“In a great country like ours, we should aspire for every child to grow up to achieve his or her full potential. Anything less is a waste of talent and a blemish on human dignity and flourishing.”
Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute), 2023.
In April 2009, our country hosted President Barack Obama and 33 other global leaders. We also built a berm—a fancy term for a five-foot wall—to block the view into Beetham Gardens, a community that shares space with the murky waters of industrial waste, overgrown weeds and the constant stench of the nearby landfill.
Government officials claimed it was built in response to a 2006 survey of residents. Of all the things desired, the residents wanted a wall!
Some felt the wall was constructed to make the community invisible to the convoys of dignitaries as they wooshed past.
The referenced Guardian report highlighted the significance of community participation in decisions that affect them.
“They can talk prosperity. They can talk about development. But there can be no development in a country if you continue to leave behind any community or any of your people,” said 42-year-old Sherma Wilson, a mother of four and community activist who has taken on the plight of this long-suffering east Port of Spain community.
“The peace we seek? We can only do that if we develop community by community.”
Hold this thought as it is critical and will form part of the subsequent column.
Today, at the start of February 2023, the residents and their children remain invisible. Their pain and anger are not a cause for action by the wider community. Yet, this community is symbolic of other poverty-stricken communities.
The life and death of Allon Ramdial and his mother’s woes still haunt me. Think of the three wasted lives lost over a box of chicken and chips in the same area.
The pain is not only felt in Laventille. For those who would argue that the residents deserve their situation because they voted for the PNM since 1961, they need to review the voter turnout data. A cursory look reveals that voter participation has been halved.
A third of all schools in the country listed as being on academic watch are in the East Port of Spain area. Why?
A key clue emerged from the shooting incident near the Rose Hill RC School in November 2022.
In a Facebook post, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds said: “The school administration made it quite clear that the children were not… at [the] peril of any physical danger. It was the trauma and fear that gripped them all.
“Within recent weeks, they had this unfortunate experience on a couple of occasions. So often… that the Board taught, and their schools practice a routine of getting down whenever gunshots are heard.
“Chances are that depending on where they live, very unfortunately, they may have experienced this at home as well.”
Living in poverty can be associated with living in unsafe neighbourhoods. The trauma that was so casually accepted by Minister Hinds, who correctly noted that it was commonplace in East Port of Spain, contributes to poor academic performance.
Those among us who agitated in response to the incident for more police action a la Gary Griffith, in the same article and elsewhere, do not understand that these children are also exposed to law enforcement violence. Trauma leads to lifelong mental health issues.
Living in areas that have gang violence means that violence becomes the language spoken in the homes and the community. The gangs live in bordering communities, and nightly, you may hear gunshots.
The persistent threat of violence means that the children live restricted lives. They can only play in tightly defined areas. These neighbourhoods carry the scars of untreated mental illness, substance abuse, chronic pain, sexual abuse and physical or emotional trauma.
These issues represent deep social problems that inhibit the children’s potential academic success.
In 2018, The New York Times had a critical discussion about trauma. Dr Nadine Burke Harris, a paediatrician and author, described the nature of toxic stress:
“[…] Threats that are severe or prolonged—things like abuse or neglect, or growing up with a parent who is mentally ill or substance-dependent. Our biological stress response is designed to save our lives from something threatening, and that’s healthy.
“The problem is that when the stress response is activated repeatedly, it can become overactive and affect our brain development, immune systems and even how our DNA is read and transcribed.
“High doses of stress hormones can inhibit the brain’s executive functioning and make it harder for kids or adults to exercise impulse control.” (my emphasis.)
“We see on MRIs a shrinking of the hippocampus (a brain area important for memory and emotional regulation) and increased size of the amygdala, which is the brain’s fear centre. This can make you hypervigilant—overly sensitive to threats or challenges.
“For individuals who are exposed to high doses of adversity in childhood, the pleasure and reward centre of the brain—the ventral tegumental area, the part that is stimulated by cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, tobacco, sex, high-sugar and high-fat foods—can be affected, so folks get less pleasure from these things.
“So, they need higher doses, which leads to increases in risky behaviour and substance dependence.” (my emphasis.)
Our children bear the unseen burden of inadequate nutrition, health care delivered at a tremendous personal cost of waiting for hours, and exposure to toxic waste from the Beetham Dump.
When Port of Spain is blanketed by smoke from the dump, we ought to remember people live within walking distance from it. What is the probability of asthma and other respiratory illnesses compared to the rest of the country?
Anyone familiar with these neighbourhoods would bear witness to children suffering from impulsiveness, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem.
Will we, the more fortunate, act to resolve this situation?
In a recent exercise (2024) with thirty-odd children in Laventille, it was discovered that they had experienced a higher level of bullying and being bullied (33%) than was reported (25%) in a UWI academic paper (Abdirahman et al, 2012).
In that UWI study, nearly 25% of students reported sadness and hopelessness, more than 10% reported loneliness and anxiety, and more than 15% reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year.
Can we appreciate that bullying has dangerous implications for our society? The loneliness, anxiety and suicidal ideation can burst into anti-social activity. Remember the reports of young men buying coffins in preparation for their burials?
The flip side of bullying, powerlessness behaviour, is also present. Developmental delays in young boys are also being witnessed.
A 2016 Cornell longitudinal study involving poverty and child health demonstrated that children who grew up in poverty were more likely to have decreased short-term spatial memory than children from middle-income backgrounds.
These researchers confirmed that such children were also at higher risk of experiencing chronic stress, which could continue to affect them through adulthood.
Locally, we also see the fear of failure and the reluctance to attempt tasks such as reading or writing. If these children cannot read, they face a lifetime of hardship.
In July 2013, Paula Lucie-Smith, the founder of the Adult Literacy Tutors Association and Archbishop Clyde Harvey, who at the time worked in the East Port of Spain area, had these comments:
“Reading is very complex. Researchers do not know how the brain reads. Moreover, reading is not a natural skill, not something that we pick up just by hearing others read.
“Learning to read, for example, is different from learning to talk. The young child looks and listens to others talking and begins to talk herself. Not so with reading. Reading and writing do not develop naturally—they must be taught and learnt.
“Those of us who have worked with youth at risk have been struck by the high percentage who have very poor reading skills. Many of our teenage boys are reading at levels half their age.
“Many of our gang leaders have reading disabilities which were not recognised at school, left them at the back of the class and then saw them compensating through their other natural abilities of leadership.” (my emphasis.)
We either face the present reality of these children and increase the resources provided or face their mounting rage, which will be passed down to succeeding generations.
Nelson Mandela told us: “History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children.” New York City, 9 May 2002.