Thursday, February 11, 2010

An assignment to finish

Archbishop Lawrence Burke

Professor Rex Nettleford

I wondered how I would weave the passing of two great Jamaicans with my plan to write on the protection of Jamaica's children. Then I realised that the lives of Professor Rex Nettleford and Archbishop Lawrence Burke supported the cry of Jamaican sociologist Dr Claudette Crawford-Brown.

Many glowing tributes to these legendary human beings have been written already, so this column will focus on the lessons they have left. Students of both the professor and the archbishop remark on their passion for excellence, and their demand for discipline.

A journalist shared an experience, learning at the feet of Prof Nettleford. "He insisted on punctuality and would close the door of the classroom just before beginning his lecture. I was a few minutes late so I stood by the window to try to listen in. Continuing his lecture, he walked over to the window and gently closed it. I was never late again!" You could use the start of NDTC performances to set your watch.

Last year, Archbishop Burke broke ground for a building at his alma mater, St George's College, where he had been teacher and principal. He harked back to his time where teachers not only taught, but "took ownership" of the buildings to ensure that their pupils had surroundings conducive to learning. He spoke of the value of education to liberate and transform our people. "I have walked with the richest and the poorest and felt at home with them," he said. "This little boy from Vineyard Town is proof of what education can do for our people."

These learned men were not afraid to challenge the status quo. Addressing a luncheon of the Public Relations Society in the 80s, Professor Nettleford said he asked an advertising executive why more people of his colour were not used in advertisements. He said he was told it was some problem with the lighting and retorted, "Well, fix the lighting!" He knew the power of the media in the process of self-actualisation.

Archbishop Burke welcomed the news of free tuition for high schools, and called for graduates to give one year's unpaid service as teachers' assistants in our overcrowded primary schools in inner-city communities. However, he said the very same people who were complaining about the country asked him if he was crazy to suggest this for their children.

What would have happened if young Rex of Bunkers Hill, Trelawny, and young Larry of Vineyard Town, Kingston, did not have a support system that would take them safely through their childhood and into productive adulthood? This is the concern of sociologist Dr Claudette Crawford-Brown who made a powerful presentation recently at the annual Ambassador Sue Cobb Lecture.

Dr Crawford-Brown, lecturer in sociology, psychology and social work in the UWI Faculty of Social Sciences, discussed her findings from a six-year stint in an inner-city community where she worked with 35 teenaged boys whom her group tried to "pull from the cliff" in a tug-o-war with criminal gangs. She insisted that the heads of these gangs should be described as "criminal leaders", not community leaders.

She said she spoke with children from criminal families who were defensive -- "Him in jail but is not him do it" -- and downright confused: "Mi father go out with him gun and him Bible -- Jesus will protect him."

Crawford-Brown said that there had been good initiatives but they ended as soon as funding dried up. She wants the government to develop a concept, a sustainable framework for violence prevention. "Criminals do not drop out of the sky at 18," she declared as she demanded that even as we work on gang-busting, we stem that flow of recruitment.

She said that of the 824 major crimes committed by boys in 2005, 10 per cent were in the 12-15 age group and 90 per cent were in the 16-20-year range. She is weary of the authorities telling her when she warns them about a wayward boy, "I can't do anything with him until he commits a crime." She says girls are now increasingly being found with weapons in their schoolbags.

Crawford-Brown has winnowed out the predictive factors that could make a child easy prey for gangs: the absent mother, lack of contact with father, lack of contact with mother, relationship with negative peers and severe conduct disorder.

The absent mother is the most significant, says the sociologist, who coined the phrase "barrel children" and now fears that there is an even more at-risk category: "The Western Union children". She says that at least the mothers of the barrel children were still in touch with their children's growth as they were buying their clothes, matching shoes to outlines of feet, etc. Now that many are just sending money, the children "buy anything, including drugs".

"These are symptoms of a state that is not providing social welfare in a meaningful way," says Crawford-Brown. She says there is a lack of political will, reflected in the "ah nuh nutten syndrome". There is a layer of apathy, "like scar tissue" on our society, she believes. She has developed programmes that have shown positive results, "a nurturing model, clinical and community-based". She describes "hug therapy" for children who have never been hugged and efforts to get grieving children to cry so they can heal. She has had success in schools using pop culture: she is seeing bullies bettering themselves because they want to enter what she has dubbed "The Behaviour Hype Zone". She wants us to "stop wringing our hands" and start focusing on the tenuous lives of our at-risk children.

We know why we so deeply feel the loss of Professor Nettleford and Archbishop Burke: they did not simply parade their qualifications and talents, but used them to raise our sights and better our circumstances. There are national treasures like young Rex and Larry waiting to be nurtured and we must protect them from the gangs that hover dangerously. To mourn is not enough - our distinguished teachers have left us a life-saving assignment that we must not fail to complete.

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