Winning hearts and minds

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
August 22, 2022

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeA call to my grandnephew, Devon La Touche, a library assistant at the Beetham Gardens Community Library (BGCL) and the Joint Community Service Centre in Gonzales, on Wednesday and Thursday respectively, led to two instructive days.

Devon attends to the young pupils who visit the library to use the Internet and play games on the Internet. Before they do so, they are required to read for half an hour. Such is their anxiety to get to the computers that they joyously do their reading just to get to the computers. Adults hardly attend the library.

When I called Devon, he was having a session with about 28 pupils. They were playing PlayStation games, board games, and doing colouring activities. Such was the pupils’ enthusiasm that I, too, became enraptured by the joy that I heard in his voice and in the pupils’ voices.

I asked if I could visit him at the library to see what the pupils were doing, and to get a better feel for the physical and social environment. He said he would be delighted if I visited, but informed me I would have to write a letter to Oswain Subero, Senior Superintendent of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), so the police could provide me the necessary security. I did this early on Wednesday morning because an electricity blackout prevented me from sending the letter the night before.

I showed up at the library on Wednesday morning and was greeted by Insp Ian Charles, a warm, unassuming brother. He informed me that Devon had not arrived yet, but invited me to take a seat in the library.

Corporal Kevin Romany was also in the office. They told me what the IATF was doing in the Beetham Gardens, Sea Lots and, by extension, the East Port of Spain area.

The IATF had introduced several programmes to improve the lives of the youths of the area (netball competitions, parenting programmes, youth mentorship programmes, and TTA youth camp, basketball training, etc).

While these young people enjoyed the sporting aspects of the programmes, they were not as interested in the educational and cultural aspects. Although some of them did well in the SEA and CXC examinations, many feel ashamed of their illiteracy, and were reluctant to expose this deficiency to their peers.

There is a tremendous lack of self-esteem among the youths. Romany explained that their environment creates a “cognitive perception” of inadequacy that seems to hold them back. Peer pressure has added a lot of negative influences that led to a lot of antisocial behaviours, such as smoking and gambling which are reinforced by poor parenting patterns.

These officers were especially proud of their “Hearts and Minds” programme, started in 2007, to “bridge the gap between the citizens and the Police Service”.

The creators of the programme noted: “It was geared to assist the traditionally hostile communities of Laventille (towards the police) to view the police as friends, not as adversaries, whilst aiming to bring warring elements of the Laventille communities together” (Wendell Wallace, “The Social Impact of the Hearts and Minds Programme”).

At least 100,000 people reside in the 53 communities that constitute the Laventille area. Wendell Wallace points out: “The population in the district is largely of African descent with many having familial ties to other Caribbean countries.

“For many, the Laventille district has become the focal point of debate on crime control in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Paradoxically, for most of the residents, the Laventille area remains a safe space. Many of these young people never see outside of their immediate communities. Romany believes that this insidious isolation of people in their individual communities (he calls it “Community Individualism”) prevents them from getting to know one another. How, then, do we assist the youths?

Insp Charles suggests the youths are not the main problem. He believes the lack of proper parenting is one of the main problems that face these citizens. Even the younger children, in their last vacation programme, expressed their thoughts in the murals they painted on their community walls. They wrote: “Stop telling Men to Man Up”; “Stop the cycle of killing and shooting”; “Know the signs: I am valid”.

At Gonzales, close to the Inter-Agency building where “A Walk for Peace” culminated, there were two killings in the area last two weeks.

On the street corner where the meeting was held, there stood the remains of flambeaux in remembrance of those who had been killed. Hence the theme of the march: “This is not a show of force; [but] a show of love.”

The people of Gonzales were concerned about making their community safer; they resented that they were stigmatised “by a recalcitrant minority” who felt their community was unworthy. One speaker said his trauma was real. Minister Hinds declared “the madness and mayhem must stop”.

And that is why the work of the Hearts and Minds programme is so important. The police officers involved genuinely care and are doing their best to reach out to their fellow citizens. This exercise humanises them. It also helps us to see them as fragile human beings performing an important national service.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, father of modern democratic policing, observed that “police officers also perform roles akin to social workers, marriage counsellors, educators, priests and parents in an attempt to prevent the commission of crimes… or to discourage individuals from indulging in criminal behaviour” (quoted in Wallace).

In discharging their duties as conscientious public servants, the police officers of the Hearts and Minds programme are performing in the best tradition of the citizens’ responsibilities. It’s about time we recognise the tremendous service they render to their community.

2 thoughts on “Winning hearts and minds”

  1. Professor, why are you selling the people short? All you have to do is tell them, “Take a look at this view, do you know the value of, or, the potential value of the land that you occupy”?
    Honesty is the best policy, Professor. All they are lacking is good, strong leadership to tell them how GENTRIFICATION has affected African Americans and their communities, and it is the same thing that is playing out here. I think they are wise enough to take it from there, Professor.

  2. These programs are great and badly needed. Areas can be transformed by such care and concern for the youths. The biggest problem with these programs is those who need it are absent. The young man who is a member of a gang living in isolation will not attend these programs.

    And so the issue of crime and criminality which is perpetuated from one generation to the next will not stop. Until the “king pins” who hire these tugs to commit execution and work in the drug trade are found and their performance evaluation sheets are scrutinized to find those who are on the list.

    When Joel Balcon the chief monster who operated in Central for a decade with a rap sheet of over 80 charges but was protected by his friends in high places and did his dirty deeds not caring about the impact he was having on families, he became the worst serial rapist, and murderer aided and abetted by a sleepy police force. The police sadly do use and protect criminals.

    The problems are like a hydra head monster, one cannot point to only one solution. But it is a good start and it will provide opportunities for the youths to use their brain. A friend of mine use to work in an after school program, where the children would be part of a homework club. The children came was given snacks and assisted in completing their assignments. Today children can be up until 10 p.m. trying to complete homework. Clubs of this nature help single parents immensely.
    Along with all of this parenting classes are badly needed. I remember the look on the face of the young man as held his baby, he play for awhile and then left. Why? He never had a role model that he could emulate. If there are parents waiting for food card ext. make it part of the program that they volunteer 5 hrs per week in the community center. Yes it is good to see children are given opportunities to succeed.

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