Category: blog Created on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00 Written by Michael Edwards, EMX Group
On a stiflingly humid Sunday afternoon, and in the aftermath of the big Bob Marley Tribute concert, there's very little about the First Street neighbourhood that speaks life. The streets are empty save for a few "wall hangers" (youth perched atop concrete walls) and stray animals searching in vain for a morsel.
But passing through the gates of the Trench Town Reading Centre, one begins to get a distinctly different impression. Though there are no children cramming the spaces and running around on this day (the odd youngster ambles by out of curiosity), there is the inescapable sensation of energy. As Jamaicans would say "tingz a gwaan!"" ("something is happening!").
Big things, with a lot of little people. Sixty or more on a daily basis during school time, and even greater numbers during the Centre's Summer Programme. Adults come too, some driven by the progress their kids have made, others just out of sheer curiosity. What greets them in the room that formerly served as Rehearsal Room for Bob and the Wailers (smaller than most executive office suites) is an amazing plethora of books covering just about every branch of human knowledge. There are the "usual" range of kids' book, big, encyclopaedic tomes with vivid colour photos and illustrations from book giants like Scholastic and Doring-Kindersley, and there are more personally resonant titles, like books about Marcus Garvey, a book centred on civil rights leader Martin Luther King as a boy and children's titles by Jamaican authors. for older or more inquiring minds, there are biographies of musical and other greats (including Marley of course), as well as various written discourses on health, religion, politics, and other topics.
But, as Founder Roslyn Ellison explains, books and reading are just a part of the Centre's objective. "Number one is, we want the children, no matter their age or their situation, to feel valued' she says. "they're in a system that really doesn't make them feel valued, and so their own identities, and their self-expression is oftentimes stunted, and muted. In pursuit of this mission, the children are often encouraged to write, paint and create art (graphics, craft and otherwise) in relation to the stories they read and the information they pick up. Their handiwork is immediately visible throughout the main room and even outside - posters, cue sheets, "garbage pizzas", and other cretions provide strong evidence of what is possible when the aforesaid value is emphasized.
Ellison, a Canadian who has worked in a number of seemingly disparate fields (including logging) but has long had a passion for social work, was "left stranded" by a friend in the very area of First Street where the Centre stands. Instead of beating a retreat, she struck up conversations with the elders and "community leaders" of the time. "We were talking about the severity of the community's problems, and I said to the don at the time, just give me a room with a sink and an older person with an interest in books." The request was granted, and Ellison kicked in with five boxes of books. That was 1992.
Forward two decades, and the Trench Town Reading Centre is a few rooms and many books bigger (not to mention a still dusty playfield right outside). But it s a very delicate balance. Expectably, the main challenge is funding; save for sporadic donations from political reps, corporate Jamaica (Scotiabank was one of the recent instrumental donors) and concerned individuals, the burden for staffing, upkeep and general operations still falls on the shoulders of Ellison, who divides her time between Jamaica and Canada in pursuit of support.
Beyond that, there is the character of the entity itself. Trench Town Reading Centre occupies a kind of "institutional no-man's land" between the formal school system on one hand (where rote learning is still significantly the norm and self-motivated enquiry is not encouraged) and, on the other the traditional library, with its "be quiet" rubric. There is also, still some parental resistance, though that is decreasing as the Centre stands the test of time and marches toward becoming generational. Initial "student" Tamike 'Sweets' Walsh now works there, alongside her mother, and others who came in as kids have or are matriculating successfully through high school and beyond.
So, for Ellison, these successes provide some mental buoyancy in the face of a US$20,000+ annual budget. she presses on, summing up her crusade thusly. "What we're about is giving children the access to real, relevant history and to provide them with skills through knowledge, cause we believe that knowledge is power."
And that, in the sun-kissed, near-eerie calm after the Bob Marley hoopla is what the "Gong" himself - and every other right-thinking person - would really want to see.
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