Words by Zebi Williams
LargeUp is greatly inspired by the work Zebi Williams has done as the head of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp. Launched eight years ago when she was just 19, the volunteer-run camp has become an exemplar for youth development, promoting arts and entrepreneurship within a small, coffee-farming community in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, and inspiring similar programs elsewhere. Having worked closely with Zebi the last few years, we wanted to give her a regular voice on LargeUp. Raggamuffin Reasonings will be her way to keep LargeUp readers updated on this unique program, and also to inspire similar ideas into action.
They say there are more Jamaicans living outside of the country than there are actually on the island. The Diaspora is massive. Many of those who leave Jamaica end up in places like New York City and London, contributing their education, energy and assets to building up these cities, while Western Unioning funds to their families. Some secretly (or not so secretly) wish to save up enough money so they can eventually move back home, some have grown tired of the violence and vow that they will never return home, and some have no more family left in Jamaica to return home to.
So a big question that many islands across the Caribbean are asking, is: “How do we engage our Caribbean Diaspora? How do we get more of the Diaspora to invest in the development of our nations?” We are, after all, our greatest asset!
Growing up, I had the luxury to live between two worlds. I would spend half my year in Denver, Colorado, and half in Kingston, Jamaica, until I reached high school age and life became much more stable. With this “stability,” I found myself spending less and less time in the mountains of Jamaica around my cousins and elders. I would receive occasional news that this person got married or that person had a child, but the distance between our worlds slowly grew.
When I was 19, I was extremely home sick and decided I wanted to go back home and do volunteer work in Jamaica. This turned out to be a harder task than I had imagined, as most organizations were too busy and overwhelmed to even offer a reply to my emails. Thankfully, my mom saw my frustration and said, “Well why don’t you just go down and do your own thing?”
Eight years later, that one volunteer action has blossomed into a growing organization called The Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp, which is now the longest-running summer camp in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. We have created a special niche working with a generation of coffee-farming children, providing mentorship, arts enrichment education, access to technology and entrepreneurship training. Our campers receive a well-rounded experience designed to help them take powerful ownership over their lives.
Through this work I have re-established my family connections, I know all the children and grandchildren, I know what schools they attend, who they want to be when they grow up, what their talents and fears are. I have truly re-connected with my community. Every week, I receive emails from children of the Diaspora, just like myself, who want to return home, connect and contribute to their country in a meaningful way. Some have never returned, some have visited the resorts or have flown in for funerals and then had to fly right back out.
The majority of our volunteers have one or more parents born in the Caribbean. They live in New York City, but come from islands such as Jamaica, Haiti, Antigua, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, St. Kitts, Barbados and more. Through their volunteer work with us they have gained a deeper understanding of their culture, they have built lasting friendships across borders, and many have begun to create real plans for moving back to the Caribbean to raise their families and contribute to the development of these nations.
It’s my mission to inspire and encourage more children of the Diaspora to return home, connect with local communities and invest not only our money, but our expertise and energy. Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp was born in Jamaica, but with the motivation of our volunteers from various neighboring islands, it is likely that our work will continue to expand.
To actualize this vision we are:
1. In the process of creating a Pop-Up Camp How to Guide, so others can duplicate our model in their home towns.
2. We are partnering with other regional summer camps recently started by members of the Diaspora such as Art Saves Lives Foundation (St. Maarten) and Art Rules (Aruba, Curacao & Bonaire) so we can expand our reach collectively throughout the Caribbean.
3. We are building The Blue Mountain Art Institute here in Jamaica so we can engage more volunteers and create year round educational programming for our community.
If you would like to become more involved, help us mobilize resources or gain more information please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Each one of us has the ability to create powerful change—we don’t need to wait for permission or rely on huge philanthropic or government support. We are our greatest assets. I hope our work with Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp serves as an example of that.