York University’s Centre for Research on Latin America & the Caribbean (CERLAC) launched a unique research partnership last summer utilizing the arts to explore violence among young people in Canada and Jamaica.
Black youth from the two countries confronted the systemic violence that marks their lives and initiated conversations about how they might interrupt those complex patterns of aggression and hostility.
The project title is “Youth and Community Development in Canada and Jamaica: A Transnational Approach to Youth Violence.”
As part of the initiative also known as “Project Groundings”, youth and community leaders from Jamaica’s urban and rural communities spent a week in Toronto last month sharing their perspectives with their Canadian peers through workshops and creative arts presentations.
The group also included representatives from the award-winning Jamaica Youth Theatre (JYT) who showcased their exceptional artistic talents at the second annual Alexander Chamberlain Children’s Studies Speaker series at York University.
Born in England, Chamberlain moved with his parents to the United States in 1870 and then to Canada a year later. He studied languages at the University of Toronto and in 1892 received a PhD in anthropology in the United States – the first person to do so – from Clark University where he later became a professor.
He is the author of several books, including two influential books on children and childhood – The Child and Childhood in Folk-Thought (1896) and The Child: A Study in the Evolution of Man (1900). As an anthropologist, he investigated the culture and language of two of Canada’s indigenous tribes, the Mississauga peoples in Scugog and the Kootenay peoples in British Columbia.
JYT president and dub poet, Randy McLaren, performed his spoken word poem, Armadale: Children on Fire, which emotionally shocked York students and other audience members.
In May 2009, seven young girls at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre in St. Mary were killed when a police officer – in an attempt to quell a disturbance at the facility – threw a tear gas canister that ignited in the small, packed dorm.
“My journey of using the arts as a tool for social transformation started with the JYC and that fire,” said McLaren, who is also a Jamaica youth ambassador for education and the executive director of the Graffiti Performing Arts 4Change. “That was a life-changing moment for me. It said Randy, you have this talent, so use it to do something now. You cannot just sit back and watch these things going on every day without doing anything about them.”
McLaren said he was shocked beyond belief when he read the 138-page Armadale inquiry report.
“There is no way on God’s earth that human beings should be subjected to the living conditions that those young women were in,” he said. “You had 23 girls in a 10 x 20 unsanitary environment with just one bucket to share for tidying up and doing other things.
“You also have to bear in mind they were not there because they had done terrible things such as committing a murder or other serious crimes. They were simply there because of a society that is not creative and one that is still stuck in its old traditional way of doing things and does not know how to effectively engage young people.”
JYT director and University of the West Indies Caribbean Literature professor, Dr. Carolyn Allen, presented a short video of the group’s production, Pickney Dem a Dry, which explores the grief of a mother who learns of the death of her daughter on the streets.
Jamaican-born York University associate professor and CERLAC deputy director, Dr. Andrea Davis, said “Project Groundings” seeks to facilitate critical national and transnational dialogue that can open avenues of collaboration among young people across their shared cultural boundaries.
“African youth cultivate their own ideas of what they think ‘Jamaicaness’ is and it’s for the most part aggressive and used almost always in response to other kinds of social violence like racism and marginalization in the classroom,” she said. “Many of these young people don’t have the critical language to speak back to their teachers and institutions and they don’t know how else to do it except through this cultural but problematic way.
“So the idea was to bring young people in Toronto into conversation with Jamaican youth who know that violence and poverty is not romanticized. I also think Jamaican youth need to be aware of what it means to be Black in a space like Canada where it’s perceived to be always better than.”
Five years ago, the visiting JYT group was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Youth Award for Excellence in the Arts.