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‘Build back’ to stop crime - Grassroots groups could be the catalysts to end violence

Published:Wednesday | November 4, 2015 | 12:00 AMRoss Sheil
Miss St James Festival Queen 2009 Crystal Blake (left) has the full participation of these children during a Reading Fair at the Flanker Peace and Justice Centre in Montego Bay, St James.

As the world marks Youth Month, The Sunday Gleaner, in association with the World Bank, presents a series looking at the challenges and triumphs of the next generation of Jamaicans:

Community development work across Jamaica has taught Allan Bernard that grass-roots movements offer the greatest opportunity to prevent violence.

His confidence stems from a three-year peace treaty he and fellow residents worked out in their own war-torn community of Flanker, St James, during which time violence, and in particular murders, was significantly reduced.

Today, the Flanker Peace and Justice Centre (FPJC) continues to serve the community, providing education, skills training and dispute resolution, among other resources.

All this started when the FPJC team chanced upon a strategy to reduce violence and build a safer community for all its members - a home-grown social movement.

The FPJC embarked upon a three-pronged intervention approach that targeted both victims and perpetrators of violence.

"I have met a lot of gunmen, and I have never met a gunman who wanted his children to be like him, never. All of them want better for their children," said Bernard as he explained the approach of the FPJC.

He said this reality was the impetus behind much of the FPJC children programmes. These include after-school activities such as marching band, netball, football, and remedial classes.


Elderly residents


The FPJC also targeted elderly residents by providing them with skills training, employment opportunities and a senior citizens' club. All of these positive developments started to filter to the gunmen through their relatives who were engaged at the centre.

"What do you think happened after that? The message came back to us: 'We want to talk'."

Having built this credibility, Bernard and his team were able to engage the gunmen, to build a relationship with both sides of the conflict and gain a greater understanding of their motives.

From there, they were able to work together with the police to bring the gangs together using football matches, and ultimately towards a meaningful truce.

"Build back," was how the gunmen described their shared will to do something better for their community.

While accepting that some of the gunmen may remain beyond the reach of an intervention, Bernard argued that the majority are products of poor socialisation.


Poor socialisation


According to Bernard, the poor socialisation can be addressed by carefully constructed social movements, such as in Flanker, rather than the top-down approach which has failed residents of several poor communities in Jamaica.

"If you want to get the community to start to move a particular way, then you start to have people who want to replicate it either from the donor level or the community level or you can influence intra-community relationships.

"If you have enough of that going around, then, and only then, will you start to feel the structure fall into place. This is because you know that the support you're giving is to advance rather than just to sustain."

A critical supporting policy was a community newsletter Bernard edited, where youths wrote the articles bringing to light developments in the community.


Improving self-esteem


This gave a voice to his contributors and helped improve the self-esteem of residents of the community. The newsletter also signalled to potential partners and donors that positives existed in the community worthy of their support.

"The mainstream media was just reporting the killings and we saw that there was a lot more to the community. It was not that we were glossing over the killings but the role of the newsletter was to change how people saw themselves," said Bernard.

"We provided another view and it gave the community a little more pride and got people to come out, because if you follow the mainstream media you will stay locked up in your house," added Bernard.

He argued that there has been a cycle of unsocialised generations socialising the next generation, leading to a dangerous cycle.

According to Bernard, many residents are effectively trapped in their communities, and in one not untypical example, he knew a 30-year-old man from a St Andrew community who, at that age, had never visited the neighbouring community.

"And so his entire world view, everything that young man understood about the world, was shaped by what took place in his community. And it is the don in these communities that tells some people how to think, how to live, how to move ... so people have to come out of those spaces."

Bernard and other experienced community development workers have identified organising trips to take youths outside their communities as being critical in showing them how different the wider society can be; and the opportunities that might exist there for them.

The community development workers noted that negative socialisation can impact females as well as males, with girls growing up warned by their elders not to interact with the boys in the community.

While this advice is rooted in genuine concern, it also contributes to males and females developing difficulties communicating, which in later life can lead to situations where the female feels she must speak abusively to the man for her to be understood. The man then feels that he must use violence as his one resort to survive with his pride intact.

- The World Bank's Next GENDERation Initiative has been working to help young people challenge gender stereotypes that lead to violent behaviour. It is a partnership between the ministries of Education, Youth and Culture, and National Security, the Bureau of Women's Affairs, the Planning Institute of Jamaica, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.