Post 222.

Neither Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland nor modern day zombie flicks come close to the creatures that leap out from fantasy and hell as they take over bodies, turn ordinary neighbours into mythical forms and gorge on human life to reincarnate year after year, on sticks, in paint, within wire, emerging from embryonic, easily unnoticed rooms, defying us to acknowledge what we usually fail to see.

Moms morph into deformed folk like Erzulie the La Diablesse, with her cloven hoof, horns and complex sweeping spirit. Old men turn bat or Jab, like Carnival has full moon power, casting an overpowering spell, despite people’s poverty or pain. Young bredren oil down, revealing true selves in Devil blue and black skins, daubing each other with love, despite familiarity with anger.

In this magical place, even a bookish sort of child need only glance around to gather and store imaginative resources, meanwhile learning to be patient, to look carefully, to draw value from what others dismiss. While for most, traditional mas seems repetitious or cliché, I’ve found characters within traditional mas communities provoke a greater sense of humanity, deeper connection to land, and humbling appreciation for the beauty that people insist on making from their experiences of negation and oppression, near starvation and intimacy with horror. It’s these netherworld creations twisting through her home place that I want Ziya to learn to notice.

For little ones like her, Tuesday night’s Kings and Queens competition required sitting through many crossings of the stage that didn’t seize her sense of the truly inventive, but more importantly, there were those that did. I took her to see Peter Minshall’s King, ‘The Dying Swan – Ras Nijinsky in Drag as Pavlova’, for her to see how the stick legs of moko jumbies, instead of being hidden, might be seductively sculpted, as if on tip toe, and held in ballet shoes. Jha-Whan Thomas danced like a steelpan that plays classical scores in ways their composers never saw coming, in a way I understand as uniquely ‘Made in Trinidad and Tobago’. There is all this for her to know.

Such possibility is always present.  I wanted Zi to observe how vision means seeing the taken for granted anew. And, there are visionaries to learn from right here, making orchestras of whipped rope made from plant leaves, overturning devils’ horns to point at onlookers, perfecting thirty-foot-high mas that really does dance.

With Carnival upon us, with attention on bikinis and beads, and hot bodies, iced rum and deafening soca, my gaze as anthropologist, educator and mother is on the best of traditional mas, including the gigantic sculptures that embody their makers’ highest aspirations. Contemporary and breathing, these all provide lessons in art, design, family, memory and history, making Carnival a museum without walls, where artifacts handed down over generations are chipping down the road, stepping like sailors or rhyming like robbers, rather than encased in glass or hanging lifeless and still.

This handing down is a reminder that, beyond the materials assembled, Carnival makes people, who we often overlook, visible. And that is one of its truths. It matters that, this year, young Lionel Jagessar Junior and his partner Kareena Badall, both made it to the finals, as another generation making multiple crossings, not just on stage, for a band that has brought Indian mas to San Fernando for more than 35 years. It matters that a generation that comes after Zi might therefore still have access to their mas camps as an alternate space, if only under a shed, for education, stories, creating characters and representing moments in history, which no one has to fly out to reach.

All I can say for certainty is that, in this place that makes wonderland from damnation, as Ziya develops a sense of dreaming for herself, from Carnival dragons to rainforest guardians, her earliest inspirations won’t only come from mere books on a shelf.

Post 221.

The failure rate in my most effective first year course was the highest in ten years. There’s something going on in our education system, before students get to UWI, which has led them to check out of an investment in their own learning. I don’t think this deterioration is slowing down.

In 2006, students were assigned four readings per week, and mostly completed them in time for class. By this year, we were down to two readings per week, and even then, by mid-semester, the majority had stopped reading both or even one in entirety.

The course explicitly includes multiple learning opportunities, levels and styles. It asks students to do their own internet research and to present what they have learned about concepts and definitions to their peers to compare what I teach with their own findings. Assignments also require students to read newspapers or scan on-line media, and to present gendered analyses of its content based on articles or images they choose. These are also presented as a basis for peer learning, and tutors both facilitate discussion and provide feedback.

