Yesterday at YOU we had a focus group with close to 20 youth. Ranging in age from 19-29, the youth answered a survey and participated in a discussion. We wanted to get their perspective on things like what is wrong in their communities, how they think things can be fixed and where they see themselves in 10 years. I was not there for the beginning of the session, but according to the facilitator, it took awhile for them to warm up. When I returned, they had no shortage of passionate opinions. 

There were two questions that gleaned the most information, the first being who are the people in your community who contribute the least and who contribute the most. Doctors, nurses, pastors and corner shop owners topped the list for the most part. Police officers were not as popular, and politicians were polarizing. However, most agreed that both were simply out for themselves. People who contributed the least were “weed men”, homosexuals, thiefs, teachers and rapists. The picture above is a list of the people who the youth see in their communities. Another interesting aspect of a related discussion was a comment that zinc fences are symbolic of the problems in these poor, inner-city communities. Indeed, zinc fences are used to demarcate and provide privacy in one’s own yard and set space for communities. They are unsightly and unsafe but they are cheap, so they symbolize a poor community. One youth said that if they were not used anymore, it would help to reduce poverty, but this sparked a debate, with most others stating that, no, you have to change people’s mindset if you want to eradicate poverty, not just take away a zinc fence. 

The other striking element of this discussion was more subtle. The facilitator asked the kids where they see themselves or their communities in 10 years. The immediate response? Imagine a car coming to an immediate halt, brakes squealing. These youth could not come up with an instantaneous, instinctual answer.
The facilitator had to explain a few times what she meant and the youth were either quiet or explained to her that you can’t generalize for a whole group of people. The content of their answers, I believe, is irrelevant. What is relevant is the lack of immediate response to a question that in North America, shapes cultural norms and drives discourse. This question defines our trajectory and provides for us a narrative as we plan our lives and take for granted that the future will offer us an approximation of our dreams and goals. Contrast the situation with these Jamaican youth with a university lecture room in North America. From the time these youth are children, they are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It is taken for granted that having and achieving dreams and goals for the future are a part of one’s trajectory. Achieving them is a given at that age. Here, it does not seem to be part of the culture, at least for this group of kids. There could be many factors that contributed to this particular situation. Perhaps they were uncomfortable with us, perhaps we needed to build more trust, perhaps they were tired. Maybe in another setting their plans for the future are intact and would have flowed easily. Let’s hope so. There is certainly no shortage of intelligence, creativity or energy among these youth. In fact, one of their main concerns is a lack of educational opportunities, mostly due to financial constraints. In any case, this discussion marked the end of the session and we sent them off to eat a traditional Jamaican snack- spiced bun (like Christmas cake) and cheese (it is neon orange and comes in a tin), tuna sandwiches, cookies and juice. 

The last two pictures are from a volunteer dinner we had last night welcoming five new volunteers: Erin, Ivy, Anna, Doudou and Brianna (happy), and saying goodbye to Tim (sad).