Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.

Post 208.

As Ziya rolled in sandy ebb and flow at Maracas’ shoreline, a handful of friendly girls suddenly encircled us with a swirl of brown arms and legs. They drew Zi in, reaching for her hand, and asking her to go jump deeper into the waves.  A few brought Styrofoam cups to scoop up water and sand, throw in the air, and catch as they swept by amidst incoming foam. ‘Make sure not to leave the cups in the ocean’, I gently cautioned, ‘they will pollute the sea. ‘Auntie, what does pollute mean?’ one of them asked. She was eight years old, and the biggest of their brood.

How could children going to primary school not have encountered the idea of pollution? What are they being taught is the meaning of taking our very national identity as a twin-island republic from the blue, Caribbean sea? In an era when recycling, environmental conservation and climate change are words appearing weekly in newspapers, as politicians, parents, teachers, religious leaders, community activists, lawyers, doctors, engineers and artists, we are failing to give to children that crucial consciousness they already need.

While those girls were diving and floating, there wasn’t time to explain anything more than that to pollute is to poison. As I watched them then run onto the beach, they tossed away torn up pieces of those Styrofoam cups into the wind. A friend of mine picked up all the pieces and we threw them away in a garbage bin rather than see them get caught up and carried further from the shore.

Yet, stepping over chicken bones, bottle caps, crushed cigarettes, miscellaneous pieces of plastic, bits of paper food containers that once contained shark and bake, and more, on what is a disgusting mix of detritus and Maracas sand, Ziya’s enjoyment of our blessed ocean was shot through with real life lesson about how pervasive garbage is and what kind of failures exist in our national waste management policies. How can we teach children to love a country that we poison simultaneously?

Ziya is four, but because we discuss the environment often, she constantly brings up the fact that everything from her toothpaste to shampoo ends up in the ocean. It makes me ashamed, but I haven’t yet taken action to reduce these aspects of my own footprint. Nonetheless, her transparent observation calls me to account for myself, to acknowledge what harm I too am leaving her generation to inherit, to identify our unsustainable habits as the enemy of our children’s future.

We are the first generation of adults in all of human history to deny oncoming others what was handed down over millennia: clean air, earth and water.

We are poisoning the oceans, and already seeing the effects on marine life. Our seas are being filled with our garbage of all kinds, industrial and domestic, untreated and toxic. Reflecting our selfishness and shortsightedness, such garbage shows up at our feet on every coastline and river that was, less than two decades ago, garbage-free.

These are island children surrounded by ocean. Children who deserve to learn about how irresponsibility created ecological crisis as much as they are told about politeness. Children who must become consciousness of their standpoint in relation to the planet, for protecting it cannot be anything other than their first priority.

Who in the Ministry of Planning understands that the environment is an infinite economy? Who in the Ministry of Education sees schooling as beholden to teaching children the definitive global politics of their generation? Children will pay for our delay. None should still be wondering what pollution means.

Post 207.

Tears. In the morning when I left the classroom after pulling Zi off me, feeling her like a small, green sapodilla clinging to its branch. Tears. In the afternoon as I transitioned her from the end of school to her extra-curricular activities, and because there were more new teachers, new rooms and new children, and she wanted me to stay.

One particular afternoon, she realized it wasn’t the gymnastics teacher she already knew, and watched the large number of unfamiliar children in the class with increasing apprehension, for her shy self the perfect storm of terror. More tears upon tears. One teacher held her while I walked away without looking back, as if everything was okay.

In my office, I’d have to recover from that last plaintive wail of ‘mummy!’, that I turned my back on, echoing in my head. I knew that within minutes of my leaving, she would be getting on with the moment, but the tears made me wonder so many things.

What if the world followed children’s readiness to separate, when might that happen instead of at such a young age? When you know your child feels overwhelmed in new situations, with new people and large groups, is there a parental secret to helping her adjust? Or, is tough love the right, real deal?

When you see the value of teaching philosophies that point to the importance of children identifying what they are interested in learning, does insisting your child press on through tears help or hurt their relationship to education? I thought about myself in childhood piano lessons, bored and afraid of the teacher, who somehow failed to nurture passion, curiosity or fun. Being forced to go wouldn’t have helped me learn and, eventually, to secure permission to stop going, I might have bawled down the place too.

Of course, when it was time to collect Zi, she was busy doing floor rolls with the other children in the same flood-of-tears gymnastics class, her sobs forgotten by her more than by me. I thought about how I almost got fooled, almost agreed to take her home, through wanting to value the kind of learning that children choose when they are ready, almost to counter the opposite experience of typical schooling.