In addition to encouraging self-directed on-line research, analysis of media and peer-teaching, the course also provides students with an opportunity to undertake original historical research using sources in their midst. We teach them how to logically organize a short essay, define and apply key concepts, conduct an interview, and analyze their data. And, the end of term project is a group assignment that requires them to engage others on the campus in well-researched, creative and interactive ways in order to raise awareness about an issue of their choice. For six weeks, we lead students through the process of putting together this final project which is especially good for those who are better at discussion than essay writing.

Over the years, we have provided more and more detailed guidance. This year, I gave the students as close an approximation to the exam questions as ethical, along with rubric that identified how each question should be answered, and the list of three readings that provided core parts of the answer. There were four compulsory questions and no surprises or tricks. A depressing number of students failed, not just 19 out of 40 fail, but with marks ranging from 4 to 14 out of 40. We reviewed these exams three times and were unable to salvage any extra marks on students’ behalf.

I know this is a trend. Many other lecturers, and possibly also secondary school teachers and parents, will attest to this. In my own experience in university twenty years ago, I read books. In my second year Political Science class alone, I read Plato, Bentham, Rousseau, Mill and Marx. Whole books. There is no chance that could happen here today. Learning specialists suggest using more audio-visual materials and tech tools, but reading remains fundamental, and we see the limitations of students’ inability to deal with reading material when they enter both workplaces and graduate school.

Folks like Minister Imbert and others with more opinion than understanding resort to quick explanations for such failure, which often rely on blaming lecturers. Yet, we get students whose writing skills are far below the starting point we need, who read superficially, haphazardly or not at all, and who seem not too bothered about the idea of being responsible for your own education. Against uninformed stereotypes, many of us at UWI are passionate teachers who aim for that place that encourages students to question everything, to think about their contribution to our society, and to grow intellectually and professionally, rather than being a certification mill.

My course was designed specifically to connect classroom learning to the outside world and to make sure that learning is relevant, passionate, personal and collective. Yet, increasingly, that is hard to accomplish. My high expectations of students, that they will aim to be the best in the world, that they will read what we assign and perhaps more, seem less and less shared.

As I plan for a semester of teaching that begins next week, I hope to both understand this trend and be able to better address it in the mere twelve weeks of undergraduate life that lie ahead.

Post 220.

There are many reasons why people don’t understand what sexual harassment looks like. First is widespread confusion about the difference between seduction and coercion, the old ‘she’s saying no but she really likes it’ interpretation.

Second is that we live in a world where women’s consent to men’s sexual advances is less important than men’s freedom to make those advances when, where and how they choose. Women all over the world, en masse, can attest to repeated, unwanted sexual advances they have experienced, from strangers on the street to those they know. In the end, shame and responsibility isn’t shouldered by those who roughshod over the boundary of respect, but by many women who then check themselves in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.

Third, the workplace, like most of the public sphere remains a masculine one where women may be talked to and about in sexualized ways even when their work has nothing to do with their vagina. It’s dehumanizing, meaning it reduces humans, in this case women, to their sexual value. It’s unprofessional, meaning it trivializes their status and identity as workers while they are on the job. This happens across the Caribbean, from Jamaica to St. Vincent to Trinidad to Guyana, and it is especially true in traditionally masculine fields such as politics, sports and the military.

Once, I was leading a research team collecting data on election campaigning. One minister, who barely knew me, walked up from behind and slid his hand into mine as I stood on the street with party activists who were canvassing the constituency. ‘I missed you, where have you been?’ he declared loudly, rubbing my hand in both of his own. In that second, I had many decisions to make, in front of everyone watching to see how I’d react. I pulled my hand back and said, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ and discreetly stepped away, but I was blue vex that I was put in that position of having to refuse and be polite. I didn’t care that this Minister was a powerful player and I didn’t need to cater to his ego to get ahead, having already earned three more degrees than he had. I was there as an experienced professional to do a job, not as some sexy female groupie.

