A Community Dreams, For the First Time
WESTMORELAND, February 5, 2014 – On a typical day, most working residents of Westmoreland’s Farm District ply their trade at sea or in the fields, fishing and farming to make a living. Many others wile away long days of unemployment gambling their meagre means. There is little of the crime and violence that rocks the island’s urban capital – which makes residents deeply proud – but the community struggles with other hardships.
On this very unusual day, the Social Development Commission (SDC), in collaboration with UNICEF, has brought together over 30 Farm District community leaders at the suitably named venue, ‘Camp Hope’. They have two days to explore the challenges facing their children and families and come up with their own plan of action to address them.
It is the first morning and all eyes are on Mr. Francis, one of several experienced SDC facilitators who manage this process with communities across the island. “How many of you have done visioning?” he asks. People look around with uncertainty, no hands go up.
“At some point, you must have thought about the best life you want for yourself,” he continues. “Now, we are asking you to think of the best community you want. We are asking you to dream.”
Everyone is asked to close their eyes, and transport themselves to an ideal community. They are asked to consider improvements in four areas: environment, economic, social and governance, and to share any ideas that emerge – with specific and descriptive language.
This is not easy for everyone. Some community members cannot see beyond their daily limits of poverty or unemployment. Yet, as the momentum builds, more people speak up. “In my dream, I see youths who have skills to work both inside and outside the community,” says one young lady. “I see students getting help at a community centre,” says another. “I see myself teaching sewing,” chimes in an older resident.
Community visioning is only the first step in the SDC process. Over the two-day workshop, community members are taken through a series of detailed exercises to convert their dreams into actual plans. They analyse the community’s strengths and weaknesses against opportunities and threats.
With much heated debate, they identify the top five issues affecting the community, further rank all five in order of priority, and drill down to assess the root causes and effects of each one. They close off with a comprehensive community-driven plan to tackle each issue: unemployment, parenting, absence of a basic school, a community centre and land ownership.
For the first time, an influential section of the community had the room to dream, to vent and to probe beyond the surface of their challenges and place the community at the center of change.
This approach is at the heart of the ‘CHOICE’ programme, an initiative by the SDC and UNICEF to encourage community-led solutions to major development issues. The programme was named ‘CHOICE’ to link with the Government of Jamaica’s Vision 2030 ideal for becoming the “place of choice to live, work, raise families and do business”. The programme focuses on five rural communities in Westmoreland and Hanover.
As the Farm District workshop draws to a close, participants are cautiously hopeful.
Muriel, a resident for over 40 years, is anxious. “It is very hard to see my three year old grand-nephew going to the gambling shop. I really want to see the gambling go. Now we have a sense of direction, but we need to form a group with a strong leader and build up that group.”
“Everyone has to unite around one focus – the growth and development of the community,” says Tameka, an outspoken youth leader. “It is not enough to just think about today; we have to think about tomorrow, the next week, the next year. If we keep this energy going, it can work.”