves as responsible, respectful peaceful citizens of this country,” said Hamilton.
The central message was always that education is key and this became the new mantra for the area leaders who actively ensured that youths in the community were enrolled in schools.
“We had a 95 per cent attendance rate for all students in school. No youth under the age of 18 years old could handle or touch a gun. If you are out of high school, you have to find some training institution to go. So we used to flood the Rockfort Heart Trust/NTA with kids to ensure that they are in some form of learning or training institution,” recounted Hamilton.
“We worked with 44 male participants from Rockfort, Mountain View and Dunkirk and we had them in an extensive three months programme and after that three months we tried to place them in businesses in and around the community like the mechanic shop, the woodwork shop and any other business that could really take a youth to train them in apprenticeship which would give them some sort of employment to help them to think outside of the box,” he explained.
As a result of his transformative work in the community, Hamilton was selected by UNICEF to become a youth ambassador and has travelled to several countries in that role. He was also provided with resources by the international agency to expand the computer centre and the library as more youths started capitalising on the free access to Internet services offered to youths at the peace centre.
The peace facilitator was instrumental in the establishment of the Eastern Kindergarten and Preparatory School next door to the library. The school now has about 45 students enrolled. In the evenings, an additional 70 students from the area attend homework classes hosted by a teacher from the school.
A church was established on the property as well, and so too was a studio for aspiring artist where Everton ‘Caveman’ Moore is studio engineer. This studio is also frequented by several established artistes.
“We produce what we call solution music. So we are not into the gun violence; we are not into the discriminatory type of lyrics. We produce solution music, so it has to be clean, uplifting, positive music,” said Hamilton.
“We have some youths from the community who have nothing doing, but they have little talent. We encourage them to come and hear yourself on a tape and on a CD and we produce the CD right away and we give them right away, so that kind of provide some hope for something tomorrow,” he explained.
While young minds are shaped during the day and youths get a chance to have fun and relax around the computers in the evenings; at nights, the centre is transformed into an adult playground as a dance is held almost every weeknight and on Saturdays.
The facility is also rented to residents at a cost for the hosting of events. It is the money that is generated from these initiatives that is used to finance the maintenance of the property and to pay the bills.
“We consider it a safe and protected space for everybody. It doesn’t matter what political lines; so today you will see labourites coming down, you will see the men them from Jacques Road, you will see the ‘Backbush’ men them coming down to parties and the man them from Rockfort is here. Everybody is here partying at night time,” explained Hamilton.
Recently a legal clinic was established on the grounds of the former skating facility where both human right activists and attorneys-at-law Hannah Harris-Barrington and Susan Dodd offer legal advice to residents.
“In recent times, what we have seen is that if something happen in a particular community, the police would just come and hold on to community persons because they don’t have any lawyer to defend themselves and it would be hard for them to really gets out of the system once you have been entangled with the system. So because of that now Hannah has taken up the mantle of offering assistance,” Hamilton explained.
The next major project is to pave over the skating ring so that youths can come to have a good time in the evenings. Already, chief executive officer of the ICD Group Peter Melhado has contributed more than 70 pairs of skating shoes to help make this vision a reality.
Hamilton believes that the creation of more safe spaces for children and adults is crucial to reducing Jamaica’s crime statistics.
“We need more safe and protected spaces for the youths to be youths. All that is happening in communities now is that youths are socialising with adults and then the youths them are starting to feel that they are adults too,” he said.