Sunday, July 29, 2012

Guest blog with Natalie Bennett on the Granville Summer Program

Natalie D. A. Bennett is a feminist scholar, educator and book artist who hails from Granville, St. James (Jamaica) and currently lives in Chicago, IL (USA). She has been engaged in community work for many years on a variety of issues including developing adult literacy classes for Jamaican immigrants in NYC; working with Sudanese refugee women in Nebraska to create community gardens, and doing advocacy for LGBT Caribbean immigrants in New York City. She currently serves on the board of Global Girls, Inc. an art-based youth development organisation for African American girls, and as Director of the Granville Reading & Art Programme. She occasionally blogs at You can reach her at

   I am in awe of Natalie’s creativity and insight, her energy and her zeal. This is her account of how she started the Granville Reading and Art Program, and her hopes for the future:

   Over the past seven years or so, I've become much, much more attuned to several troubling aspects of Jamaican life: 1) how few options children of the poor and working classes seem to have in terms of how they can spend their time; 2) the disconnect between how art is made and presented and who gets to participate in and benefit from this process; 3) the way that violence and aggression seem to be the default response in just about every interaction; 4) how personal opinion, hearsay and nationalist sentiments seem to have replaced interest in reading about and understanding worlds different from one's own; and 5) how ordinary people seemed to have become so disempowered and disconnected from their own sense of what is important to them. For me, all of these are connected to the absence of several types of literacy.
I have long felt that there must be some way that I could put my skills, talents and knowledge to use for the public good. To me, identifying the "what" and "how" would emerge over time. I recall a conversation in 2009 when I was in Jamaica where I felt compelled to respond to the following statement
"I don't know why these children don't want to read; I used to love reading as a child. All these children want to do is fight." I said, "well, if they had books at home to read, if books weren't so expensive, and if adults didn't spend so much time using books as punishment, I bet they'd have a different attitude." Even though I was roundly chastised for supposing that children of working-class and poor backgrounds even cared about books, the kernel of an idea was sown.
   Later that year, I returned to Jamaica loaded with books and reading material engaged in what I called "Labor of Love". My stash included children's books I had purchased from "dollar stores" and resale shops, 'decodables' that I had copied from my son's textbooks or downloaded from websites, various puzzles for adults, 500 copies of a mini-book I had created using work donated from friends who are writers, and lots of crayons and pens. I distributed the materials on the streets of Kingston, St. Ann's Bay and Montego Bay to whoever wanted them. I did this in Granville as well; I grew up there, and so en route to visit relatives, I engaged children and adults wherever I encountered them. In 2010, I repeated the "Labor of Love" project three more times, introducing more visual art into the mix. In March 2010, I did a public art project in Half-Way-Tree where I invited the young men sitting around on a Sunday morning to make art with me. They were only too happy to do so, and complained that I didn't bring enough pastels! I also held a "sidewalk school" with children in downtown Kingston for two weeks in August 2010. I showed up every day to read, talk and work with the children of the vendors who were in the area. We did worksheets, played with flashcards, made drawings, worked with finger paints and rubber stamps to create pictures and tell stories. The children even created a small exhibition of their work on the wall of one of the stores. At one point when the group had grown to almost 20 children, we went to the nearby Tastee and setup shop.
The enthusiastic response from the children and their parents was overwhelming, and I started to conspire about how to re-create this experience for them, right there in downtown Kingston. I even inquired about the unoccupied building in front of which we held 'class' on some days. I imagined a community learning centre where vendors and other adults could learn to read, youth could work together to create art projects that explored the issues they were struggling with, children would have a place to do their homework and get other enrichment.
   On a whim, I decided to write an article for the Gleaner in October 2010. Ronnie Thwaites, who was then a talk-show host, interviewed me about the article and asked me the question: "what would it take to bring something like what you did to scale"? At the time, I rejected his question, and said that there was no need to do that. Instead, what needed to happen, in my view, was for every community no matter where they were located, to have some kind of space that fostered the love of reading and engaging with ideas in a more creative way. That space could be in the church, sports club, health clinic, wherever. It could be temporary or permanent; it could be a 1-person show or it could be an organisation. What mattered was that everyone - no matter where they were - would be connected to such a space, whether they were volunteers, donors, participants, researchers, etc. To me, the concept is very simple. If there is a gap in the lives of children and youth, you fill it. It doesn't take much more than interest in doing so. Later that year, I returned to Jamaica to do another "Labor of Love" project. It was then that I went to visit Granville All-Age School and had a conversation with the principal, Ann-Marie Brown. In addition to giving her some of the books and materials I had with me, I posed the question: “How can I help?”I was still bothered about the closing of the Granville branch of the Jamaica Library Service in the 1980s with nary an apology or attempt to replace it since. Doing literacy work in this community seemed like a good counterpoint to such: if neither the government nor community leaders were going to advocate for children's access to books, then I didn't see why I couldn't do something to address that, no matter how small.

