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Post 187.

Universities are special. So too are university students, often the young, poised to choose from between the old and new.

Because intellectual freedom as the basis for political engagement remains a core philosophy, students can claim campus space in a way much harder to negotiate when they are younger and in schools where rules, discipline and adult authority are more valued.

Here, students have greater freedom to decide what knowledge and power they want to exercise, to practice strategizing about everything from marches to teach-ins, and to publish their own newspapers, speak out through their own radio stations or manage a budget to finance their own social movements.

It was at university that I was first inspired by a global mix of young people who ran a radical campus women’s centre, gave radio waves to lesbian and gay performers’ poetry and music, and were astoundingly well informed about injustices against Palestinians, small farmers’ challenges to corporate control of agriculture or UN conventions on human rights.

Later, at UWI, I’d just decide to set up a tent in the quadrangle and facilitate workshops, for example on masculinities, media, or the global political economy. Gender studies undergrads were there with me then and later on when they led their own consciousness raising workshops and marches on campus, freely and without fear.

Over the past decade of my students’ engagement in creative advocacy, many have used chalk graffiti to write messages, raise questions and create game boards on UWI’s concrete walls and passageways, for where else would they be able to do that legitimately? They’d lie on the ground in enough numbers to represent women killed by their partners or shout out against patriarchal debasement of female bodies, without anybody ever writing to administration or police for permission. University life gives many a first, rare chance to safely practice a politics of public engagement.

Even with assignments and faculty to maneuver, nothing stops students from also pursuing an education in defending rights, justice and peace, and for cultivating leadership in ways that draw on universities’ long history of internationalism.

With such spirit in mind, from today, Thursday 9th April, UWI students and the public are invited to show their solidarity with Kenyan Garissa University students.

Exactly one week ago, from dawn, 148 students were killed by al-Shabab, a Somali militant group, which attacked their campus.

So, from 5.30am, we will have placed a small, simple memorial next to the North gate. The public and students are asked to stop for a few moments anytime over the next week to mourn, and to attach a pen to the fence as a symbol of solidarity

Pens are not just for defending cartoonists, but are a symbol of learning that crosses geographical, ethnic, gender and religious boundaries. Pens are a symbol of budding students’ self-expression and self-empowerment. Mightier than any sword, they allow personal articulation as well as universal representation of outrage. Pens symbolize a wish to prevent erasure.

We can’t but stop to remember a massacre of university students so like our own. We can’t but think about why states’ wars over power, borders and resources, and the inflammatory mix of religion, masculinity and militarism, must be challenged.

Universities exist amidst killings in the name of nation, wealth or God, and amidst pervasive violence that strikes the most vulnerable. Yet, it is not everyday that 148 university students are amongst the world’s fallen, starkly reminding us that injustice can include attacks on schools anywhere, threatening both justice and education everywhere.

Our losses and struggles are connected. Add your pen. Make our memorial and solidarity collective.

For more info see the FB event page: Memorial and Solidarity: For Kenyan Garissa University Students #147notjustanumber.

Post 186.

Though most days I don’t leave work until 6.30pm, my mid-week classes end even later and I don’t get home until Ziya is already asleep.

At that point, the best part of the day is finally having the chance to snuggle close to her, smell her eyebrows, neck and hair, and feel her reposition her warm, soft self all around me, with all the entitlement of familiarity.

In these moments, I wonder if the long hours are worth it, and what kind of sacrifices would be necessary to organize life otherwise.

Something would have to give, but what? Maybe my support to Caribbean feminisms, without which I’d feel empty of passion and meaning, or this diary, which provides crucial oxygen for creativity, or the greater sanity resulting from exercise, which women over forty need to do just to survive. Maybe, I’d just have to choose slower career advancement, with implications both for my worries about making ends meet as well as for my fulfillment of dreams that demanded fourteen years in university.

Truth is, as much as I miss irreplaceable moments with Zi, there are also other identities, as activist, writer and worker, which matter. As we entangle under the covers, I wonder if that’s okay or whether I’m being selfish, whether I’ll regret or defend these choices, even just for giving Zi reason to be proud of me.

