momentous trivialities: diary of a mothering worker


Post 263.

I’m in Fiji for the Civicus World Assembly. Civil society organizations and activists from around the world have gathered to renew energy and redefine strategies for transforming injustice as experienced across the planet. Feminists from 350.org, Greenpeace Canada and the Pacific region are in conversation about the necessity of an energy transition to renewables, which must happen sooner rather than later, or a majority of species and people will suffer and die.

Hope may spring eternal, but data regarding climate change is grim. Within thirty years, all of us will know someone displaced by drought, hurricanes, rising sea levels, floods or conflicts that result from these.

I’m thinking of Dominica and Barbuda, and other Caribbean islands which, as close as next year, might produce climate refugees. And, I’m thinking of tiny, fossil dependent Trinidad and Tobago, not likely to change our oversized footprint whether for reasons of economic or ecological justice.

What’s the relevance of this discussion to us, not as potential small island state victims, but as small island state contributors to an oncoming crisis? “We must rise before the tides”, cautioned Brianna Fruean, Pacific Climate Warrior, but this seems impossible to achieve back at home where Shell and BP stalk gas fields like kings, and our PM prioritizes agreements in Houston over Paris in order to pay for our next dose of salts.

“Articulate the demand, even if it’s far away from being achieved”, responds May Boeve of 350.org, “Make policy makers do their job in solving these problems, but set the bar. Keep fighting”.

There are two fronts here. The first is the creation of alternatives – to plastic, to capitalism, to borders, to jails, to violence and to carbon dioxide production. We can also adopt green, de-growth, solidarity, commons and other sustainable approaches to wealth, work and wellbeing.

The second front is the challenge to the political and economic power reproducing a broken, unjust and immoral global economy. There are strategies such as compelling divestment of stocks and bonds from companies in the fossil fuel business, defense of public regulations, and taking environmental battles to the courts.

In a later panel, ex-CIVICUS Secretary Generals Miklos Marschall’s and Kumi Naidoo’s messages go further. We need radical hope, love, fury, imagination and solutions because when humanity faces big injustices, decent people have to stand up, say ‘no more’, and be prepared for civil disobedience against decisions that breed abandonment and anger by the billions.

Anyone who tells you that growth can get us out of the current ecological and, therefore, economic crisis hasn’t factored in the ecological or economic costs of extraction, consumption, pollution and species extinction, or must wake up.

The model is a necropolitics. It is killing us and our struggle must be to protect our children’s lives and future. “With our quivering voices we sing our children to sleep, unsure of what they will wake up to”, sings a young performer. What will we do when, increasingly, this becomes true?

Solutions and accountability trackers exist everywhere. They need commitment and collective civic pressure. For this reason, CIVICUS ended with a Declaration on Climate Induced Displacement in order to build a broad-based call for commitment to keep the increase in global average temperature well below 2 degrees Celsius and acknowledge climate change’s unprecedented impact on migration, human rights, equality and self-determination.

In a fierce whisper, St. Lucian Kendel Hippolyte’s poetry reading from the previous day’s Commonwealth Writers’ Conversation comes to me:

“i woke one morning and the Caribbean was gone.

She’d definitely been there the night before, i’d heard her

singing in crickets and grasshoppers to the tambourine of

the oncoming rain.

i thought: she can’t be gone. If she is gone,

what is this place? With her gone, who am i?”

I’m listening, breathing in quietly. There’s still time. Back home in the Caribbean, I can still know who I am.

I am the power of the demand.

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Post 262.

Joy without Justice

The real tief head is when a company has a sexual harassment policy in place, and yet a victim can’t get justice. It says a lot about the risks of speaking out about sexual violence as a working, even professional-level, woman. The risks are that a series of power plays occurs which mean that an incident that may have actually happened gets buried under messy and even irrelevant information. In the end, a victim may be left without the safety of proper protocols and maybe even without a job.

The idea that claiming sexual harassment is an easy win against men is, of course, a myth. Claims of sexual harassment are always going to cost women who make them, whether to their professional or public reputation or to their chances of career success or simply to their emotional resilience. Even if you are telling the truth, even if you are believed, even if you can show complete innocence, even if correct processes are followed, there is no way that claiming sexual harassment will not come at a cost to you and you alone.