How to know when to lovingly push children past their comfort zone, or when to listen to and follow their instincts, for there are important lessons there, particularly for girls, which they may carry into the ways they see their emotions, treat their bodies or defend their choices. Yet, life involves learning to make the most of situations we are in, chosen or not, and in the process to develop skills that include patience, self-discipline and courage. Better to learn them at four than at forty years old, free of charge from mom instead of through lost jobs, relationships or creative opportunities, or nose-bleedingly expensive therapy.

For moms, community is a must. Observing the momentous trivialities of Ziya’s first two weeks of primary school, one mom wrote me to share that she took the week off work to settle her daughter into secondary school. I sent back my respects. My aunt told me how she was granted milk and cookies from her 1950s, primary school nutrition programme. She drank the milk and, until she left for high school, used the cookies to bribe the school bully so she wouldn’t beat her up. She was so introverted that she didn’t tell her sister who was also in the school, nor her mother.  But, “it worked,” she said, “no beatings and no osteoporosis”.

Uncertainties and fears are life-long challenges as life continually changes. As every parent knows, it takes children different lengths of time and different kinds of support and smarts to adjust, but all have to. “One of our biggest jobs as a parent, messaged wise mom Gillian, is simply “to be there after they return from the sometimes heavy world”. “We all have to go through growing pains”, concurred my sistren Shalini, “just always receive her at the end of the day with love”. As I watched Zi skipping off this morning, I thought, there are tears, but there is time, toughening up, and hugs.

Post 206.

Is the sudden loss of the word ‘gender’, in any Ministry title under the Rowley government, a sign of gender equality’s oncoming policy demise?

This new invisibility, which reverses decades of state practice and Caribbean advocacy, isn’t a matter of letterhead. It shows lack of familiarity with Caribbean history, misunderstanding of why ‘gender’ was made independently visible, and a step out of time with the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2015 to 2030, to be adopted at the General Assembly meeting in New York in just two weeks.

Some have argued that, under the last administration, ‘gender’ was in a Ministry title, but “nothing” effective was tried or achieved, so why keep it in? But, “nothing” achieved, or more to achieve, is more, not less, reason for gender equality’s visibility while following through on the budgetary allocations, and cross-ministerial policies and programmes that its inclusion signals.

Others have argued that disappearance of a Ministry, with visible leadership for integrating women’s empowerment and gender equality across all planning, is a message that the government is serving all. But this “serving all” defense assumes that women and gender represent special interests. Not true.

Everyone’s entire lives, including how we access power, are shaped by ideals of masculinity and femininity, across everything from the economy to schooling. And women are not a special interest group, for what happens to women similarly affects everything from the economy to schooling. To fix the problem of boy’s educational underachievement, end women’s subordination and the low status of femininity. Same for sex inequality in the labour market which affects the health and wealth also of men and families.

Except where efforts are well integrated, a single Ministry still needs to push technical recommendations and expertise across other parts of government, which might be adopting agendas based on inaccurate analyses, personal biases or unfamiliarity with global conventions.

There are also major problems with subordinating gender equality to ‘social development’ or ‘family services’; a move that regresses to pre-1975. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are their own goals, whether or not they advance a state’s ‘development’ or ‘family’ agenda. What if the development plan includes an ‘Export Processing Zone’ where goods are made, but unions are forbidden, and what if the majority of workers are women? Here their right to organize as women workers, for everything from day care to decent conditions, will be at odds with a development plan.

Gender equality may also be at odds with ‘family services’, particularly where women’s resistance to all forms of male domination in religion or violence in the family, or the right of LGBT citizens to equally choose who they love, or the justice of providing safe and legal access to pregnancy termination as a public health policy, is cast as a threat to the ideal of ‘family’. Women’s rights are human rights to be pursued regardless. They are not reducible to service provision, nor justified by women being “half our resources”, nor legitimate only for heterosexuals, wives or mothers.

Caribbean feminists fought since at least the 1970s to get gender visible at a ministerial level. Jamaica led the world with a Women’s Desk in 1973 and decade after decade of regional struggle and advocacy won a Bureau, then a Division and finally a Ministry. There was data and logic backing this, for Caribbean states are historically patriarchal and the Ministry of Gender was to be the radically transformative site for internal reform that had inched past the glass ceiling right to the top, to struggle there for change.

How will a Ministry of Social Development and Family Services fill the mandate of a Ministry of Gender Affairs to challenge patriarchal beliefs, values and organization of power, as they create sexism and homophobia, in and out of the state? Can we expect the ministry to stop ungendered priorities flinging wrong resources in wrong directions, costing the treasury? Will the Minister lobby within Cabinet for gender equality, as if that is a headline mission of her Ministry, not simply a division under the manners of social welfare and family?

What’s in a name? At minimum, a public commitment to women’s rights and gender equality. What has been lost? Disappointingly, Cabinet-level representation, leadership and accountability.

Post 205.