Out of that conversation came the design for "Summer Arts Workshop", which is an arts-based reading program. The idea is to designate time in the summer months when nothing else is going on, and to give children unmediated access to books where they can read what they like, be read to, practice various reading and thinking skills, by creating works of art that they can use to create and write their own stories. While there is much concern for how children will do on standardized tests like the Grade 4 Literacy Test and Grade 6 GSAT, the program is not concerned with those. The focus is on providing a nurturing space where children can develop a love of reading, where reading becomes a habit that they are happy to feed, and which can be fed without them having to leave their community to go downtown Montego Bay, and whether or not they are in school. Moreover, since summer is also less stressful, parents can be drawn into the reading experience through a variety of strategies, whether sending home books and asking them to read with their children, or having them volunteer in the day program.

The next issue: how to make this happen?

After throwing myself into the research and coming up with a design (a summer program, arts integrated into reading, parent workshops, etc.), then came the challenge of actually pulling it off. I was teaching a preceptorial course "Jamaica: Beyond Sun, Sex and Sea" for first-year students at DePaul University. As part of their final project, the students had to do a group project where they did some research on education in Jamaica and then used that information to design a drive for art supplies.

Easily accessible books for the younger children
I ran a book drive at my son's school and put an ad in my community newspaper. I received more than 5,000 books. One of the graduate students in the Women's & Gender Studies Program coordinated the itemizing and packing of the donations for shipment to Jamaica. I raised money by using one of the crowd-sourcing sites, and tapping into my extended network of colleagues, friends and family. Those funds paid for the purchase of materials such as the reading mats, bins, and the shipment of the supplies. I used my personal monies to fund the rest of the program (transportation, food, stipend, etc.).The Ministry of Education, Food for the Poor, Globe Insurance, Celect Supply, Community Security & Justice Programme (CSJP) and Social Development Commission (SDC) provided in-kind support.

2011 was the pilot year, which consisted of 50 children (ages 4 to 17 years), five volunteers, one paid staff person, as well as myself. I served as the lead instructor. I wanted to see what it would take to make a program like this happen. Summer Arts Workshop is conceived as a discrete program unit of the Granville Reading & Art Programme, which is a 5-year demonstration project. (Another program unit being developed is Ready! Set! Read! A reading program at the health clinic which targets children birth-6 years old and their parents.) During 2012-2016 the project will be doing lots of experimentation in Granville to figure out what the children respond to, how to get parents more involved, etc.

At the end of the 5-year period, I will hire someone to analyse the data and to develop a set of recommendations for how the programs can go forward. I really see myself as facilitating a process, helping to create the space where children and youth can find a healthy, safe space to be themselves and to get what they need educationally and intellectually, and where new leadership can emerge that serves the needs of the whole community. I don't expect to be much in the foreground after the 5-year period, because I believe that if these initiatives are to succeed, they have to be owned, nurtured and sustained by the community that they are planted in.
   Learning some lessons from last year, I pulled resources together in a number of ways:
a virtual book drive via Amazon;
a 1-week book drive that netted more than 3,000 books;
donations from my university and the local arts supply store;
materials I have been gathering since last year; and
active solicitation for support among local entities, including working with Donna Spence, Lecturer in Art at Sam Sharpe Teachers' College, to put the curriculum together.
   Children hear about the program through fliers that are distributed at Granville All-Age and around the community, word-of-mouth, and direct recruitment by community members who know of children who could benefit from a program like this. Registration took place in the week before the program began, but at least half of the children showed up during the first week with their parents. The number of children is capped at 60. There are some issues in terms of adequate furniture and space, but the Coordinator has been very creative and the children very patient. By next year, I expect to have adequate tables and chairs for all the children.