Chris Gayle’s attacking shot to sports journalist Mel McLaughlin provides a similar example of sexual harassment. Both Gayle and McLaughlin were at work, on the cricket field. She clearly didn’t expect or appreciate being publicly hit on, then told, ‘Don’t blush, baby’, in front of the entire cricketing world. ‘I’m not blushing’, she clarified; a professional had to remind another professional that she was actually a professional, and that they were having a professional – not after work jokes – encounter in full view of millions.

Indeed, one commentator described the moment as Chris Gayle taking ‘shots on and off the field’, like McLaughlin was inviting a hit mid-wicket. Another described him as ‘amorous’ while she ‘scurries off with bright red cheeks’, embarrassed. And the comments ended with the view that “Mel is a strong and independent woman and might have enjoyed it’, but that this wasn’t what was needed on the cricket field. Only she didn’t look as if she enjoyed it. Though McLaughlin was reported to have told her boss she was uncomfortable, Gayle felt it was his right to decide that ‘no harm was done’. All this signals sexual harassment unrecognized.

Gayle was unapologetically apologetic, missing an opening to score as a regional icon by acknowledging his step out of crease. He lost an opportunity to send a message to Caribbean boys following his stardom that big men have a role in stopping sexual harassment, even as they come to understand it better, sometimes in difficult ways. He dropped the ball when he could have shown an example of ideal manhood as more than hyper-sexuality, as also self-reflection and responsibility. No surprise, this is a sportsman who posts, “If u don’t have a strip club at home, U ain’t a cricket ‘Player’”.

West Indians need to recognize sexual harassment when it exists. And, Gayle needs to know that predation and professionalism don’t mix.

For some other commentaries see:

http://www.amilcarsanatan.com/letter-to-chris-gayle/

http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/commentary/20160106/editorial-churlish-chris-gayle-and-sexual-harassment#.Vo0MQ3GX9Cd.twitter

https://globalvoices.org/2016/01/07/could-cricketer-chris-gayles-gaffe-inspire-caribbean-men-to-man-up-and-know-how-to-behave/

 

 

View story at Medium.com

Post 219.

We are stewards of our nation.

Each morning, waking to a fresh opportunity to refuse a dark time for now or the future.  The alternative to boom and bust cycles may not feed our glittering fantasy of El Dorado, but it can fire hope amidst an oncoming bruising and battering for self-preservation.

The question of where to cut and to invest are ours, not the government or the Prime Minister, but we citizen’s own. We must look around our communities, at ourselves and with our representatives, and insist on our own budgetary priorities. For this reason, I appreciated the Prime Minister’s address, particularly the presentation of numbers and his direct challenge to the business community to share profits. All of us have to find more ways to go local and spend wisely. In the last decade when even workers were only drinking Johnny Walker, we were clearly living beyond our means.

My first choice for investment is the environment and renewable energy. Our natural resources will sustain wealth for generations, even centuries. And, when it comes to our air, seas and rivers, we will not get a second chance. Trinidad is full of permaculture and environmental management specialists who can tell us how our environment produces food, community and profit. Planning should anticipate how cost saving, health and wealth generation could look in seven generations. For such sustainability, now is the time to invest.

Culture is also on my priority list. Not the millions won in a night by soca stars, but investment in the yards of pan and mas making. Over years of doctoral ethnographic research with mas camps, I came to understand the incredible way that they sustain traditions to land, language, life lessons, and making a living. Going for wide dispersion of available funds to create community around the families and schools of jab jab, or blue devil, moko jumbies or Indian mas can also help with tackling issues of boys and masculinities.

