Giving up the gun to give back: peace activist Milton Tomlinson

“Ordained” is how Milton Tomlinson describes a life that has changed him from being the youth holding a gun. Now he is the 43-year-old man who persuades younger versions of himself to put down the gun and pick up something more positive for the rest of their lives.

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If his life in a soundbite sounds like a movie script treatment then that’s because it is – now in the form of Before & After, a short film directed by Ras Kassa for the #KeepChildrenSafe initiative organised by the Office of the Children’s Advocate and UNICEF, supported by TVJ, JNN, The Gleaner and Do Good Jamaica. While the initiative examines ways to protect children from violence, the film re-tells how Tomlinson went from ‘badness’ to Kingston Peace Management Initiative (PMI) volunteer.

“QUIET ON SET!” yells the director as a packed but respectful backyard full of youths concentrate on acting out a confrontational scene from Milton’s childhood. These teenagers, in his home community of Mountain View, are holding up a mirror to Tomlinson’s own past. It is these youths and those of other communities who inspire him to do what has now become a full-time job.

No youth is irredeemable

“During my time as a youngster my intention was never to get into bad company, but knowing how easy it is to get stigmatised, through my own circumstances – that has what has really motivated me. In every so-called bad person, some good can come from within them. But if you deal with someone based upon just their bad side then you just push them further deeper into that, but try work with the good that’s there and you can turn them around.”

“I did.”

In Tomlinson’s case it was as simple as being friendly with two groups of rival youths, but when their dispute became too hot he decided that it was time to leave that part of his life for good. That way out was a far easier choice for him than others, due to good values instilled by his mother and stepfather.

Originally dividing his role with paying jobs as a chef and engineer, only in the past four years has Tomlinson been salaried as an Intervention Specialist for PMI – spearheading violence interventions in troubled communities. That approach is of course not about raiding homes, but rather concentrating on working with communities to build both self-esteem and organisational capacity to resolve conflicts and maintain peace.

Residents unite for peace

Communities including Mountain View, Duhaney Park and August Town – where violence has fallen when residents unite – have become the organisation’s signature. And while recognition on a national scale has been slow, there has been a gradual shift towards more holistic thinking in national security policy. The PMI now receives funding from the Ministry of National Security and is regularly called upon by donors to do on-the-ground work for violence prevention projects.

One thing getting in the way, however, is an element of turfism – not between rival gangs but the myriad of organisations tasked with intervening. In the United States, an approach called ‘Collective Impact’, an approach that pulls all stakeholders together for social change, which has been informally practised in the past by PMI – partnering with everyone from churches to universities to UN agencies like UNICEF – not least for the necessity of pulling together scarce resources. Collective Impact has reduced levels of violence in several major cities and is being introduced to Jamaica via Fight for Peace, an organisation started in Brazil to teach discipline through boxing; and whose programme will be implemented by a network of local partners.

An ideal future, for Milton at least, would be where interventions happen before the crime flares up and youths have been positively targeted from basic school onwards. As it is, persons aged 10-19 make up nearly 26% of intentional injuries seen at public hospitals.

Gun violence shapes children

“These kids are like a sponge and I draw back from my own life experience. Some of the values instilled in children is what takes them through life. Some of these young men who become gunmen they are like their fathers, their uncles, because they try and walk in their shadow and because they have no guidance – ‘you come in like your wicked papa’ as people would say. As a society if we leave them to that then we are speaking them into being and they will aspire to that.”

From basic schools to community playgrounds to cub scouts, Tomlinson believes it’s vital to give children access to stimulation that distracts them from peer pressure, negative influences and can even expose them to positive influences from outside. In communities divided by small turfs, this can be as simple as playing at the house of a school friend a few streets away.

“Basic schools are critical for children to be exposed to good values and proper education. At that age you teach the vowel sounds so they can break up words to speak and to talk, all that is fundamental in learning. In Mountain View we have a ten-year plan. Why? Because in ten years they are going to be the young men and the young women of the community and it’s about having a better community in the long term.”

Volunteer for the PMI

The PMI has an active volunteer base drawn from residents in the communities in which they operate. You can contact the PMI if you would like to volunteer in one of the 60 communities covered by the organisation (50 in Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine and Clarendon; and 10 in St James, Westmoreland and Hanover).

Targeting the most at-risk youth, the PMI’s core functions include violence interrupting, mediation, counselling and life skills training for youth. Its planning processes are based upon data from the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and information received directly from the communities themselves e.g. in the case of August Town a formal truce was signed based upon the suggestion of the warring gangs.

In recent years the government has gradually shifted ‘crime-fighting’ policy towards more long-term violence prevention and has adopted a more defined approach, based upon the Cure Violence programme from the United States, to reduce violence in targeted communities. The PMI will be implementing the programme on behalf of the government, building upon the violence interruption work that it has been doing since 2004.

To contact the PMI email: peace_management@yahoo.com

 

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