Community pride starts with kids
I wasn’t even at my site when I first heard about Dartmouth Village, but people didn’t have many positive things to say.
Since arriving, I've heard many similar negative sentiments--“the kids are bad there” or “the people there are lazy” or “it’s a ghetto.” After a few weeks, these remarks began to seriously annoy me, as the only perceivable difference between Dartmouth and any other village on the Essequibo Coast is that Dartmouth's population is mostly Afro-Guyanese. The kids are good, the people welcoming and the village peaceful. I began to dismiss such comments and the people who made them.
During one visit, I casually asked some sixth grade students if they were excited to start school, and their response shook me.
“No, Sir! We not goin' there," one girl shouted with disgust.
All the kids lived in Westbury, mostly in Dartmouth, and yet even they didn’t have pride in their school, in their community. Worse yet, I overheard comments around the school about skin color. Some girls were jeered at for being “too dark.” It occurred to me that hearing a lie enough can make it true in the mind, especially for a child. Fortunately, this was when I met a University of Guyana professor named Charlene Wilkinson who was organizing a summer “Emancipation Camp” in the village.
Charlene’s idea was to hold a 10-day camp for the children of Dartmouth, where she had lived the last 10 months, to teach students about the community's proud history and accomplishments, and to make plans for the future. The University of Guyana had raised funds, I had my summer school class spread the word and the spacious community center (the old primary school) was opened to us.
More than 80 children attended every day, listening to lectures, doing crafts and playing games. The themes and morals were always centered on heritage and community pride. In addition, I was able to slip in some literacy lessons and basic sign language instruction (a few of the girls who attended are deaf).
Guest speakers educated the children about various topics. One covered the proud African empires, another professor from the university brought two dozen plants and showed the children the basic science behind gardening and a village local led an African-inspired dance class for few afternoons. Some information went over the younger children’s heads, but the theme of community pride was apparent to all. The culmination of the camp was an arts and crafts project where the students divided into teams and built models of the “Ideal Dartmouth Village” with all of the changes they’d like to take part in making.
There was a sense of pride on the parents' part when they got to attend an award ceremony for their children’s participation. Over a month later, I still see kids happily wearing their tie-dye shirts that we made during camp. Many students around the school approach and show me that they still can spell their names in sign language. Because of Charlene’s success, Dartmouth has weekly community meetings with aims on tangible improvements around the area.
Events like the camp are a step in the right direction: inspiring pride in the community and promoting success among youth. Emancipation Camp didn’t solve all of Dartmouth’s problems but it’s a step toward freeing the community’s children from an undeserved sense of shame. I’ll continue to teach words and letters during the school term, but I’m already looking forward to continuing the camp next year.