I had decided my searching the dark for answers was privileged fluff, best kept to myself, for there are more important issues to talk about, like the fact that police shouldn’t have to engage in civil disobedience to get pay and benefits that are overdue, or the fact that come election day, our choices are between two political parties that have proven records of overseeing and overlooking massive corruption, waste and mismanagement, or the fact that we have a mere six months to make sure that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and EMA actually put everything in place for proper, promised national recycling to become reality.

Yet, over this weekend, so many other women shared similar negotiations, I was reminded that our collective experiences tell us about the times in which we live, and deserve more than self-conscious silence.

On Saturday, at the Fearless Politics conference honouring Hazel Brown, both Nicole Dyer-Griffith and Khadijah Ameen spoke about the challenge of balancing mothering with public life, especially given politics’ history as male dominated and defined, where parliamentary hours are set by the assumption that someone else is caring for your family and where parliament has no crèche, daycare or breastfeeding space, as if the business of the House is not answerable to the business of the home.

On Sunday, at Zi’s school friend’s birthday party, all the women there were also mothering workers; teachers, administrators, lawyers, web designers, flight attendants and more. Women who leave work at 5pm, spend evenings with their children, and then complete their deliverables from 9pm to 1am. Women who have no choice but to collect their children at 2.30pm and bring them to work for two hours, despite their boss’ annoyance, for between traffic and cost, what else could they do? Women who leave their children with their mother or sister while they and their husbands fulfill their scheduled shifts. Women whose wish to have more than one child came at exactly the age when they wished to achieve their professional aspirations.

It is much worse for more disadvantaged women and I’m not describing dire circumstances here. Just late night recognition that reconciling work and family is less simple than it appears.

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

Stories told by women who spent decades pressing for social change, and stories of solidarity by men sometimes almost twice my age. Stories that challenge myths that women of two generations ago were less radical than now and myths that feminist men didn’t exist throughout our history.

I love the stories of activists who came before because they bring our history to life, to their own lives, with laughter and commiseration, with passion and pain, with irony and unexpected twists, making us learn more about successful strategies or forgotten beginnings or our responsibilities to our future.

I love their stories because these efforts, connections and memories are our legacy, as much as the lasting reforms they created, or gains which we must still protect, are our legacy. They are a legacy because too often we think that it takes people who others consider political leaders, or people with university degrees, or those who seem to have more privilege or power to challenge everyday injustices.

Yet, stories by indomitable citizens of all classes and creeds remind us that is not true. These are stories by people who get up and do, working together to provide help or change unequal rules. Such collective love and labour by citizens is also ‘politics’ because it aims to defend their dreams for an emancipated nation and region, and their commitment to equality, independence and rights for women. These stories remind that the struggle for government by the people and for the people is not new.

Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown is just the conference for those of you who also love everyday stories of those around us who got up and did, just like we do or wish to. The public is invited to attend and participate in this gathering to honour a woman who has spent four decades tirelessly fighting for social change, along with hundreds of others whose names should not be forgotten. But, helping us to remember is precisely what stories do.

Hazel’s own stories include sitting in Port of Spain City Council meetings when she was a child as she waited for the Mayor to sign her report book, because in those days the Council sponsored children’s education. It is here she began to understand government, reminding us maybe we should take our children to watch these meetings as part of their civic empowerment and critical education. Her story of running for election in the 1970s along with women of the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago is a lesson in strategy for those thinking about politics today.There’s hope in working with women to buy, iron, exchange and affordably sell used schoolbooks. Then, heartbreak in her plan for a solar powered radio station that was undermined and never came to be. And there will be more than her stories.

Speaking on Saturday are long time activists in areas from women’s health to community and consumer rights, from sustainable food provision, including solar cooking and grow box agriculture, to women’s political participation and leadership, and from Baby Doll mas to the National Gender Policy.

This conference is for anyone who wishes to know more about struggles for social justice, artists and cultural workers interested in social transformation, activists of all eras and issues, and citizens whose dream for our world remains greater equality, justice, sustainability, cooperation and peace.

