Ruben smiles for the camera in front of a wall in his hometown, Canterbury, Jamaica

Ruben, Violence Interrupter

A former Jamaican gang member promotes peace

Ruben talks about the struggles he faced growing up in Canterbury, Jamaica

What does it take to transform a community?

Ruben Robinson works tirelessly every day to answer that question. 36 years old, he spends his time visiting schools, engaging with youth and developing programs to keep people safe and off the streets.

Sitting on the outskirts of Montego Bay, Jamaica, Canterbury is an ostracized neighborhood yearning to be included.

Stricken by poverty, residents find it difficult to secure jobs, often facing rejection just for being from the area. Alcohol and drug use is common, violence is an ongoing problem and instability is worsened due to gang rivalries.

The members of the Canterbury community want change--but change will require a lot of work.

A Troubled Past

Like many of his neighbors, Ruben Robinson grew up in poverty. His mother left when he was young and his father was neglectful and virtually absent.

Ruben cooks a meal for his daughter in his home
Ruben and an at-risk teen sit together in front of a post office to discuss ways to improve their community
Ruben listens as a member of his community gives him advice on how to improve their neighborhood

During his youth, Ruben was surrounded by gang violence and often got into trouble.

It began with stealing, then drugs, then gun use. Soon enough, Ruben was in a gang himself.

Ruben was on the wanted list three times.

Ruben helps his daughter with her school work

His perspective changed when he was put in jail.

While in prison, he was unable to see or speak to his daughter.

“I have a little daughter that is growing up, and I do not want to see her doing the same thing like what I do.”

He realized that he was not being the role model he wanted to be.

Ruben gets ready to share his story with people in his community

“I decided to change because I did not want to live that type of life, because that life is no life for a man to live.”

Interrupting violence

In 2013, Ruben joined an initiative supported by the Government of Jamaica, inspired by a Chicago model of community-based policing. With the help of the program, Ruben gained mediation skills and training to host community events that would get kids off the streets.

Ruben meets with community leaders in order to learn mediation strategies that will help keep kids away from gang life
A kid from a poor Canterbury, Jamaica neighborhood listens to Ruben speak at a community event
A group of children play a game of soccer

His impressive dedication to rebuilding his community is shown through the respect he has earned from his peers.

"Kids look up to me," he says. "Because first I was part of the problem, now I'm the solution."

Ruben talks to a group of children about creating a more inclusive and friendly community
Ruben and a group of local kids play a game of soccer

A world of difference

Ruben and others like him are making a world of difference. They know that the simplest common language, like a game of soccer between rival neighborhoods, can bring communities together.

Ruben talks to a kid about how to stay away from gangs and drugs

It is clear that real changes are being made.

Kids who used to get involved with drugs, alcohol and gangs at a young age are now engaged with their communities in a more positive way.

“I want to see a nice environment [with] no more guns, no more gang war… People living their lives free.”

A child looks up at a local mural
Ruben and a group of kids play a game of soccer
Ruben takes notes on his work for the day

One step at a time

It may seem like a daunting task to mitigate the violence that Canterbury faces on a daily basis. But people like Ruben understand that it is a choice they have to make.

Together, they are moving forward, one step at a time.

About this story

As a part of its Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, USAID is working with the Government of Jamaica to help turn high-risk communities into safer environments.

In cities like Canterbury, a community-based policing program inspired by a successful Chicago model is in effect and making neighborhoods stronger every day.

Violence interrupters like Ruben Robinson are the first line of defense in high-crime neighborhoods, trained to mediate conflicts and set an example for youth and their peers. They are chosen based on credibility and their reputation in the community.

Through collaboration with violence interrupters and social workers, USAID is fostering safer communities to end extreme poverty.

Photos and Video by Thomas Cristofoletti for USAID; Narrative by Aastha Uprety for USAID