Growing into parenthood is truly an opportunity for life-long learning.

As you prepare your little sapodilla for that memorable moment of starting primary school, you learn that your skills are really not up to that sticky, plastic wrap, book-covering thing. You learn from a next mother (for it seems that it is moms who cover children’s books), and after you paper all the copybooks in brown paper,  that they are sold already covered in plastic. So, you tell yourself you had planned it so to be more environmentally-conscious anyway.

You learn that you can actually iron those tiny school uniform pleats with love in the days before primary school finally starts, even though you hate ironing, and you know that you will likely not iron with such love by week five.

You learn to make new friends with parents with whom you may have nothing in common, but the collective, educational welfare of your children, and the fact that you will attend more of their children’s birthday parties over the next year than adult dinners, drinks or fetes.

You learn you might be the only parent who thinks its scandalous that the mandatory school swimsuit for a four year old costs $45 USD, precisely because education should rely on low cost resources unless those costs are for the best books, labs or musical instruments, and you realize, in a suddenly less naïve moment, that the children of UWI lecturers might be the poorer ones in the classroom.

You learn how to manage your self too, your philosophy and your ways of securing the kind of education you want for your child. I couldn’t find a school that didn’t believe in tests, homework, hierarchical ranking of students, or the idea of learning through competition, rather than in relation to their personal best. All of children’s educational experience from Reception is geared toward that master-test, the SEA, itself a grand, nation-wide, hierarchical and competitive ranking and, eventual, class stratification.

And while we think that discipline, structure, examinations, conformity and competition are the core principles of learning, I’d prefer to see care, cooperation, creativity, acceptance of eccentricity, and fearlessness for nonconformist experimentation emphasized, as these are historically the bases for art, activism, science, philosophy, invention and ecological conservation

So, I know I will have to learn how to negotiate my own values of alternative education with those of Zi’s teachers in a way that puts first her ability to feel at home and forge an enabling relationship with her school.  Zi’s already asking if its okay to make mistakes in her school work, just as she’s asking why its important that her hair be so neat, just as she’s already looking amongst her motley belongings for a present to take for her teacher, just as she asked me to let Miss know that she’s scared of the big children because they are too rough, just as she wants to know why no one else besides me thinks God shouldn’t always be referred to as ‘Father’, for that’s a hidden curriculum in every assembly, just as she will learn to identify who writes, reads or adds well, hopefully realizing children should help rather than judge others with weaknesses where they have strengths. So, listening, I’m aware of this new experience as a complex one for her, and the reflection it requires of me.

As always, there is labour and logistics. There is love and letting go. There is taking the best of what is offered while protectively nurturing a sense of the right and capacity to challenge the status quo in the best ways, based on what most creates confidence and independence, as well as instincts for justice.

There was pride and nostalgia shining like morning dew in mom’s eyes this week as we watched our children step away and into a new experience. Zi entered a school and class I was in, at her exactly her age, thirty-seven years ago.

Life long learning as a woman and mother over that time have brought me this far. As my sapodilla grows with each school lesson, her challenges will also challenge me to best support her learning, as well as her individuality and empowerment, in a holistic, harmonious, healthy and honest way. In this educational experience for us both, I guide, but she’s leading the way.

Post 205.

Last Friday, the University of Guyana finally launched its own Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies.

Working at a gender institute myself, I could anticipate its limitations and opportunities. There is only so much small staff with activist passions, but with priorities of teaching and research, can do in a society with big gender problems. However, such an irreplaceable space also provides the kinds of consciousness-raising, mentorship, and commitment to women’s rights and progressive men’s movements that our societies surely need.

Having once joined at the beginning of a graduate programme that changed my own life, it was a reflective moment to be in Guyana, almost twenty years older, and hoping that as many students as possible will have the empowering experience I did.

I felt the same respect and awe for the work ahead as I got to know Renuka Beharie, coordinator of the fledgling Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname. She did not even have a full time secretary, but, after many hours and much sacrifice, I could only imagine how many would think of her the way I do about the pioneers in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and beyond who similarly built the gender studies institutes that generations of us will inherit.

Sometimes people wonder about the point of spending money to travel to events that seem to achieve little or signal only an uphill battle, but I was struck by the sense of regionalism sparked each time we meet up and connect to our work across borders and seas.

I had heard Hazel Brown talk many times about wanting the government to establish a Commission for Women and Gender Equality, and found a 2010 pre-election newspaper clipping where the PM promised she would. Yet, it felt so much more real when I met the commissioners in Guyana, who continued to hope to bring women together across party lines, who were pushing the government to approve a national gender policy, and who spoke openly about the fact that the new government’s appointment of only 30% of women to state boards, with some boards having no women at all, wasn’t good enough.