Come for stories about roads walked and paths still to be cut, in the spirit of our fearless legacy. This column was published prior to the conference, Fearless Politics: The Life and Times of Hazel Brown. Videos, photos and other conference information are available on the IGDS website and Youtube page. http://sta.uwi.edu/conferences/15/fearlesspolitics/index.asp. https://www.youtube.com/user/igdsuwistaugustine

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Post 184.

Daily I grow more fed up with the People’s Partnership’s door-in-your-face approach to public accountability.  Whether in relation to the complete lack of consultation or transparency regarding the Miami Vice-inspired concretization of Chagaramas, or Jairam Seemungal’s bizarrely negligent statements in relation to SIS land grabbing in Couva. Or Minister Ramnarine’s apparent willingness to oversee disquieting disbursements through NGC’s Corporate Communications Department, finally explaining those vacuous full-page ads about ‘happiness’ conjured up by the government’s most expensive spin doctor. Or public servant revelations of ‘Prisongate’ plagiarism and lawyer-garbed tiefing, which were connected directly to ex-AG Ramlogan’s office, and which the PM dealt with herself, Lady Macbeth-like.

Amidst such untrustworthiness is the shutting down of one of the Green Fund’s most successful projects, Plastikeep, which has made citizens of all classes, business owners, and forty-two schools of children as passionate and committed about recycling as one could ever dream.

Without justification, Plastikeep has been given until the end of the month to pack up its collection bins and to tell all, who now wake up with new feel good routines of environmental care, that their plastic will no longer be collected from next month, despite Plastikeep having a system in place to collect and export it. Now, where will it go? Again, to our landfills, poisonously and purposelessly.

The EMA says it is going to introduce a national recycling plan, but no citizen has ever seen this plan detailed on paper, knows when it will start, has been assured that it will be done through door to door collection as it must, or can be shown an accountable and ready infrastructure in place. Such a plan would also require tax incentives and legislation, currently non-existent.

Maybe the EMA will build on the well thought out plan being championed by local government officials, but there’s highly suspect jostling for Green Fund money, between SWMCOL, and the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, headed by Ganga Singh.

It’s Minister Singh, of desalination plant notoriety, who needs to immediately account for why he hasn’t yet approved a third phase, and even expansion, of a project that the Green Fund’s own Executing Unit and Advisory Committee support, and why his Ministry is hungry to make Green Fund cash available at this moment to administer well, nothing, when refuse collection isn’t even under his Ministry’s portfolio.

The fact that Plastikeep has created community happiness, togetherness and hope without giving Ernie Ross a dollar, and has inspired communities across the East-West corridor’s ‘marginal’ constituencies, may mean little on the road to victory that follows Persad-Bissessar’s index finger.

Every one of our votes counts, however, and a genuine groundswell is more personally and emotionally connected to this programme’s closure, without proper accounting for why, why now and why with nothing else in place, than politicians realise.

Plastikeep gets 1% of the Green Fund’s yearly income of about $300 million, and makes more difference to our lives than the unaccounted millions wrapped up in NGC, and Chagaramas’ questionable development.  This can be an election issue if we decide.

Additionally, every political rally until September should end with properly collected plastic being dropped into available collection bins the next day. Minister Singh, how about non-partisan advocacy to make that both parties’ reality, from next week? Rowley, surely you agree?

Which party does it, if any, would show who really loves the little children inheriting our garbage ridden coastlines and country, and it would show more care for future generations than any platform robber speech. School children are learning a lesson in civics, and are ready to protest to protect Plastikeep.

Post 183.

Ziya's first Phagwa

Ziya’s first Phagwa. Photo: Nadia Huggins

For years I stopped attending Phagwa celebrations, finding my own experience too full of male aggression for me to want to return. Some, though not all, young men seemed to find an excuse to touch women in ways that they, not the women, decided was ‘fun’, in ways they were unlikely to touch men they don’t know, and in ways that race, religion, tradition or culture seemed to justify as their right, even if it was unwanted.

Unwanted touching for any reason by anyone determines that line between what is acceptable and what is harassment and violence. Males could gleefully romp with their bredren, even grab other men they didn’t know in the same way or to the same extent, but I wasn’t comfortable with masculine norms setting the rules of consent regarding my body.

