SOME TIME AWAY IN 2003 was exactly what Kenneth Wilson needed to figure out his next move. A longtime activist and organizer in the August Town community on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica, Wilson was feeling isolated in his efforts to address the gang violence that routinely brought “misery and mayhem” to his hometown.
“I was like John the Baptist, the lone voice speaking about peace,” Wilson recalls. “People were cowering. People were afraid of the violence.”
At the Summer Peacebuilding Institute that year, able to reflect from a distance on these challenges, he began drafting plans for a new organization composed of leaders in each of August Town’s five districts. Wilson, who had also attended SPI in 2000, 2001 and 2002, envisioned a group that could both identify emerging conflicts and then work together to resolve them.
While still at SPI, Wilson compiled a list of specific residents to recruit to the effort, and immediately upon returning, began working to make the August Town Peace Builders a reality. Over the 15 years since, the group has been able to repeatedly defuse local conflicts before they spin out of control, working with a variety of partners including the police, churches and other organizations.
“We meet, we plan, we engage. Once we hear of an incident, we meet and we plan and we intervene,” Wilson says. “I know that [we] have saved many lives in August Town, each time a conflict threatens to explode and we are able to neutralize it.”
As a result, August Town Peace Builders’ stature and reputation within the community has grown, propelled by Wilson’s frequent interviews with local media. It still came as a shock, however, when he received a phone call earlier this year letting him know that he’d been chosen to receive the Jamaican Prime Minister’s Medal of Appreciation for Contribution to Nation Building. Wilson accepted the award from Prime Minister Andrew Holness at a ceremony on April 25.
“It was really a defining moment for me personally,” Wilson says.
There have, of course, been setbacks along the way, including a recent outbreak of violence in August Town despite the group’s best efforts. And there have been constant sacrifices required of Wilson and his colleagues, such as putting personal lives on hold to prioritize community needs. Buoyed by the recent honor, however, Wilson hopes his fellow peacebuilders around the world find the strength to continue their work.
“Persons who are a part of this field are a special kind of human being,” he says. “We care about humanity. We want to live in peace, in harmony. We must never give up, because if we give up, it will be worse. I just want to encourage my colleagues in this work.”