WHEN Carol Palmer left the Ministry of Health to become permanent secretary in the Ministry of Justice, she was told by her colleagues in the health ministry that, “The cries for 'We want justice' are very strong, and we expect you to go and make a contribution to reduce the level of those cries.”
“And I am still at it,” she told All Woman when we dropped by her Constant Spring Road offices earlier this month.
“It's not as loud as I used to hear it back then, but it's still not where I think it needs to be,” she said.
Palmer always knew that she wanted to go into a field that would allow her to help people, but deliberately chose not to do medicine, as she did not want to be on call around the clock.
“I thought they would be calling me to attend to patients when I'm cooking my bananas and stuff for my family,” she laughed. “Family was important to me even then.”
After acquiring her GCEs at Merl Grove High School, she worked in the school's laboratory for a year, and then went on to study physical therapy at the Mona Rehabilitation Centre (Now Sir John Golding Rehabilitation Centre). After completing her studies, she went to work at the Kingston Public Hospital (KPH).
“Life at KPH was very interesting for me, I really loved working there,” she mused. “You saw things there that you didn't even learn about in the physical therapy programme, and you got to help people. I was now sure that I was doing what I wanted to do.”
But though she thoroughly enjoyed her job, working at the hospital was how Palmer got acquainted with the reality of violence in Jamaica.
“I never heard a gunshot until I went to work at KPH in 1980,” she recalled. “The morning of the (1980 general) election is riveted in my brain, when I saw a couple of nurses who lived in the same community going home and their uniforms were dirty. When I asked them what happened, they said they had spent the night on the floor of the ward because as they went around administering medication gunshots were being fired and they blew out the lights, so they had to be on the ground serving. That was my exposure to political violence.”
But as she matured and grew from these experiences, Palmer recognised that she had to do more. She yearned to help more than one person at a time. She then decided to study management at The University of the West Indies.
“After I did my management studies degree I was put in charge of physical therapy islandwide in the public service,” she recalled. “Then I was called to work in the Ministry of Health in 1995. I was also advised by my permanent secretary then to apply for the Hubert Humphrey Fellowship. I had a tug-o-war with myself for a while, because I would have had to leave my country and my family for 11 months.”
Palmer chuckled as she remembered being interviewed for the fellowship and being told to call back the following day to find out if she had been selected.
“But the next day I was at the ministry downtown on King Street and there was violence so I forgot everything about that. I got a call from the US embassy and they said it's funny how all the other candidates had called, and their primary selectee hadn't called.”
She completed her Humphrey Fellowship in 2000, and shared that the experience was very eye-opening for her, and made her appreciate her home country even more.
“The experience taught me to value a lot of the things we have in our country that we take for granted. We are a country that is less individualistic than a lot of these other societies,” she said.
In 2002 Palmer saw jobs for permanent secretaries advertised, and thought, 'What's there to lose?' She applied and got the job at the Ministry of Justice.
Though Palmer had training and years of experience in public sector management, she still had a lot to learn in her new role at the Ministry of Justice. She recalled not knowing a lot about the courts and the legal system, and having to become “self-taught” in some areas. She also credited her mentor for helping her to find her bearings.
“I had a mentor in Chief Justice Lensley Wolfe who was very available to me,” she smiled. “He helped me through those days when I had to take baby steps and learn what the justice system was about. He offered himself as an ear so that I could reach out to him if I had a concern.”
By this time she was a saved Christian, and Palmer remembered one of her Sabbath school students, about 10 years-old, whose father was shot dead.
“He said to me, 'Sister Palmer, I see them kill mi father enuh, and me ago kill them.' In a very real way, this was my personal introduction to victims of crime.”
In 2005 Palmer was asked to spearhead the National Task Force against Trafficking in Persons, which was a new task force being implemented by the Government in response to the human trafficking crisis that beleaguered the country.
“I wondered at first why I was the person chosen for this role, but I don't spend a lot of time asking too many questions because I do feel that the Lord gives me what He wants me to do. I just said yes, and I then launched off into finding out about human trafficking. I went about learning what I now had to lead, and had to pull Jamaica out of, and how we would go about getting it done. I took it as a very personal responsibility.”
Since her appointment, Palmer has become obsessed with the fight against trafficking, and confessed that she often forgets her personal tasks and errands because her mind is so preoccupied with championing the people's cause.
“It's not a Government fight, it's a national fight, and we have to change our value system. We have to parent our children because that's where it starts,” she said. “This crime succeeds where people are vulnerable, and you become vulnerable because you are not happy where you are. You want more. So it's a global fight to raise the bar.”
Using her own upbringing as an example, Palmer believes that although poverty is linked to crime, it is not the cause of it.
“It is not everywhere that you have poverty you have violence. I was born in humble circumstances. I was born in Grant's Pen and raised on White Hall Avenue,” she divulged. “I would not have said that I was born in humble circumstances until I was older, because I was happy. I was brought up to think about those around me. Trafficking is a crime that gets into your psyche. The way that I value my freedom and independence, and my disdain for slavery, is what drives me to assist to make this programme better. How can you in this day and age, for greed and want of money, be seeking to enslave someone else?”
As a mark of recognition for her exemplary leadership as a stakeholder for projects that have a wide-ranging national impact, Palmer was recently awarded the inaugural and prestigious Pinnacle Award by the Embassy of the United States of America.
She stood out among the nominees as she was selected by the Embassy's Stakeholder Appreciation and Recognition Awards Committee for her “unwavering commitment” to the 2018 Trafficking In Persons Awareness Tour. The tour was a collaborative endeavour with the embassy and the National Task Force Against Trafficking in Persons – NATFATIP.
The embassy noted that “through Mrs Palmer's sound leadership and inspiring vision, the team made exceptional impact, successfully achieving the key goal of building awareness among young people and community leaders across the island about the dangers of human trafficking”.
Said Palmer: “I'm very serious about what I do. I'm a perfectionist, which is not a good quality of a Christian, but I'm a stickler for getting things done. I'm very stern and I mean it. Whether I'm at work or at home, my business or the people's business, there is something that needs to get done.”
She thanks her mother for instilling such values in her, as she shared that she was not a perfect child, but her mother's methods of parenting were very effective. Her mother, she said, was a mother, father, aunt and uncle to her and her six sisters, and the lessons she taught are very deeply inculcated in all of them.
With such a great task at hand, Palmer looks to God and her family for strength to continue.
“I start my day with devotion every day,” she said. “I, by myself, have no wisdom. My husband (of 39 years) is very supportive. My children, who now are all adults, are also very supportive of me. They are very proud of me, and very proud of my commitment to what is right and fair.”
When she is not occupied with finding new ways to fight human trafficking, you might catch Palmer baking up a storm in the kitchen, especially around Christmastime. She also enjoys going for rides in the country.
“That's something that we've been doing ever since we were able to afford a car. We would just go somewhere in Jamaica and have family time,” she said.
“I think I am at the peak of my aspirations, as I look forward to retiring,” she smiled. “I did what I had to do for my family on a personal level. I have taught my children the values that I think they should have, and I have seen them being demonstrated in them. At the work level, the most recent of course is the reform agenda, and I am happy that the reforms are moving on. They are taking shape and we can count many achievements.”
She added that the fight against human trafficking continues, and urges everyone to get on board.
“I would love for corporate Jamaica to recognise that we all have a role, not just as individuals, but as organisations, in reducing the incidence of trafficking, and the likelihood and the vulnerability to trafficking on our shores. And so I would love everyone to join the fight.”