This, in a society where women, like 34-year-old Jessica Brereton, can’t consent to leave relationships without being harmed, where Magella Moreau and I stood covered in Phagwa’s jubilant yellows and pinks, remembering how consent was denied to Marcia Henville.

This, in a society where hundreds of girls are sexually abused yearly, many within Indian families whose preference for silence over shame teaches girls to live without a right to consent. This, in a society, where we are so undecided about the terms of consent that adult male sex with a fourteen or twelve year old girl constitutes rape unless it is legalized under common law or the Hindu or Muslim marriage acts. This, in a society where no sexual harassment legislation exists to protect women workers’ consent.

I was done with wondering each Phagwa how many men would try to clamp their hands completely over my mouth and eyes. And, as much as women also filled their pichakarees and flung bagfuls of abeer at friends and strangers, none ever left me choking on mouthfuls of powder, desperately trying to stop my eyes from burning or angry that ‘no’, ‘don’t’ or ‘stop’ meant little.

I always wondered why no cultural organisers or religious elders used their microphone to say, listen, those colours are ceremonial gifts, not a threat, and this is a community space where women should feel asked and respected, not attacked or manhandled.

Yes, you can’t play mas and fraid powder, but I wasn’t afraid of the soaking or powder. And I’m a woman who has played many jouvays without anyone’s protection, enjoying a rite where the hands of men and women, including those I didn’t know, left me oil black and devil blue, and without feelings of violation.

I returned to Phagwa on Sunday, not at the Divali Nagar, but this time at the Hindu Prachar Kendra’s celebration in Cunupia, so that Ziya could experience Holi for herself, with her godmother, dad, and friendly children she knew.

It was beautiful. A living canvas undulating over rhythms and melodies of pichakaree singing. Collective art more valuable than anything on museum walls. Men and women, whose names I’d never know, playfully hand painting our clothes, arms and faces. We left, dusty and damp swirls of orange, purple and green, just as mixed circles began joyfully dancing.

I mostly kept Zi with me, because it made her feel safer and because I knew I’d be less of a target with her in my arms, but I know women there who had the same experience I never grew used to.

You learn how to try to stay safe, as all women have to, or to devalue your needs because there appears nothing you can do. Holi could provide one community where we don’t encounter such lessons too.

 

Post 182.

At one primary school, the friendly teacher interviewing Ziya looked up from reading her form when, under religion, I listed ‘none’. ‘None?’ she clarified incredulously, examining me anew, like I was a zaboca that beguiled with firm, green potential, only to appear blackened when cut open.

Inside I chuckled, sometimes Zi decide she’s Christian, and the other day asked me what a soul was. Other times, she loves the azan, making up her own sounds to the call to prayer, and asking to learn Arabic. Yet, she’s being raised by an anthropologist who will teach her to value the cultural richness of religious cosmologies while emphasizing that the earth, with its sky, rivers, seas and forests, is her most inclusive temple, mosque and church. Modern world religions have historically considered that kind of peasant approach to the divine ‘pagan’, but no need to write that on the form, right?

At another school, the kindly principal asked me what I teach at UWI and, when I responded that I teach feminist theory, nodded sagely as she observed me closer, concluding that that explained a lot, gesturing with both hands at something seemingly telling about my appearance.

Another chuckle, because before our interview, Ziya’s teachers had neatened her hair and reminded me to smile, likely noting that it hadn’t occurred to me to dress either of us any different than we would for a normal school or work day, dressing to impress enough to get into a school not how I roll.

It was news to me that children had to even interview to get into a primary school. Suddenly, I discovered the conversations long being had by parents of other little brown sapodillas, focusing on the strictness of teachers, the friendliness of principals, the school’s SEA results, and the balance between academic and other activities.

Choosing private schools reinforces class segregation, but sometimes you weigh your politics against the learning environment best for your child, focusing not on pass rates, but on music or science opportunities or school teaching philosophy.