On the supply side, the governments’ plan to stimulate jobs through the construction sector, e.g. plumbers, masons and joiners, will disproportionately benefit men. This has social costs, and reproduces women’s economic dependence, and their clustering in low waged sectors. Such explicitly gendered effects have to be empirically understood if this is pursued, along with strategies to equalize access of qualified individuals of both sexes to a construction boom. The location of a Gender Division under the Office of the PM should provide exactly such cross-sectoral policy analysis and direction. Also keep in mind that while taxes, particularly on land, are necessary, sales tax always affects women more because of their greater responsibility for food provision and making groceries.

Beyond economic policy, the government’s primary focus should be on containing corruption through measured change in effective public service monitoring and evaluation, passage of whistleblower legislation, and successful prosecution of cases. Sheer waste and mismanagement of money account for billions bled from schools, hospitals and NGOs. Governments like to say that people don’t show up to town hall and regional corporation meetings, but people know the consultation process can also be both insult and joke. Still, even if it is only through a media that powerfully tackles fiscal scandals, we must insist on government for the people, which means suturing waste and corruption in 2016.

Wherever you are when the year begins, may you experience it with safety and joy, and carry a sense of togetherness in your heart in the days ahead. May we remain pensive, grateful and blessed, drawing on our best sources for long term sustainability. Let us be guided by ground up lessons on opportunities for our islands to navigate predicted rough seas.

“Who are the magnificent here? Not I with this torn shirt”, you may say. Even with scars upon our soul, wounds on our bodies, fury in our hands and scorn for ourselves, to quote Martin Carter, it is possible to turn to the world of tomorrow with strength. The sources of such strength are all around us to recognise.

My new-year tune is Nina Simone’s song, ‘Feeling Good’. There is a new dawn. There is always a new day. Tomorrow when you awake, look it up and press play.

 

Post 218.

I’m hoping that the partner of Ricardo Jerome, who is the mother of his child, and who was documented being savagely kicked and beaten in a public place, remains safe during the time of his court-allowed visits for Christmas and New Year’s Day.

I was astounded by magistrate Debbie-Ann Bassaw’s decision, wondering what allowing a batterer family time means. Does violence break the family contract or does fatherhood justify continued belonging regardless of how brutal the violence? Do mythic ideals of family, fatherhood, motherhood and Christmas trump hard realities of accountability and safety?

Can a boy child and his mother who have, in their own home, been witness to and victim of repeated brutal domination have a family Christmas defined by trust, care and love? What kind of love is so violent? And, what does such violence teach about family and love?

Anyone who has experienced family violence knows that it becomes normalized. It’s easy to learn to love those who are not nice to you, who are abusive to you, who neglect your rights and rightful feelings, and who love you in ways that hurt. It’s easy to become disassociated from your emotions, to forget how to differentiate your needs from others, and to lose familiarity with being in control of your life. Standing up for yourself comes with all kinds of self-blame, even if preventing such violence isn’t your responsibility.

Women stay for many reasons, none of which are ‘liking licks’, but rather compassion for their abusers, hope for change against all odds, deep self-devaluation, dependence and fear. Trauma isn’t lived in logical ways, and it takes great space and time away from those relationships to see a self that is possible outside of their rigid frame.

In deciding to send this woman-beater home, whose interest was being served? And, what was at stake in his partner saying yes or no, presumably in the moment, as she was called by police when the matter came up, wasn’t given sessions with a counselor first, and was made responsible, and therefore blamable, as woman and mother. This in the context of one daily newspaper even putting her status as ‘victim’ in quotes in its headline as if it’s a matter of debate. If not victim, then what?

Was there any psychological assessment done of batterer, partner and son to determine if this was the right protocol? Was that information available before the police called Jerome’s victim? Decades of data point to the difficulty women face in denying their abusers access to them, to the repetitive violence through which women stay before finally finding capacity to leave, and to women’s greater risk for their life when they really do break the pattern in which they are entrapped.

How could responsibility for that decision be placed on a woman who has not yet managed to powerfully refuse and permanently escape persistent abuse?

