Raggamuffin Reasonings: Taking on Jamaica’s Brain Drain

April 28, 2015

Words by Zebi Williams
Photo by Ajani Clunie
Video by Nasan Fitz-Henley


Zebi Williams launched the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp nine years ago when she was just 19, and since then the volunteer-run camp has become an exemplar for youth development, promoting arts and entrepreneurship within a small, coffee-farming community in Jamaicaโ€™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 is her way to keep LargeUp readers updated on this unique program, and inspire similar ideas into action.ย 

Jamaica is experiencing the social phenomenon known as the โ€œThe Brain Drain Effect,โ€ whereby students and trained professionals travel outside of their communities in search of greater economic opportunities. The result of this migration pattern is that communities throughout Jamaica are losing their brightest leaders, and the government is losing out on the tax revenue that a more skilled workforce would produce for the country.

A few weeks ago, while New York City was covered in snow, a group of teens from the Bronx traveled down to Jamaica, in partnership with The International Youth Leadership Institute (IYLI) and our organization the Blue Mountain Art Institute (BMAI), to participate in our first international student exchange program. As our impact in Jamaica grows, we are looking at how to develop more leadership amongst young people. We’re getting deeper into the issues that are affecting our community, and we’re creating more programming to support the students in really understanding the effects of their environment โ€” economically, culturally, politically.

The students from NYC partnered with our students in the Blue Mountainsย to learn more about Jamaica and conduct research on the push and pull factors causing the brain drain. Over the course of a week, they conducted interviews with over 40 rural community residents in the coffee farming community of Settlement to see how migration patterns affect the fabric of the culture. They spoke with local youth about their desires to go to college and find employment. They also reasoned with the youth about their visions for their community, and asked what would happen if all of the most educated people left? Unfortunately, this isn’t just a question, but a reality across many rural towns in Jamaica.

The students from both the Bronx and Jamaica traveled together and visited historical sites, such as The Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley museums in Kingston. They met with the US consulate and interviewed him about US/Jamaica relations; toured a coffee processing facility; sat at the feet of the Cornel in Moore Town to hear stories about the history and current conditions of this legendary Maroon Village; visited Dub Club and saw King Jammys in action; and attended the Blue Mountain Music Festival, where they heard Freddie McGregor sing hits like โ€œBig Ship.โ€

In the end, they walked away with a better understanding of what it means to be a part of a global community and how inequalities in our societies affect us all. For the students in Jamaica, participation in this program allowed them to see sides of Jamaica they had never seen before. It also gave them the power to research solutions to economic issues that are directly impacting their lives.ย The Blue Mountain Institute is an expansion of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp (LRSC) which has been in operation for nine years. Each summer, we have been mobilizing a team of artists, educators, healers, and entrepreneurs on a voyage to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica to share skills, provide mentorship and connect with a dynamic group of children for the purpose of community building and empowerment.

With our expansion, we are building a permanent home where we can offer year-round opportunities to foster innovation, collaboration and economic growth in rural Jamaica. With a focus on education, BMAI will serve as a hub for cross-cultural exchange and development offering quality learning experiences and resources for both local residents and international volunteers. Given its remote location and ties to the local community, the new Institute will seek to address such issues as access to arts education and technology, adult literacy, environmental stewardship, holistic wellness and global citizenship, as well as youth unemployment and rural migration.

At the completion of this first exchange program, our students came up with some potential solutions for the brain drain impacting Jamaica, including increased investment in entrepreneurship development programs and taxation policies more similar to the US, where all Jamaican citizens regardless of residency pay taxes back to their home country. The youth feel this solution will help Jamaica to benefit from the lost human capital and gain revenue to reinvest in communities.

The students took personal ownership over the issue and co-created a #9LeadersCampaign in which they pledged to reinvest their talents and resources back into their community as they grow up. We will be sharing footage soon around the details of this emerging #9LeadersCampaign. Until then, watch the video below for a look at our exchange program and the Bronx teens’ experience in Jamaica.

To learn more about the Blue Mountain Art Institute,ย click here. Please contact us at Team@BlueMountainArtInstitute.org if you want to learn more about upcoming cultural exchange opportunities, or wish to bring your youth group to Jamaica.

Follow us on Twitter and Instagram, at @raggamuffincamp.