This year, I hired a Project Coordinator and a Community Outreach Coordinator. Two persons were assigned by the National Youth Service. The main art instructor a recent graduate from Sam Sharpe Teachers College. Volunteers were also directed through outreach done by the Granville Community Development Committee (SDC) and Granville Seventh Day Adventist Church.
A rug is a comfortable place to sit and read

Celect Hotel & Restaurant Supplies, CitySports, and Bill Craig Insurance Co. have been very supportive and have not needed much convincing to get on board. Because there needs to be a local structure in place, I've been identifying community members who are deeply committed to education and to the development of youth. It's amazing - all I have had to do is ask and I get names! The idea is to create an independent council whose sole purpose is to advocate for as well as create educational opportunities for youth in Granville. A library is already on the list of things they want to accomplish, so I'm very happy.

Still no support from national entities, so I'm paying out of pocket again this year. Based onlast year's experience, the reluctance of national entities to support the program seem related to a larger structural problem: all decision-making about how resources will be distributed happens in Kingston. Aside from the implicit bias created by that setup, there doesn't seem to be much support or advocacy for non-Kingston
educational programs, especially those that aren't school-based. So,I now realise that there is a lot of education that I and others need to do in order to get corporations to understand their role in producing an educated and literate society.

On top of that is way that Granville is being actively stigmatized through media reportage. The notion that Granville is equivalent with homicides and scamming is the result of careless and negative reportage. It is a community that's been decimated by migration, divisive politics as well as systematic disinvestment (as I noted recently, the best way to measure 'progress' in Granville is to look at what has left the community, not
what has come into it). The negative reportage has certainly fed into the community's image of itself, so that people from up the hill don't want to come down the hill because they are afraid. I hope that the program is able to grow and be an even stronger force in presenting a different image of what is possible when community folks come together to build something for themselves.

The feedback is generally good. Based on last year and right now, both the parents and children are disappointed that it doesn't go on for the entire summer. If there are any complaints, it's from the children (and their parents) who are concerned about the fighting that occasionally takes place. The irony, of course, is that these are the same children who are engaging in the fights, and the same parents who are also coming to the center to threaten and confront other children. As a result of the children's inability to manage their emotions effectively, a huge part of what happens everyday concerns conflict resolution and teaching children ways of expressing themselves in non-violent or non-confrontational ways, avoiding conflict as well as how to negotiate their own safety without harming others. As you canimagine, this is a tall task when their lives are mired in violence of all kinds. But, as we keep reminding them, in order for the program to be a safe and nurturing space that they enjoy coming to, each of them has to commit to keeping it that way. And that means we have to teach them how to manage their emotions. So, next year, I'm definitely bringing someone on board who knows art therapy or who has a counseling background.

In all, there's a lot of work to do. Next year, recruitment and training of staff is a priority, getting better furniture and tightening up the curriculum. I'm happy that I was able to step away and allow folks to take charge of the program this year. And I'm very excited - and challenged - by the work that lies ahead.

You can read more about Natalie’s work and an entertaining account in her blog of the trials she went through in 2011, to get the program off the ground.


myrtle mayers said...

Glad that I drop by your page and find it entertaining. Will share these to my friends. Thanks for posting.
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Helen said...

Happy you found my page and read about Natalie. She's doing such wonderful work and producing results.

Colleen Spence said...

Ive lived in the granville community for years and was completely unaware of this. It is a beautiful feeling to act selflessly for the benefit of others especially those who are considered less fortunate by society. It was a great read and I look forward to working along side Miss Natalie and her team this summer.