It may be that your work performance gets dragged into the corporate conversation or a smear campaign follows you in an attempt to restore the hierarchy and order which your complaint challenged. It may be that an independent committee established to assess your complaint gets disbanded, on spurious grounds that feminists are biased against men, for example, and an individual substituted to complete the process simply doesn’t convey the same sense of trust to you or, later, the public. It may be that your bosses believe you, but their advice is to not make it a big deal, given the costs, stress and gossip about you and the company. And, so, your vulnerability isn’t decreased, it’s just mismanaged.

What’s amazing is how one badly handled incident sends a hopeless message to a nation of women that there’s little reason to tell the truth in your own self-defense against sexual harassment. It also tells other women to mind their business and keep their distance in case the smear hits them too or in case HR messiness takes over and choosing the right side becomes a minefield even angels fear to tread.

There’s a close connection between men’s institutional and economic status, authority and power, and women’s experiences of sexual harassment that makes this issue of both gender inequality and gender-based violence, even where the details are slightly different across an entire planet full of cases.

There’s also a close connection between male power and the lack of sexual harassment legislation or widely-adopted sexual harassment policies. It’s not that there are no progressive men in power in business or politics, It’s that prioritizing the right ways to deal with sexual harassment requires changing whole organizational cultures on the basis of women workers’ rights, and that requires commitment, leadership, extra effort and the will to challenge a bro-code governing well-connected and powerful men.

Anybody can sexually harass anybody, but this is power men unequally wield because, at least in Trinidad and Tobago, on corporate boards and senior management, they outnumber women, and in political party hierarchies as well as parliament and Cabinet, they outnumber women. And, indeed, when sexual harassment remains primarily an issue of men’s power over women, even women are likely to reproduce the lens of the powerful, and victim-blame too.

In a season of pastells and parang, widespread and messy experiences of gender-based violence mean that not everyone has access to comfort, security, trust and fair outcome.

Amidst Christmas merriment, there are women living in fear despite holding protection orders. There are women afraid to speak up about inappropriate behavior in their offices or on streets. What will be our gift to them, for without institutionalizing effective protections for those more vulnerable, we are being tightfisted with our sharing of both justice and joy.

Post 261.

16 Ways Activism Can End GBV

At the forum held on Friday, in collaboration with the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, and to kick off 16 Days of Activism to End Gender Based Violence, the Equal Opportunity Commission proposed changes to the Domestic Violence Act (Chp 45:56). Ten proposed changes are listed below:

  1. Remove the perpetrator from the home not the victim. Moving women to a shelter can derail children and women’s lives. What happens when their time at the shelter runs out? Some women return home to the abuse.
  2. Police must respond to all complaints. There are no penalties if police do not respond to all complaints. There are many stories of women who call for police help, but who wait in vain for them to come. Additionally, there should be a protocol for responding to all complaints. For example, a record should be made even if a woman is simply asking for police to warn her partner and isn’t yet ready for a charge to be laid or for a protection order.
  3. Amend definition of cohabitant to include same-sex relationships. Violence exists across relationships of different kinds, and all citizens have a right to violence-free homes.
  4. Police must charge for assaults and other crimes committed in domestic situations, and for breaches of Protection Order. When a woman goes to the police to report bruises from domestic violence, the police can charge perpetrators for assault, and begin criminal proceedings. What normally happens, however, is that police send women to a Justice of the Peace to begin her application for a protection order. Assault is assault and charges should be laid. Additionally, breaches of a Protection Order are a crime.
  5. No bail for persons charged with breaches of Protection Order. Given the many women killed while holding protection orders, there is impunity for men who can breach them, can secure bail, and then return to get revenge on women.
  6. Provide a network of support to persons who have a protection orderobservers must have a duty to report (new section). When a woman is killed, neighbours, family and employers can recall years, months or weeks of threats. A duty to report will help build a culture of everyone insisting domestic violence cannot happen on our corner.
  7. Create intervention for perpetrators threatening to kill (new section). When threats to women’s lives are made, what can they do? An intervention for perpetrators threatening to kill means that they will be held by police, receive counselling and other forms of intervention.
  8. Create inter agency protocols between police, magistrates, prosecutors, social workers and shelters (new section). Right now, this isn’t sufficiently structured or practiced.
  9. Create mandatory programs for victims and perpetrators. Mandatory counselling, over months, can make a difference to whole families, and should be part of the response to the approximately ten thousand applications for restraining orders requested yearly
  10. Resuscitate Police Domestic Violence Register maintained by the Commissioner of Police. This registry is mandated by the Domestic Violence Act, but isn’t functional, digitized, well sourced with data or referred to in either civil or criminal proceedings.

