Dr. Olivene Burke is a social scientist who has been the Executive Director of the University of the West Indies Mona Social Service (MSS) organisation for the last decade. Dr Burke is responsible for executing the organisation’s vision of strengthening under-developed communities via a six-pillar social intervention model comprising education and training, health, sports, entrepreneurship, crime and violence reduction and peace. She is a leader in the university’s “gown meets town” initiative to make interventions in its communities.
Dr. Olivene Burke
MSS was established in 2008 and under Dr Burke’s leadership has transformed the lives and livelihoods of over 40,000 residents in sixteen Jamaican inner-city communities – including August Town in St Andrew and Salt
Spring in Montego Bay. These communities are among the most volatile in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Eight-five young people from six of the communities have received MSS’s UWI Township tertiary scholarship, and 33 have graduated thus far.
MSS’s interventions are at every level of the communities they serve: school, homes, recreation, and commerce. Through its activities, several basic and primary schools have been outfitted with refrigerators, stoves, proper ventilation and safety provisions, electrical system upgrades, and teacher training provisions. Students were provided with meals and laptop computers while kitchen gardens were initiated to provide means of self-sufficiency.
In addition to formal schooling, MSS also provides skills training to those older than school age in areas as diverse as construction, housekeeping, and database management for those who would not be caught in the formal school system. MSS also assists adults with a Small Business Lab Programme, which was established to provide opportunities for those not eligible for university.
The results have included the creation of service businesses like hairdressers, shoemakers, food service and jewellery shops in communities. MSS also understands the need for recreation and building social capital and a part of its interventions is dedicated to providing community spaces, like sporting facilities, which bring divided communities together. Especially in August Town, these facilities have been re-purposed to serve as educational facilities where lectures and other programmes are carried out.
MSS also encourages housing stock rehabilitation by encouraging UWI students to secure off-campus housing in the communities, thus beautifying communities and providing an income for home-owners. Among MSS’s greatest achievements is its collective contribution to the reduction of the murder rate in August Town to zero in 2016 (from a high of 11 in 2012). Researchers are now studying the intervention strategies to apply them to other communities in Jamaica and elsewhere.
Burke’s accomplishments are achieved through building diverse teams, fund-raising, and targeted interventions. Her initiatives are large scale and require considerable funding and personnel, and have led her to create partnerships with community and academic institutions. MSS has worked in conjunction with local institutions like the Lions’ Clubs of Mona and New Kingston, Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs of Kingston and St Andrew, and foreign universities including Universities of Costa Rica and Florida State. She is also an active academic who publishes and participates in academic conferences.