My dream is for a primary school where children learn through play, experimentation, interaction, innovation and unselfconscious creativity. I wish that primary schools would spend more time on agriculture and biodiversity, for what knowledge is more important than how to grow food and save our planet’s ecology. I’d love desks in circles or cool-shaped collective tables, rather than the efficient and militarized organization of rows of student bodies.

Mostly, I hope for a primary school where Zi learns about care, cooperation and self-confidence and not just competition, where she learns how to be responsible for her rights and freedom, not just obedient to discipline, and where she learns to value speaking up for social justice more than her own social mobility.

When some of the top scoring students in the country come to UWI, I meet them mostly unwilling to speak out publicly, mostly inattentive to global affairs, mostly disconnected from our region’s ecology, mostly without compelling inner curiosity, and mostly familiar with treating each other like widgets rather than interconnected, fearless human beings. Students are clearer on exams than comprehension, critique or how to connect seemingly disparate ideas.

With one more interesting school interview to go, I’m wondering what options are best and what decision to make. Passing tests is considered important, but I’m interested in passion for and openness to all forms of knowledge, whether from making mushrooms grow, observing how mas is made, googling social movements or practicing meditation. Education should make us better selves and world citizens, and such understanding starts with how we school our children.

Post 181.

As Saturday’s crescent moon rose over Cazabon Street in Belmont, people gathered from all over the world to remember Claudia Vera Cumberbatch, better known as Claudia Jones, on the one hundredth anniversary of her birth.

There were also gatherings in Harlem and London, but it was the few dozen holding hands in a lamp lit circle on a ribbon of rough asphalt, who got to hear the unexpectedly beautiful percussion of corn and rice rolling like rain off the galvanize roof of her childhood home, and who witnessed the first time that African invocations, water, palm oil, memories and appreciation were offered from us here to this little known daughter of the soil.

For women busily going about life, organizing communities, hand sewing their traditional portrayals for Carnival, establishing their own incomes, dreaming of being writers or wanting to make a fairer world, Claudia Jones is the inspiration whose picture you could pin to your clothes, like Bobo Shantis do with Haile Selassie, to remind yourself that articulate, fearless and powerful women have long been home grown.

Born in Trinidad, on February 21, 1915, Claudia Jones became the leading black woman in international communism between the 1930s and 1950s. While living in the US, she was arrested and imprisoned for ten months for giving a speech on “International Women’s Day and the Struggle for Peace”. Facing deportation and eventually choosing exile to England in 1955, because Trinidad’s Governor was too frightened of her movement-building capacity to let her resettle here, she organized the first Carnival celebrations in London. Her belief that “a people’s art is the genesis of their freedom” established the precedent for every Caribbean Carnival now held around the world.

A communist, pan-African and women’s rights political agitator, more radical than any men of her time or region including Marcus Garvey and CLR James, Claudia Cumberbatch began to write as Claudia Jones to throw the CIA off her tracks, knowing that the US government considered her a threat. She was indomitably bad ass, crossing out the job title of secretary that was put on her passport, and writing ‘journalist’ instead, the only right thing to do for an immigrant woman who later wrote for and edited youth, women’s, workers’ rights and African American magazines, and founded her own newspaper, The West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News.

Last term, my students and I read Left of Karl Marx, Carole Boyce-Davies’ book about Claudia Jones’ life and politics, marveling that she even met China’s Mao Tse-tung and Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted them to know that when Caribbean students learn about transnational, anti-imperialist, anti-racist feminist theory, we don’t start with US Black feminism and Angela Davis or Third World feminism and Chandra Mohanty, and we don’t start in the 1960s. We start decades earlier, in Belmont, with the thinking of Claudia Jones, an activist, intellectual, cultural worker and writer without any degrees to her name, now buried in London, to the left of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

Yet, even having taught her book, it never occurred to me to turn onto the lane where she walked as a child and to look up at the same moon she would have seen, on her birthday. It did occur to those who invited the nation to honour a woman who died, at forty-nine years old, alone on Christmas day.

By putting passion and pen to our principles, making transformation of black working class women’s lives our marker of change, and unapologetically pursuing equality and emancipation for all across the world, may we mightily walk in the footsteps of the path-breaking Claudia Jones.

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