Those at the forum also proposed six necessary changes:

  1. Use the form provided by the DV Act to record reports of the domestic violence. This thorough form is not used consistently by police and legally needs to be as part of meeting the requirements of a National Domestic Violence Register
  2. There should not be a twelve-month requirement to be able to secure a protection order. These must be able to be triggered by one act of violence regardless of how long relationship is going on. This is particularly important for young women, who have a higher risk of violence, and may be in shorter-term relationships.
  3. A Victim and Witness Support Unit in Tobago. Establish it now.
  4. The justice system must inform victims if perpetrators get bail. They cannot be calling around to find out whether their lives have returned to being at risk.
  5. The National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based and Sexual Violence which has been sitting in front of Cabinet since 2016 must be approved and resourced.
  6. End jurisdiction issues for reporting domestic violence. Victims report police officers refusing to take reports when they are friendly with the men involved, and police officers refusing to take reports when it is out of their jurisdiction.

These 16 days, lend your support to activism on 16 ways to help end GBV.

Post 260.

You haven’t encountered gangster until you’ve met the Indo-Caribbean grannies of Toronto’s Jane and Finch area. Originally from locations such as Berbice, Wakenaam and Beterverwagting in Guyana, these wizened ladies helped to fill the audience at Thursday’s University of Toronto launch of the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, which I co-edited with Guyanese scholar Lisa Outar.

In their sweaters and wool hats, their sharp gaze was nothing less than inquisitive and intimidating. They looked like is two good whack for any backchat, for belonging to the wrong kind of mafia, for dotishly playing gunman like you have nothing better to do, or for not knowing how to conduct yourself like a fearless and good-speaking beti when your family sacrifice to send you to school.

Especially when you edit a collection with a lofty word like ‘thought’ in the title, you have to be able to convince nanis and ajis, with more common sense and experience than you, why that book matters. That’s what we set out to do in an event less like an academic book launch, and more like a chutney fete. Not because there was rum and ‘Coolie Bai’, though there was roti and coolie boys, but because the gathering was community-centered, multiethnic, multigenerational, and joyfully inclusive of multiple expressions of sexualities.

There was the girl, just seven, dancing in garara and gold after women musicians played sitar and tabla, and while a young woman painted, because art and film give us language when words fail. There were bright, next generation students, confident, political and completing PhD theses. Now playing the role of mentors, were mothers with professional careers, able to be there because grandmothers were at home with our children. There were Indian women writers whose ideas provided a home, since the 1980s, for nurturing our thinking about Caribbean theory. In this choka, were feminist badjohns with their solidarities and their laughter, who teach with love across racial divides. Then, in the centre, were these matriarchs, representing their community organization and its challenges to immigrant experiences of violence and poverty.

So, why should the collection matter? It’s a jahahin bundle, crossing oceans with many inheritances knotted in its pages. Tucked within are the legacies of Indian women in the Caribbean, and all the ways that they and indentureship have transformed us all in the region. It’s a remembering of foremothers who wanted more and pursued better for themselves and those who came after. It’s a warm enfolding of douglas and other mixes who are just as Indian too. There are cuttings of everything from carnival freedoms to matikor celebrations, from trance spiritualities to poetry. Finally, it’s a package tied with the gold threads of feminist work to live without violence, inequality or hunger, and to live with respect for matriarchal leadership and power.

And, were we able to talk good and show that education might not alienate us from our cultural histories as much as empower us to remake their relevance anew? ‘Is how much fuh this book?’, shouted one granny, at question time. And another, later, “I getting one too?”

So, in this collection’s travels from Guyana to Trinidad to New York, this week’s encounter is with the elder women of Jane and Finch’s concrete suburbs, our toughest crowd yet, who we managed to convince that another book mattered.

They left with copies because they came up and asked after, knowing it was deserved, and we were too honoured and terrified to say no. Lisa and I just handed over books, forget their cost or sale. Despite our degrees, when facing steely-eyed, no-nonsense grannies, who could wield a bilna like a gangster, we default to betis who know you just keep quiet and do what you are told. Our jahajin bundle was an inheritance from them, and our book might be the rare kind in which they recognize themselves as knowledge-bearers, feeling warm pride amidst Toronto’s cold.

 

 

 

Post 259.

The story isn’t on stage. It’s in the applause. That moment when a spontaneous connection erupts, and interrupts something we can all recognize, with something new –  a reverberation in the air between actors and audience, and a sense of possibility about which they agree.

