Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Reporting from the field

In Kingston last week, I was lucky enough to meet with people at several organizations that work alongside the Dispute Resolution Foundation (DRF). This included the Planning Institute of Jamaica (POIJ), who is responsible for developing policy and position papers for initiatives across government. We also met with the Peace Management Initiative (PMI), an organization I was particularly impressed by. 

A note on acronyms – There are lots of long-titled nonprofits and government agencies in Jamaica so acronyms are frequent here. Some of the time, people can’t even tell me what it stands for.  Lots of the time they are pronounced phonetically – for instance, University of the West Indies is UWI, pronounced “you-wee”.  I sometimes get lost in the acronym swamp, but will try to guide you through it.

The PMI is an organization that was started by the office of the Prime Minister several years ago.  The staff is small, about 6 people, with board members playing an active role. Their focus is to go into communities facing violence immediately after a crime has taken place, and work directly with the perpetrators (the staff call them “shotters”, as they fired the shots) and the victims and their families.  They have several social workers on staff, and the goal is to de-escalate the emotions of all involved to prevent or at least mitigate retaliatory action that has the potential to develop into a full-on community-on-community war. 

I was particularly impressed by the way the staff talked about the complexities of the situations they work in. Two of the staff grew up in communities with high levels of violence and so had very personal perspectives. One senior manager talked about how in some communities, the violence can be linked back to criminal gang activities, such as drug trafficking and extortion, where a Don, or gang boss, drives the violence as suits his business. In other cases, he said, the communities can no longer remember why the violence started in the first place.  Think the Capulets and the Montagues in Romeo and Juliet. A complicated mix of a retaliatory culture, strong community affiliations fostered by political corruption in the past, and poverty mean that sometimes you shoot at the boy down the road simply because he lives down the road.   

It also means that there is “geographical” discrimination in Jamaica.  For instance, Flanker, the community within which I work, is known as a “bad” community.  A gentleman came in for help in applying for a job, and when asked for his address, he said “Put Ocho Rios” which caused several of the community centre staff to speak heatedly about having pride in Flanker. 

In my opinion, the worst manifestation of this pattern has been in the retaliatory violence. The staff noted that in the past, retaliation included targeting the shooter directly.  Then it changed to targeting his friend if the shooter was not available.  Then his girlfriend or family.  Now sometimes it can be anyone in the “opposing” community, including a random person walking down the street.

As you can imagine, the cycle is intense.  However, the staff of the PMI said that they had made significant progress in several communities in the Kingston region. They had built up trust and made connections with people in the community so that they were amongst the first people on the scene if there was violence, and they sometimes received anonymous referrals that something was going to happen and they were needed to de-escalate the situation. 

As you can probably tell, I was really struck by my conversations with these people.  Not only because of the graphic, high drama nature of the work they do, but also because of their recognition of all of the people involved in the violence, be it “shotters” or victims, as real people, with the right to counseling and for their story to be heard. As one staff person said, “People in some of these communities don’t know how to be different. They want the violence to stop, but they don’t know what to do.  That is where we come in.”  

From the island of Jamaica, this is commentator Julia signing off…


  1. Wow that is intense! Glad to hear that there are some dedicated people on the ground working in these situations.

    How does your role fit into what they are doing?

  2. I don't interact with them directly, but the Dispute Resolution Foundation provides support to them. All of the PMI staff have been trained in conflict resolution techniques and mediation, and the DRF has even trained some of the people that connect with the PMI in the community, so they have skills to use where they can.