Catherine Ali didn't want the interview to be about her. But Ali's 35 years of active community development work in T&T–during which, among many other things, she managed the first community mediation service in Cunupia, and successfully raised a Catholic/Muslim family during the nation's turbulent infancy–are only primary qualifiers for putting her in focus. The most compelling reason perhaps is that at a time when scholars like Gordon Rohlehr describe regional conditions as "already at the stage of terminality," Ali contends that "it's not hopeless," and has created a conference that will bring together "people who have hopeful things to say and [who] care deeply about people," to begin to share that hope and tap the potential for social change.
The conference Trauma Conflict and Community Peacemakers, scheduled for tomorrow, will marry the work of scholars, community activists and a range of social workers, to explore the role of trauma in crime and gang culture, consider community-based interventions and further inform the work of the newly-launched voluntary professional mediator organisation, Community Peacemakers.
Ali said that at the organisation's launch in February, "participants highlighted the need for collective involvement with those who work against crime, particularly gang crime, to mediate social change [and] this conference is a first step in responding to that request."
As Ali, who is chair of the organisation, elaborates on the conference, putting its occurrence along a timeline of notable efforts to tackle social issues like domestic violence, unemployment, and reorganisation of the criminal justice system, her reluctance to be in the spotlight begins to make sense. There have been a number of people, working out of its glare for decades, she says. Ali cites examples like Dr Gordon Rohlehr, Guyanese-born literary and cultural critic who has lived in T&T since 1968 and whose work has documented and highlighted the features of Caribbean history that have informed the discourse on trauma.
Hal Greaves, known to many as Roy, who has used drama to engage with marginalised communities and gangs, in his book The Portal creatively explores "crime in Laventille and how a culture of trauma fermented and overflowed into Hotspots, including Marabella and San Fernando."
Frances Turton-Long, deputy chief probation officer, worked with Justice Anthony Carmona to develop a probation programme at the San Fernando Supreme Court called Bail Boys. So far, the revolutionary intervention, has altered the trajectory of 38 boys caught in the criminal justice system, who have gone on to become business owners, agriculturists and to volunteer as mentors themselves.
Ali also speaks about the New Millennium Knights, a group that "combine a love for the sport of motorcycling with a desire to serve their communities," and challenge men to embrace responsibility and be role models in their families and their wider context. "There are enough people around," says Ali, "who know what's needed. Enough people who know that change is possible [...] but there is no comprehensive registry of all the things being done."
T&T: Phenomenal changes
These people, Ali among them, have been the impetus (sometimes with political support) behind what she describes as "a phenomenal amount of change." When Ali arrived in T&T in 1979, she first set up home in Brighton, La Brea, where the bright lights of modernisation had been dimmed by centralisation. As the money moved north, infrastructure crumbled, and she came to what she describes as "a really depressed area."
"There was no medicine in the health centre," Ali explains, "poor roads, few services."
The "little oases" reserved for oil refinery managers "made the social injustice all the more stark" and for Ali, born into an Ireland divided by conflict, this was a reason to get involved.
Although Ali had been a social activist since her teens, she had come into "a completely new context, a new culture," and felt it important to take time to understand the complexities of her new home and to answer the question - "what constitutes meaningful change?"
This habit of taking time to reflect is part of Ali's approach to being effective and her community service has been accompanied by an academic underpinning. The conference comes on the heels of the completion of her PhD.
While her young children were at pre-school, she began by volunteering at the church where a Sister Paul and a range of local professionals with various skills, matched resources with people who needed everything from training to find employment, drug rehabilitation and support to leave abusive situations. She began to realise even then, that some changes are impossible without political involvement. Her interest spanned into the criminal justice system, where she saw that for many, a first encounter with the law, mushroomed into a life of crime. Ali began work with those lobbying for "alternatives to custody" and remembers the 1980 Abdullah report and the words of Clive Pantin, that "prison should be a last resort."
The report offered hope to those pushing for change, but although the recommendations were used all over the world, to Ali it seemed T&T was among the late responders.
Still a lot to do
Ali's early experiences of community development, sandwiched between the smouldering embers of the 70s Black Power movement and the fervent politically conscious 80s, add credence to her current work on trauma and mediation.
She reminds that not so long ago 10,000 young people would be unable to get a secondary education. That has changed. When she first arrived there was virtually no social work. That too has changed.
But it's the things that haven't changed that draw attention to the depth of the work left to do.
Support systems have improved but violent crime and gang-related activity continue unabated. Cultural observers report a rise in child abuse and child sex offences. Domestic violence remains a regular feature of a cultural landscape where, according to academic Valerie Youseff in her 2010 paper The Culture of Violence in Trinidad and Tobago: A Case Study, "Colonialism is deeply implicated in the manner in which violence has become a variously way of life, a means of adaptation to problems too profound to plumb."
A 'traumatised present'
Ali explains that at tomorrow's conference, the exploration of these problems will begin with the Gordon Rohlehr film Apocalypse to Awakening. In the film, Rohlehr explains that we live in a society which has "absorbed tremendous amounts of trauma" and that "we have simply normalised our lives around that."
The film's producer, Dr Paula Morgan, who is a UWI lecturer on women and trauma, co-authored with Youseff the 2006 Writing Rage: Unmasking Violence through Caribbean Discourse. She says these traumas "are originary traumas that do not just disappear."
T&T history is one of "slavery, indentureship, genocide, an excessively violent order, multiple cultures thrown together on a small island, with stringent class and colour lines, violence and violation, entrenched poverty, institutionalised race and power relations." The reasons why these origins "cannot simply be put behind us," she added, is because they have developed into adaptive cultures, inherited from one generation to the next.
Morgan, who will present Understanding Experiences of Trauma at the conference, says healing cannot really begin until direct lines are drawn between the violence, violation and their heinous manifestations.
Tomorrow, at the Little Theatre, Southern Academy for the Performing Arts, the clipboards will be out to begin the drawing process.
"We will use an open space approach," says Ali, "break out into workshops based on keywords ... identify several of the good things already happening in San Fernando and gain support for those programmes." But before, Rohlehr, Morgan, Greaves, and Turton-Long will define, explore and share what works when addressing trauma, in the hope that through understanding, dialogue and communities coming together, crime can be tackled and effectively reduced.
"I have seen how people can build and rebuild," Ali says hopefully, "and have learnt about the resilience of the human spirit. I have never stopped being surprised by how resilient people are and the good things going on side by side with the challenges ... "
Trauma Conflict and Community Peacemakers will be held tomorrow from 8.30 am to 3.30 pm at the Little Theatre, Southern Academy for the Performing Arts (SAPA), Todd Street, San Fernando.
For more info: 299-1587 or e-mail: communitypeacemak[email protected]