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Giving Praise to Fr Gerry Pantin

By Selwyn Ryan

Fr Gerry Pantin, one of Trinidad’s most distinguished sons, was buried on Thursday last. Fr Pantin was a gentle priest who put his money and more importantly his energy and passion where it mattered most in the context of Trinidad and Tobago.

I felt that many who were below a certain age would know the Pantin name, but not enough about the quality contributions in the field of education for which he was responsible. I therefore felt I should use this space to give him the praise and recognition which he so richly deserves. I met Fr Pantin while researching a book which, when completed, was titled Behind the Bridge. The book, which was co-authored with other academic colleagues at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, was dedicated to Servol, Pantin’s monument. I also visited Servol on the Beetham while preparing a paper which I was invited to deliver in Ottawa, Canada.

I interviewed him on several occasions (I do not now remember how many) during which he shared with me some of the insights and experiences which he had garnered while walking Behind the Bridge.

Incidentally, he was said to be one of the few white men who could walk behind the Bridge without becoming a statistic, a trust which he had earned during the many years when he chose to walk the talk, and lived on the hill.

In my conversations with him, we talked about entrepreneurship and culture which were then my research preoccupations. How does one change a culture that derives from slavery, and where poverty was entrenched? What were the causes of poverty?

What were we going to do when the shouts of Black Power ceased to echo on the hills and across the plains? I came to appreciate more than I did before how difficult was the task which he set himself following the events of 1970, viz to stimulate a spirit of entrepreneurship among blacks.

As part of this preoccupation, Pantin established Fund Aid, which was the small business arm of Servol, to which large sums were borrowed to lend to small businesses. Fund Aid was Pantin’s vehicle to offer the enterprising poor, opportunities, and to show them a way out of poverty while encouraging self-sufficiency. Between 1973 and 1993, some $19 million were guaranteed to 7,287 clients. Many of the loans had to be written off. The thrust was a failure, but lessons were learnt.
One of the businesses, a bakery, yielded interesting stories which were meant to remind young would-be businessmen about some of the mistakes which he had made. As he reflected in his book, a Mole Cricket called Servol, “any attempt to introduce inexperienced disadvantaged young people into the world of business must take into account the sociological and interpersonal relationships of the people concerned. Although the above observation was made based on the bakery to a large extent, they held true for practically any business attempt in the area.”

What actually happened to the bakery was a story worth retelling. As he wrote, “The environment in which the new investors had to function was not conducive to good business practices. Their erstwhile liming partners looked on the bakery as a convenient corner and an ideal base to push marijuana. The bakery was often surrounded by boisterous youths who peddled their merchandise and played ball and passed remarks on customers. The result of this was that many prospective customers began to shun the bakery, and sales dropped.

The group formally told the limers to go elsewhere, which they did, but obviously this resulted in a definite coolness between the group and others.”

The point being made here was that in many black businesses, family and friends were one’s worst enemies.

Pantin was nevertheless aware that a lot of entrepreneurship was actually taking place, but of the wrong type.

“It is entrepreneurship where guns are being used, and we have to do something to stem that, or sooner or later something is going to explode.”

Fr Pantin however had many strings to his bow. While the Minister of National Security has declared that he is obsessive about using a mano dura, (hard hand), Pantin was an apostle of the holistic approach.

Servol’s mission statement was instructive. As it states, “Servol is an organisation of weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect yet hope-filled and committed people seeking to help weak, frail, ordinary, imperfect, hope drained people to become agents of attitudinal and social change in a journey which leads to total human development.”

Fr Pantin and Servol were totally committed to Laventille and still are.

They have taught thousands of unemployed youth in various trades, craft, technical and vocational callings, including auto mechanics and garment construction. What was novel about Servol’s Adolescent Development (ADC) Programme was that it included a 14-week human development programme which all youngsters had to take before commencing their technical training. The innovative ADC formula, which includes self-undestanding, self-awareness, is widely followed in the Caribbean and much further abroad. As Servol explains, “Youngsters develop hang-ups, prejudices and complexes and find themselves trapped in a cycle of violence. The ADC provides them with skills which they do not get at home or which they do not get enough of at home. The fact that the dropout rate at the various centres is low has much to do with the fact that the ADC is a prerequisite for entry to the programme.”

I have also heard it said by a former official of the Ministry of Education were it not for Servol’s input, the early education system could well collapse. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but it gives an idea as to how significant Servol’s contribution is to the system.

Fr Pantin was fittingly given the Trinity Cross, then the nation’s highest award.

He was also awarded an “alternative” Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, and an honorary degree from Duquesne University. There were numerous other awards and invitations to deliver feature addresses.

In reconstructing Laventille and our class-bound educational system which one hopes will happen one day, Fr Pantin’s seminal ideas in the field of early education ought not to be forgotten.
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