GraceKennedy’s birthright programme helps diaspora students get back to their roots in Jamaica

Mara Clarke. (Photo Credit: Gina Ayanna)

By Desmond Brown

TORONTO – Summer is a special time of year for GraceKennedy Limited, as the company welcomes second and third generation students from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States for its Jamaican Birthright Programme.

The cultural immersion programme allows university students of Jamaican heritage to participate in an all-expenses paid month-long internship in Jamaica.

The internship allows the students the opportunity to work at a GraceKennedy subsidiary linked to their field of study, while learning about the land of their parents’ or grandparents’ birth.

Mara Clarke, one of the initial internship recipients, says it was an opportunity, given that she was in law school at the time, to look at the business side of Jamaica and where the island is leading.

“Getting this internship, I would count as one of the greatest accomplishments of my life to date,” Clarke, who was born in Canada to Jamaican parents, told Caribbean News Service (CNS).

“To be selected as a GraceKennedy Birthright intern, to me is a badge of honour.”

Clarke’s mother and father hail from St. Catherine and St. Mary respectively, and as a child, she had the opportunity to travel to Jamaica to visit her first cousins. But even so, she says she knew very little about Jamaica.

The internship changed all that. It was a lot more than she expected, Clarke says, noting that in addition to getting the work experience, interns were taken on lots of cultural excursions.

“I learned things about myself as a Jamaican that, honestly when I was little, I felt quite ashamed of. My father has a lot of children that are not my mother’s children and that complexity of my family caused me a lot of embarrassment when I was little,” Clarke says.

“We had the pleasure of attending lectures at [The] UWI and (the late) Professor Barry Chevannes and others did a series of lectures with us and talked about the family structure and the complexity of Jamaican families . . . I didn’t realize how much that had affected me until I got the understanding that the professors provided.

“Through that knowledge I released that shame and it was transformational for me,” Clarke added.

Mara Clarke with her husband and two kids. (Photo Credit: Gina Ayanna)

Another lecturer was with the interns when they visited Frenchman’s Cove.

They were practicing to read patois and talking about Jamaican dancehall music and culture in an academic context, Clarke recalls.

“I feel like the cultural competency that I gained from the programme has impacted me in such a meaningful way,” she says.

“I see that now as a lawyer. My practice is family law and every day with my clients, who predominantly are from the Caribbean, mostly Jamaica – I also deal with a lot of people from the African continent – I now understand their culture because of my Jamaican Birthright experience.”

Anthony Morgan had not been to Jamaica prior to the internship.

His father was born in Christiana, Manchester and migrated to Canada in the early 1970s at the age of 12. His mother was born in the UK to Jamaican parents.

Morgan says it was while attending a conference in Windsor, Ont., that he met Mara Clarke who told him about the Jamaican Birthright Programme.

“I was standing outside the door of one of the conference rooms and she just turned to me and said ‘hey, are you Jamaican?’ I said yes, I am and she said ‘well there’s this amazing internship, you need to apply,’” Morgan says.

Anthony Morgan. Photo Credit – CJ Cromwell.

Like Clarke, Morgan interned at GraceKennedy’s corporate office.

“The staff were incredibly supportive, warm, and welcoming. I had the amazing experience of literally being steps away from Douglas Orane, who was then the head of the entire company,” Morgan told CNS.

“Every now and then he would just strike up conversations with me about my ambition, what I want to do and his vision for the Birthright Programme

“I also happened to be in Jamaica during the summer of an election year and he helped to explain and talk about the, sometimes, uncomfortable realities of the politics of the country. It was really immersive and life-changing for me,” Morgan says.

He says his group participated in many cultural and heritage tours, including spending a night with a family “in the hills,” just so they could have that part of the Jamaican experience.

“It was a family of very modest means. They didn’t have very much but they took us in for a night so we could see what it was like to be out in the hills without the access to roads and convenience stores,” Morgan says.

“We also attended Reggae Sumfest one of the weekends, which was great. I went to Christiana, [Manchester] to see where my dad was born and raised. It was a real life-changing and self-affirming experience. This internship is about becoming more deeply grounded in your history, your roots, your culture and be proud of that, and not see that as a barrier to your success but actually a propeller to your success.”

Application Deadline: Dec. 15, 2019

Like Morgan, Clarke says she’s thankful to GraceKennedy for providing her with the opportunity, noting that she was grateful for every single experience.

“There were things I wasn’t used to, like wearing stockings in the hot, hot Jamaican sun every day, but everybody did it, so I adopted,” Clarke told CNS.

The internship also helped her to recognize that “countries like Jamaica, what Canada would consider third world countries, they’re actually leading in some areas of corporate social responsibility. It’s ingrained in the fabric of the community.

“It was amazing, and I loved it. In a day when everything financially needs to be justified to your stakeholders, investing in a programme like this I know often is not an easy sell, but it is a worthy endeavor. The candidates that they selected, who are now GraceKennedy Birthright Ambassadors, are proud to carry that name and continue to contribute to Jamaica in any way we can,” Clarke says.

GraceKennedy Limited is currently accepting applications for the 2020 programme and second and third generation Jamaican students have until Dec. 15 to apply.

Four interns – two from the USA, one from the UK and one from Canada – will be chosen to participate in the programme to run from July 1 through Aug. 7, 2020.

Interested applicants must be between the ages of 18 and 25 years; second or third generation Jamaican; pursuing either an undergraduate or post-graduate degree; and have a Grade B average or higher. Additionally, they must not have lived in Jamaica for more than six months and are eager to learn more about their Jamaican heritage.

The 2019 Jamaican Birthright interns were Callum McCarthy, a recent graduate of University of Cambridge in the UK; Kayla Jessup, a fourth-year student at The University of Chicago in the USA; Tarik Graham, a second-year student at Harvard University in the USA; and Sapphira Thompson-Bled, a recent graduate of University of Ottawa in Canada.

“The 2019 programme was very successful and the interns had a well-rounded and fulfilling experience,” says Executive Director of the GraceKennedy Foundation, Caroline Mahfood, who oversees the programme.

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