Here, the state should have honoured the protection order without question. You don’t send batterers back those they regularly beat up, and think that won’t add to a cycle of tolerance for relationships that leave bruises. The state should be the one to say no to violence with impunity, and that means refusing to allow abusers back into families without having to show real, sustained change. And, if family time is so cherished, safe spaces should be provided by state services for families to meet under supervision, over the course of counseling and not at home. It’s not in a child’s interest to see such trauma and torture overlooked by any of those concerned.

Do you remember being a boy or girl child and how much your heart trembled by hurts no one wanted to talk about, or wanted to excuse or pretend were over the next day? Do you remember what is like to carry such emotional confusion without resolution, and to be caught in your parents’ dysfunction, powerless to do anything to make it go away? Amidst these unresolved tensions, is such a family and home really safe?

Today, before Christmas, harms like this weigh on my heart. I wish true peace and love to all. May the New Year support and sustain us in the right start.

 

 

 

 

Post 217.

Contemporary celebrity-led, liberal feminism mass markets a super-feminine image to young women today. This brand of empowerment-on-stilettos shouts out independent ladies who make their own money and it promotes unapologetic sexiness as ultimate self-expression and woman power.
 
This ideal didn’t come from nowhere. In the last decades, as women began to enter the formal economy in droves, they encountered a backlash telling them they were stepping out of their pre-ordained, natural spaces, jobs and roles, and were acting like men or like they wanted to be men. Imagine the pressure to find ways to not be de-sexed, to not be considered the wrong kind of too-mannish woman, to access the validation of femininity as well as education and the economy. Women were, after all, still being brought up to identify with and desire all three.
 
They had to be better than boys at school and men at work to get to the top, but they also had to make sure they didn’t end up without a man, marriage and children, in case they failed to be ‘real’ women. In addition to leaving room for men to be men, desirability was the other key balance all women had to negotiate, or be labeled too masculine. Failure to be successful in this way came with myriad costs. The fashion industry stepped in to make sure that brains in no way made beauty obsolete.
 
This brief history explains how smart, qualified women all over can today be seen in offices in five-inch heels, unheard of thirty years ago. It explains how women came to see shoes and makeup as empowering, and why so much hard-earned money is cycled back into lipstick rather than owning land. Do as well as they could in the job market, women would be left feeling like the carpet if they were also not responsible enough to become ‘appropriately’ feminine, meaning as they are expected and are told.
 
Women get endless messages that being sexualized remains important and defines our worth. Scan months of Carnival photos, magazines that stare from racks, billboards and commercials. We produce a brilliant array of women’s mas, yet one newspaper’s Carnival Wednesday front page was a full-page photo of Amber Rose. You are invisible and undervalued if you are not sexy and beautiful. Even independent ladies hear this loud and clear.
 
Except Shannon Gomes. She’s among young women denied by such packaging. Intending to be beautiful without stilettos. Looking good and being empowered on her own terms, wherever she goes. Wanting to be seen and valued as a woman without Maybelline making her ‘you, only better’. What happens to her form of femininity in this terrain of empowered womanhood as stereotypically sexy?
 
Unsurprisingly, it becomes cast as failure, as disallowed, as inappropriate, as ‘man’. And, there are costs for such women. There was a cost for Shannon. Denied her womanhood. Denied her femininity. Denied self-determination regarding her body. Stigmatized for not obeying the fashion fix. Told that this is private property, you have no rights. Made to pay.
 
Imagine your daughter or sister being told that if she does not make herself desirable on the most patriarchal of terms, then she is not a woman at all. This is how sexism and homophobia police sexuality and gender.
 
For months I wanted to write this column, highlighting the risks of selling women’s empowerment within hyper-femininity, sexiness and beauty. These normalize and glamorize narrowed options for women to challenge power. They create hierarchies between women. Exclusions are borne by those who don’t conform. Aria Lounge’s petty tyranny isn’t just theory.
 
