We live on a tiny island where we cannot afford to be spectators, psychologist Sheena Walker told the Rotary Club of St. Thomas Sunrise on Tuesday morning. Walker, one of a series of speakers the club has invited to speak in its Practice Peace Initiative, was discussing psychological perspectives of violence.
Peace and conflict resolution is one of Rotary International’s six areas of focus and will be the core focus for Rotary Sunrise during its 2013-14 Rotary year.
Walker, a petite woman with a big message, discussed the roots of violence, which she said in many cases, begins at home. Youngsters brought up with indifference, abuse and neglect will carry attitudes with them which may become manifest in violent behavior, should it not be dealt with before adulthood, she said.
Walker dispelled a couple of myths. One, she said, is that we are a "melting pot" community. Walker said the Virgin Islands community, along with many other cultures and locations, was founded on slavery and corruption and it still influences our nature. "There is not enough open dialog between communities," she said.
Calling it "moral exclusion," Walker described "the inevitable process of a dominant group, excluding others – ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ the strangers outside our scope of justice. This," she said, "is the very myth of the melting pot."
The other, she said, is that the vast majority of people with mental illness are violent, which causes widespread stigma and discrimination. They are not, she said. Responding to this stigma, she pointed out, the mentally ill can become so embarrassed that they internalize and conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment.
Speaking of the nature of violence, Walker said direct violence is committed by identifiable people on specific victims, whereas structural violence is insidious, brought about by poverty, unemployment, poor health care, schooling and racial profiling.
"Poverty," she said, "is a weapon of mass destruction."
Referring to her experiences working in a youth program at Sea View Nursing home, Walker said folks would ask her how she dealt with some of the big guys in the program, considering her size. She was nonplused by the question.
"I listened to them," she said. "I imagined how it would feel to walk in their shoes. I made eye contact. And they talked to me. These young people needed somebody to listen to them. So far, I have never had an untoward incident," she said, knocking on wood.
Walker knows whereof she speaks. She received her doctorate in counseling psychology from Tennessee State University. She has worked in a variety of settings including prison systems, inpatient programs and hospitals. Since relocating to the territory in 2008, she has served as a psychologist for Schneider Regional Medical Center, a consultant for the Department of Health and a therapist in the Seaview Adolescent program. Walker is now in private practice at the Synergy Fitness and Wellness Center in Red Hook.
She said violence can be addressed successfully. And, as the saying goes, it takes a village.
Walker said it takes all of us every day. We must be aware of our neighbors, our fellows. Be alert to symptoms of moral exclusion. Gentleness, she said, is key.
It starts small – listening when people speak, paying attention, perhaps just not leaning on the horn when the driver ahead of you doesn’t move fast enough at a stop light.
She said it’s up to the community to be aware of one another, especially the youngsters. We must teach our children to behave with kindness and responsibility. We have to be role models. "Be frank, honest about what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not," she said.
Rotary Sunrise President Shaun A. Pennington sees the local Rotary community as the group to best bring Rotary’s influence and resources to bear in beginning to turn the tide of the serious violence in the community. Pennington said she believes that the effort can result in a 75 percent reduction of violence in the community in 10 years.
For more information on these speakers or how you can support this community effort, contact Pennington at 340-777-8144.