Fight for Peace: knocking out youth violence in Jamaica

“Calm down! Calm down! Remember what I told you: control!” yells Fight for Peace trainer Bali Khuman, as a smiling 12-year-old rains down excess energy on the boxing pads at a session in downtown Kingston.

If the name ‘Fight for Peace’ sounds like a contradiction in terms, that’s because it is. The idea is based upon the experience of its founder Luke Dowdney, who while working in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, realized that to reach and persuade young gang members you need something more physical. It was in his roots as an ex-boxer that Dowdney found the answer to help them build positive discipline in place of anger.

New ways to reach at-risk youths

“Fighting is not violence. The way Fight for Peace uses sports is always with personal development integrated. We’re more than a sports programme, we’re a youth development and violence prevention programme so there’s an explicit integration of personal development and, in particular, violence interruption in the way we coach sports,” explains Kellie Magnus who heads FFP Jamaica launched last year.

“We’re essentially focused on two things: one, find a way to reach out to young people who are involved in or affected by violence; and two, find a way to actually get the organizations who work with those young people to work together!” adds Magnus.

fight for peace jamaica
Fight for PeaceMeet the Fight for Peace Jamaica team (left to right): Bali Khuman, Consultant Trainer; Rebecca McHugh, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Manager; Kellie Magnus, Country Manager and Andre Wilson Programme Coordinator.

Magnus and her team and trying to pull together like-minded organisations to help deliver the programme, rather than duplicate existing efforts. By doing so the local FFP Alliance aims to deliver on its five pillars: boxing and martial arts; education; employability; youth leadership; and support services e.g. peer counselling and mentoring.

Fight for Peace 15 years experience in Brazil and worldwide

“The idea is to use sports to attract the highest risk young people who might not be attracted by what they perceive as softer social interventions and keep them engaged. We then integrate them more fully into other programmes that can help them get on more positive paths,” says Magnus. “We’ve been doing this in Brazil for about 15 years and over that time have trained 140 organisations from 25 countries.”

The programme has now benefited 250,000 youths worldwide. Locally, FFP is hosted by the ICD Group in the same office as their adopted Youth Upliftment Through Employment (YUTE) programme. FFP has already begun trying to connect youths with training and job opportunities.

Collaboration with likeminded local organisations

Called ‘collective impact’ in the United States, it has already borne fruit in locally as used by the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) in bringing together various groups, including even rival gangs to find community-driven solutions. One significant result: last year, the community of August Town, St. Andrew recorded zero murders, which police have confirmed is the first time this has happened in 40 years.

While it is too early for Jamaica FFP to report results, they do follow rigorous measuring and evaluation procedures. Using an application called ‘Upshot’ Fight for Peace tracks how young participants are performing, inside and outside the programme, and have started training local partners to use it to record metrics from school to crime.

As Magnus explains, the programme of work ahead is daunting:  “We have an MoU with the Ministry of National Security and we’re working with them on a number of different things. These include community policing and the revision of the rehabilitation for juvenile offenders and helping them to incorporate sports for development into violence prevention initiatives.”

FFP is currently in six Kingston communities: Hannah Town, Trench Town, Denham Town, Parade Gardens, Tivoli Gardens and Fletchers Land. At this stage of the programme the team are not yet screening for the highest risk youths but will be launching an initiative dedicated to those who have just left gangs. That’s not to say that many of the children already involved haven’t themselves been scarred physically or mentally by violence.

Helping children recovering from violence experiences

“We had a child come in who had lost a friend to violence the week before and we have kids who’ve either witnessed or have experienced violence first hand. The heaviness of that experience, especially in the younger kids, is hard to see,” says Magnus.

The programme also places a high emphasis on youth leadership and handing participants responsibility, which is a new experience for many. And they like it!

“They will also have had an opportunity to mix with youths from other communities. When we began our pilot programme in May and you asked them which group they were from they would tell you ‘Fletchers Land’ or ‘Trench Town’ or maybe the programme that sent them. But by August when they had finished and you asked them which Group they were in they would say ‘Boxing’ or they would say ‘capoeira’ or ‘tae kwon do’. It was nice to see that shift happen where they had these connections with other young people along the basis of sport and not necessarily community affiliation.

fight for peace jamaica
Fight for PeaceFight for Peace champ Kerron Thomas shows off her medal at the Caribbean Boxing Championships in Barbados.

As wrestling coach Kevin Wallen from the Jamaica Wrestling Association once related to Magnus: ‘A lot of these kids have never had a chance to win, they don’t get to practice success and giving them that opportunity and seeing how they respond to the presence of an authority figure who cares about them is incredibly powerful!’

Powerful is one way to describe the experience of 18-year-old Kerron Thomas from Trench Town in Kingston who is training to be a pastry chef, who joined FFP in May via her local Alliance partner, Boys Town. Coach Joseph Harrison from the Jamaica Boxing Board of Control spotted Kerron’s talent and chose her to represent Jamaica in an amateur fight at Barbican Beach. As Keron herself admits, she has struggled with an anger problem, which showed during her first fight. Swinging enthusiastically, she failed to connect many punches against her more technical opponent from the Cayman Islands.

Already seeing positive change in young participants

Just a few week later it was a calmer Kerron who flew out to Barbados for her second bout – at the Caribbean Amateur Boxing Championships – and this time she won.

“Overjoyed! I’ve been meeting with different coaches and from them I’ve learned about different styles,” says Kerron. “I did have a bit of an anger problem but I’ve been learning how to control it and right now I just want to be a role model for any girl who wants to join boxing but who are scared.”

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  1. We need to do all we can to re socialize our children that have been exposed to violence from an early age.

  2. I would like to have a conversation with Ms. Kellie Magnus, because i have been given the task to coordinate the social intervention for the ZOSO programme in Denham Town. I was given the information from Dr. Elizabeth Ward. Awaiting your urgent reply. Regards

    1. Hi Audre, sending an email now putting you in touch with Kellie.