Young people are protesting there on Friday night, as they should, for sexist discrimination is worth shaming wherever it occurs. Support them with engagement rather than ridicule. Shannon’s experience is but another example of negations reproduced in media images, religious messages, workplace expectations and relationship negotiations. This is why feminists challenge the beauty myth, though its glamour appears innocent. This is why schooling and jobs don’t mean women are yet free. Women should not be forced to fit stereotypical femininity, and feminist bright lights should also highlight those who don’t live by such rules, and who more greatly face a reality of being denied and demeaned. #solidaritywithshannon

Post 216.

IMG_9987

Photo credit: Nadia Huggins

For last Sunday’s #POStoParis march, I suggested Ziya’s sign should say ‘Stop Climate Change’. After all, the march from Nelson Mandela Park and around the Savannah was in solidarity with hundreds of thousands gathered across almost 180 countries to convince world governments, particularly China, the US and India, to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. These are considered to be at the heart of global warming’s effects: bleaching and death of coral reefs, melting of Arctic icebergs, intensifying of both storms and droughts, and increases in asthma and other illnesses.

Zi went for something with effective keywords, but incomplete sentence structure: ‘Consequences of pollution for Trinidad and Tobago’. The propagandist in me blinked at her ambiguous messaging. The grammarian in me decided to let it go, she’s five. The mother in me noted that her teachers’ efforts to give lessons about consequences, usually in relation to keeping quiet or one’s desk clean, had traveled across her brain to map onto pollution, and indeed its consequences.

Negotiations are currently happening in Paris at what is officially called the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Simply put, widespread hope is that whatever role carbon, methane and man-made pollutants are playing in harming our earth will be reduced, with an eye to the delicate balance sustaining health and life on our planet.

Wherever you fall in the climate change debate – that it is man-made and happening, that it isn’t man-made and nothing definitive is happening – these are important moments for creating a public open to rethinking our approach to plastics and recycling, industrial emissions and waste, and protection of key areas for conservation.

Sunday’s march followed one organized last year by IAMovement, a new group led by visionary young people. Their nascent efforts follow a long tradition of environmentally conscious organizing in Trinidad and Tobago, usually by small groups of committed individuals making a larger difference than expected, whether in relation to reforestation of the Northern Range or protection of the Nariva Swamp. Larger than last year, this time only about four hundred people came together to show such ecological consciousness remains alive.

There were many children, but visibly missing were those from Trinidad and Tobago’s vulnerable classes, from Sea Lots and Beetham Gardens. Also missing were fishing communities from Caroni and Mayaro, as well as unions like the OWTU who haven’t yet asserted power, as workers, to reduce the ecological costs of their industries. So, one of the challenges for this still-small public is to continue to grow nationally.

Those that are poorest remain the worst affected by climate change, such as when food prices rise because of drought. Governments most take on these issues when masses march, for decisions are rarely made because they are right but because they matter to voters. The quality of our air, rivers, seas and ecosystems is perhaps our most truly unifying issue, for generations of children could suffer, despite schooling, neighbourhood, jobs or colour, because we were too busy feting or fighting to focus on our duty to future citizens.

Toward a Paris agreement, Trinidad and Tobago has developed a Carbon Reduction Strategy for power generation, transportation and industrial sectors. The strategy is meant to be consistent with a National Climate Change Policy. Its goal is to reduce emissions from these sectors by 15%, and transportation emissions by 30%, by 2030.

This is an underwhelming step in the right direction, based more on our ranking number 62 in the world if classified by national greenhouse gas emissions than the other, inconvenient truth that we are the second highest producer of emissions per person. Transport contributes less than ten percent of such pollution. So, how will we actually decouple emissions from economic growth in a petro-state?

Turns out, Zi’s keyword was dead on. What will be the consequences of the COP21 not reaching consensus on reduction of carbon emissions, alternatives to fossil fuels and protecting forests? Are there consequences for a government which fails to fulfill our own carbon reduction strategy? And, in the end, who will face the consequences of man-made climate shifts? See what is missing from Zi’s sentence. Then, see what answer fits.

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