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Former Jamaican ‘Gangster’ Says Literacy May Be the Best Way to Fight Crime

“I wanted to become a badman. That was my dream.”

This story is part of an ongoing campaign called the Alphabet of Illiteracy. By using letters themselves—the foundation of reading and writing—Project Literacy examines the ways illiteracy underpins some of the greatest challenges facing the world today. Below, we explore the letter B for “bloodshed.”

Lurene Wright teaches a Jamaican Foundation for Life Long Learning class. Photo Courtesy of Rebekah Kebede

Growing up in Bob Marley’s Trench Town neighborhood, David Chang always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I wanted to become a badman. That was my dream,” Chang says.

And he did, although his career as a “badman” (Jamaican slang for “gangster”) was short-lived. At age 22, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a robbery gone wrong and spent eight years behind bars. And that’s when he learned an unexpected new skill: how to read.

Chang, 48, understands firsthand how illiteracy affects job prospects and creates frustrations. Twenty-two percent of Jamaican teens who were not literate and 11.4 percent of teens with only basic literacy levels reported behavioral problems. In comparison, only 5.5 percent of functionally literate teens reported behavioral problems, according to a 2007 USAID-funded study that looked at Jamaican teens ages 10 to 15.

In some cases, these behavioral problems and growing frustrations can bring people to a breaking point, where they lash out in violence. “When you can’t read, you can’t get a good job to take care of yourself, so you have to go out and thieve, or get involved in some lotto scam, or do something to earn money,” Chang says, referring to the lottery scam rings that have been blamed for fueling gun violence on the island.

Jamaica also has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Last year this small island of 2.7 million people had about 1,200 homicides (or 45 per 100,000 people). That’s more than two and a half times the homicide rate in Chicago, a city of comparable population size.

Although the causal link between violence and illiteracy is difficult to establish because they often coexist with other factors such as poverty, experts in the field believe that they are closely related.

“Illiteracy is not the only variable, and correlation does not mean causation, but they are inextricably linked,” says Janet Allen, special projects manager at the Jamaican Foundation for Lifelong Learning, an organization that provides literacy and high school equivalency programs. Allen ran the classes that Chang attended while in prison and after getting out.

In Jamaica, about 20 percent of adults are functionally illiterate, meaning that they read and write below a grade six level, with about half of those being completely illiterate. And a third of Jamaicans ages 15 to 24 are neither in school nor working, according to the Statistical Institute of Jamaica. A small portion of these “unattached” youth tend to join the gangs that contribute to the country’s high levels of gun violence. They’re often high school dropouts who are “functionally illiterate, with limited ability to reason—and turn readily to gun violence,” according to a 2012 paper by Elizabeth Ward, the chair of Jamaica’s Violence Prevention Alliance.

JFLL focuses on reaching out to those high school dropouts, as well as other adults, through its 36 learning and outreach centers across Jamaica, with more than 6,000 people enrolled. The JFLL is funded by the government but depends heavily on partnerships with the nonprofit and private sectors for materials and space. Many of the centers are located in schools, churches, and community or private-sector spaces.

Lurene Wright, a 27-year veteran of JFLL and the program's manager in the Kingston metro area, has seen her fair share of former gang members and ex-convicts come through her classroom.

“Some will tell you outright, ‘I used to run my community’ ... These are men who don’t take no talk from nobody,” she says, adding that for years she had a collection of knives, ice picks, cutlasses, and other weapons that she had confiscated from students and held until she was able to hand them over to a police officer.

Although the JFLL program teaches literacy, Wright and her colleagues say that their students from violent communities also learn to let go of their aggression in the classroom. They learn how to conform to a structure and how to discuss disagreements and come to a solution rather than fight it out.

The cyclical relationship between violence and illiteracy in Jamaica is not unique to the island country; it’s a global issue. In the United States, three out of five people in prison cannot read, and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have problems reading, according to the Literacy Project Foundation.

And while illiteracy can be a catalyst for violence, violence can also be a major deterrent to increasing literacy rates and other opportunities in communities.

“Violence does actually cause lack of opportunities,” said Luke Dowdney, founder of Fight for Peace, an international non-profit that tries to curb violence combining boxing and martial arts with personal development programs.

Dowdney started Fight for Peace in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the drug trade has led to paramilitaries roaming the streets and a lack of investment in the community. The impact of the violence follows the residents outside of the favela, where saying where they live in a job interview, for example, could mean lost opportunities.

Violence can be a barrier to literally learning how to read as well. Fifty-seven percent of students in Guatemala are afraid to attend school, and at least 23 percent of students have been victims of violence or know someone who has been attacked by local gangs when entering or leaving school, according to the humanitarian need assessment group ACAPS.

Only 79 percent of young people and 69 percent of adults are literate in countries affected by conflict, compared with 93 percent and 85 percent in other, non-conflict-affected countries, according to a 2011 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

JFLL deputy executive director Grace-Camille Munroe says their programs are often people’s last hope at learning to read in the face of poverty, violence, and a broken education system that produces high school attendees who can barely read.

“Our mantra is, ‘You will not fail again,’” she says.

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