Violence Interrupters | ‘Ms Sonia’ is the ‘Trench Town Rock’
Sonia Whyte is one of the persons you will likely see at any crime scene in the south St Andrew community of Trench Town. She is also often the first person residents call whenever there is a dispute in the community which has received international attention as the birthplace of reggae icon Bob Marley.
As a violence interrupter working in one of Jamaica’s toughest inner-city communities, getting involved in disputes is risky business, but Whyte is so desperate for peace that the risk for her is well worth it.
“I live and work in a community that is, for the most part, conflict-ridden. Some conflicts are minimal, some will get violent and even cause death,” said Whyte, who manages the Trench Town Peace and Justice Centre which is located on Collie Smith Drive in the community.
Whyte is employed by the Dispute Resolution Foundation and spends most of her days mediating conflicts. She started working with the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) in 2007 and eventually became a violence interrupter.
“It makes me be the person you want to see, or the person you want to call, whenever a shot is fired, or a crowd is gathering. You would hear them say well, we have to go and call Ms Sonia,” Whyte told The Sunday Gleaner.
“I have no rest. When I say no rest, I don’t mean I don’t sleep, but there is never a time when a day would go by and something is not brought to me, no matter how minimal,” added Whyte, who is also a justice of the peace (JP).
Neutral, confidential, respectful
Whyte knows most, if not all, of the residents in the community, including those alleged to be gunmen. She has made a decision not to judge anyone and so most persons feel comfortable confiding in her. She is also aware that mental illness is a reality, given the fact that some residents are still grappling to cope with the violent death of loved ones. This results in some persons acting out.
“You have to remain neutral, confidential and respectful,” said Whyte before adding, “We have to get inside their heads, we can’t just label them and bash them and put them one side, it can’t work like that.
“You have a lot of conflicts with youths who are unattached, marginalised and sometimes feel very much neglected by society,” added Whyte, who was at one point forced to leave a section of the community at gunpoint.
Mentor to youths
Whyte is also a mentor to many of the youths in the community, and in her quest to see them get off the street corners, she often assists them in their efforts to secure birth certificates, tax registration numbers and National Insurance Scheme cards.
“As a JP, you let them get them form and you sign it up and they do their late entry or what have you and thing, and you carry them through the process. Sometimes you have to give them the bus fare and everything,” she said.
“You find that they would come and say, ‘A auntie make me have passport and have my ID (identification card) and thing’. They would say, ‘A this lady you must listen to’,” she explained.
Whyte is always pleased when her intervention contributes to one of these youths changing their lives for the better; like the young man who was able to secure a job in the Virgin Islands after her intervention.
“Some of them get a little work. Sometimes it may not be permanent based on their educational standard, but they do look back and say, ‘I used to do this and now I am doing that’,” added Whyte.
As a violence interrupter, Whyte has to consider those with a vested interest in fighting crime, and this includes the police.
“The only drawback is that we need more funding for interventions like these, because if it is not sustainable, we are going to fall short of where we want to be. so we need more persons to come on board because once the police are doing their part, we have to work in tandem,” said Whyte.