On the flight there, I sat next to a young woman, twenty years younger than me, who was so passionate about her work with the Trinidad Youth Council, and who said all the right things about good organizing, that my heart lifted, and I self-consciously felt myself filling the shoes of those older activists who go to civic meetings and talk about how nice it is to see all the young people there.

Having been nurtured by a progessive youth movement, and seeing how many from there continue to exercise leadership however we can, I was certain of the passionate possibilities for a young woman interested in social change, the guidance available, and the power of her oncoming experiences.

As we talked, it turned out she had never heard of this person, Hazel Brown, something I didn’t think was possible for any activist, youth or not, in T and T. Here was a wake up call for women’s and youth movements, a reminder we must make an extra effort to reintroduce every generation, especially of young women, especially of activists, to the makers of our too-quickly forgotten history. I wondered if you asked fifth form students around the country to name one women’s rights activist, who they would name, and if no one, why.  What would that say about the value of such women’s work in our country?

I invited the young woman to an evening gathering of NGOs, hoping that being in the room with women like Vanda Radzik, Jocelyne Dow, Karen de Souza and other Guyanese stalwarts in the struggle for Caribbean women would in turn spark her connection to Caribbean feminism’s regionality.

That one day in Guyana rested on my mind throughout my first class at UWI this week. How did you end up here I asked? Students wanted to understand feminisms, their rights, themselves and power relations in their families. Gender studies institutes were founded, and continue to be, to provide precisely the knowledge that each generation, discovering injustice, finds that they need.

Post 204.

I am writing today to support the LBGTI community in their hopes, raised every election amidst platform speeches about a better future. These hopes are for what others already have, equality and freedom from discrimination. The kind of rights enslaved Africans and indentured Indians dreamed of and fought for, the kind of rights those Africans and Indians who became our post-independence shipmasters now deny, forgetting history then and charting us on the wrong side of history now.

What can our political leaders say to these members of our families and nation when they are not safe to be themselves? How much are our political leaders their leaders too? Or is it okay to lead the nation for the benefit of some, and to simply defer sharing that experience of citizenship to all?

When asked about her position on ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, by for example amending the Equal Opportunity Act, approving the National Gender Policy or removing draconian provisions in the Children’s Act that legalise life imprisonment of young people engaging in same sex experiences, Kamla 2015 said, ‘let the people decide’. When asked, the PNM leader, Keith Rowley, said the party never discussed the issue, though that is not exactly true. Both leaders decided that there are no political gains in pursuing full equality amongst citizens. ‘Suffer on’ is their message to those asking.

Imagine it is 1815, and enslaved Africans are asking those leaders in power for the same rights that they have. Imagine them saying, we’ve never discussed it. Maybe later. Suffer on.

Imagine it is 1915, and indentured Indians are asking country leaders for equal citizenship, and they respond, let the plantation owners decide, for giving you full citizenship is too controversial right now. Maybe one day. Suffer and wait.

Imagine it is 2015 and those African and Indian leaders are now playing the mas of colonial masters, able to deny rights and willing to do so, while those of you who have rights and enjoy full equality, quote religious text or tradition or family belief, to get on happily with unequal power.

Every election is a chance to create more inclusion, to lead in ways that are principled rather than simply popular, to articulate a vision for another generation to truly understand, evermore, what it means to be one people, one nation.

In frustration, voting citizens in the LBGTI community have created their own manifesto, one where non-discrimination isn’t negotiable or denied. Just six of the twelve actions they call on are for:

  1. All national officials to vocally support inclusion and dignity for all, including LGBTI members of the national community, and denounce discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.
  2. Pilot a life skills programme for LGBTI young people made homeless by discrimination.
  3. Lower to 16 the direct eligibility age for social welfare for young people abused by their families.
  4. Implement school-based initiatives and policy that prevent and protect young people from violence and bullying in educational settings.
  5. Repeal paragraphs 20(1)(c), 20(2)(c), and 20(3)(c) of the Children Act of 2012, which came into force on 18 May 2015 and specifically target young people of the same sex for criminalization and life imprisonment for sexual exploration with each other.
  6. Equip and charge the Victim & Witness Support Unit to support LGBTI complainants of domestic and bias violence.

Representation, school tolerance, state services for victims, and children’s care are what citizens are saying they hope to vote for. These are not unreasonable dreams for inclusion. Of Keith and Kamla, who will first stop repeating, ‘suffer on’?

There are many issues in this election, with the economy, crime, corruption and the environment being the most important. Yet, these issues of sexuality and gender are ones show whether our leaders understand what it means to lead us all, equally, regardless of the political costs because the costs will not be ones citizens are instead made to bear. Regardless of race or religion, this is a value we should share.

I listen to rallies, read manifestos, and see worn words without commitment to full equality. Why vote for such leadership when our hopes matter so little to them in 2015?


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