Beyond The Pine
“There but for the grace of God go I”.
For 37-year-old Kirk Humphrey, those words cement the path his life has taken over the years. And it isn’t just the journey, but the personal transformation that took place within him.
To see him now as the director of constituency empowerment responsible for setting up the Constituency Councils across Barbados is to see a man who rose above his environment, growing up in The Pine, to become a real-life success story.
There was no magic formula in Kirk’s life, though he does credit God’s design as playing a huge part. He was one of eight children raised by a single mother. By all accounts, his story should have a far different ending, one unfortunately that is in keeping with the statistical outlook for children raised in economically disadvantaged communities.
“The Pine has had a bad reputation for years,” he says. “I think in The Pine we have a serious problem with how to resolve conflicts. When someone does you something your response isn’t to talk it through.”
Though he fully admits that he was anything but focused, Kirk dubs himself as the typical Pine boy who had his share of arguments and fights and battles with peer pressure.
“I went to Wilkie Cumberbatch, which was a Pine School, but somehow I managed to get into St Michael’s,” he said. “It was there that I met Wendy Griffith, now Wendy Griffith-Watson. She was my English teacher from first to fifth form. I credit her with a lot. For some reason she took a liking to me. She would call to check on me. Then one day I got into trouble and she came to see me and we had a real heart to heart. It wasn’t like a teacher talking to a student; it was like a mother talking to a son. She told me had I had too much potential to be doing this and that my environment doesn’t have to define me.”
Clearly something she said took root and Kirk tried to straighten up. Griffith-Watson helped him choose his classes, which tended him more towards the sciences and away from the crowds that he was used to hanging out with.
“I went on to do English at A Level and I know that was because of her. She will always have a place in my heart,” he said fondly. “I went on to Community College and there I found people who looked out for me too. There was something about my teachers and me. Trevor Marshall and Esther Phillips at BCC took me under their wings. I remember Esther Phillips taking me to church.
“I got my degree from Community College and went on to university where I studied management.”
Despite his desire to achieve great things educationally, Kirk said it sometimes felt as though there was this battle within, especially when he returned to his community.
“Throughout that whole episode I felt schizophrenic, because I had this school life with different friends and different ways of relating and in my community it was the same thing,” he said.
One such friend that Kirk had was Anthony “Tone”Coward from The Pine who was killed.
“I knew Tone and his gangster ways but I remember he told me one day that he couldn’t wait to see me get out of this struggle and finish university,” Kirk said. “I couldn’t believe he said it. I know what I represented to other people.”
Perhaps it was that sentiment and the meaning behind it that gave him the courage to continue on to university even when he couldn’t afford it and thought of dropping out.
“My university life was really hard because I didn’t have any money and I didn’t want to take out any loans to be in debt,” he said. “When I went to university in 1993, my mum had lost her job as a conductress. My mother is one of those phenomenal women. I can’t remember ever being hungry a single day in my life.
“Some days I didn’t have money for bus fare and I would walk from The Pine to the [Samuel Jackman Prescod] Polytechnic. Some days I would go there and wait for someone I know to pass on their way to UWI so I could get a ride. Sometimes I would pretend to be waiting for the bus, but I’d really be hoping someone would pass.
“One morning I thought of quitting when no one passed and I had an important class and I walked back home with tears in my eyes. Even though I felt like quitting, I knew I wanted something better for myself. I’m one of those persons if I start something I want to see it through. I also had friends at UWI who would help me out. I just had to get to school.”
Being true to himself, Kirk finished UWI and went on to work at the VAT office. He left there to pursue his master’s.
“I went to the London School of Economics to do my master’s and got a National Development Scholarship,” he said. “I felt more passionate about doing the community work and did a master’s in social policy. It was because I came from The Pine that I studied social policy. When I came back to Barbados, I got a job as administration manager at the Child Care Board. All the while I was lecturing and tutoring at UWI. In 2008 I became director of constituency empowerment. The public service has been very good to me.”
It’s ironic that the boy who grew up in The Pine is now reaching out to help change the very community that he fought his way out of.
“I’m responsible for setting up constituency councils across Barbados, trying to get them functioning and breathe new life into these communities,” he said.
“The Constituency Council is perfect for me – to go back into the community and reverse the negative. There has to be a reason why people in those communities who are tremendously bright just haven’t gone on to make the most of that potential.”
From growing up in The Pine, Kirk knows that his story could have had a much different ending.
“While a housing area presents a housing solution, it presents a large amount of social problems,” Kirk says.
“That whole structure is conducive to deviance. That’s why when I look back on my mother’s journey, with eight children, I’m in complete awe of her.”