I was watching poets from 2 Cents Movement perform their spoken word play about gender-based violence to secondary school students. My attention was drawn to students’ shouts of support, squeals of laughter, and raucous identification with both scenes of gender-based violence and scenes of resistance, realization and transformation.

The play is set in a café, meant to be a safe space for everyone, both women and men who have experienced violence and those who need to let go of their anger and will to harm. There’s a simple, but disturbing scenario where a couple comes in for a drink and he tells her what she should have, even when she says she wants something else, even when she says no.

A confrontation results, because we all know that’s how easy it is, maybe not over a mauby, but maybe over some other decision a woman isn’t allowed to make if her man disagrees. You can feel the girls identifying. They’ve seen this before. It isn’t new. That’s just as disturbing.

The boys are also familiar, but there’s ambivalence. They want to identify with the man. He’s articulate and in charge. He’s taking care of his woman and demands respect. Yet, violence is always ugly. The negotiation between the couple plays itself out among groups of girls and boys. They are not only interacting with the play. They’re reacting to each others’ experiences, responses and emotions.

There’s another brilliant transition when the waiter serves up a moment of solidarity, and both boys and girls react, for we don’t see this enough either. The man wants his order. The waiter gives him something else. He tells him that he is the boss and he is the man and he decides what his customer drinks. First, the man explains this isn’t what he wants. Then, he gets angry, the way experiencing domination breathes a slow, focused, incredulous anger into you. Then, it clicks. This is what it feels like to her. 2 Cents will say that when poetry drops, it’s louder than a bomb, and you hear it right then when that lesson lands on the man. Boom. Noise fills the room.

The applause comes again and again, at points I didn’t expect, with emotional outbursts that surprise me. Laughter at a tension that shouldn’t be funny reveals, rather than hides, discomfort and uncertainty or maybe desensitization to what shouldn’t be normal. Given the paucity of local television shows, as the couple negotiates, those school children are seeing something rare. They are watching someone who looks like them or could be their neighbor or friend rewrite a dominant and toxic script, stand up for herself and be prepared to walk away. The uproar is loud when she exits because she sets the terms for her relationship, at least in this play.

This is what school children need to see: Safe spaces as common as your corner rum shop or café. Men and women challenging violence, individually and together. Information about how to manage all that hurt, fear and lashing out. Honesty about how early it is that harm begins. Individuals open to accountability and equality when old ways are wrong and need to change.

After it’s done, students write what they learned about how to end GBV. Currently a collaboration among Bocas Lit Fest, Courts, 2 Cents Movement and the IGDS, we want those messages, in students’ own words, to reach you.

This movement can never be too large and such joyful noise can never be too loud.

One secret.

Such applause can bring quiet tears to your eyes when you stand watching from the back of the crowd.

Post 258.

Last week, behind its glass façade, the CCJ was the site for a historic battle not yet won. These are hard words to write given that a judgment was already handed down ordering the Belizean state to return ancestral land to the Maya people. So, if the battle was won, why still fight in court?

Put yourself in the footsteps of the Maya as you follow this story. In 2015, the CCJ affirmed the right of 39 Q’eqchi and Mopan Maya indigenous communities, in the Toledo District of southern Belize, to lands that they have historically used and occupied.

Up to last week, those lands were not legally returned, meaning Maya land rights remain unprotected, forcing the Maya people to return to the CCJ to press the Belizean government to abide by the ruling.

Maya community organizations also appealed to the courts to protect their lands from multiple concessions given by the government of Belize to oil, logging, grazing and agricultural interests. These incursions occurred without the Maya people’s free, prior and informed consent, and without any redress. Not only has the Belizean government not returned Maya village lands, it continues to destroy and parcel out leases for land not legally, historically or morally its own.

Meanwhile, the government of Belize was ordered to develop a mechanism to recognize Maya land rights claims in consultation with the Maya people. A Toledo Maya Land Rights Commission was established, but no elected or designated representative of any Maya community or body in Belize has ever sat on the Commission. It is run by state officials who are not sensitive to customary protocols of engagement, good faith or international law. The Maya must meet the Commission on its terms. Imagine a paper judgment which has not guaranteed justice, but been met with delay and denial.

The $300 000 Belizean dollars which the CCJ directed the government of Belize to invest in achieving compliance is being spent, on a range of costs including rent, vehicles, consultations, administration and salaries, without any compliance achieved. Recognising insult added to injury, last week, the court mandated 50% go directly to the Maya people.

They don’t have resources to keep going to the Supreme Court, and neither should the Belizean people be putting their resources to defending state violation. Maya organisations want the courts to impose sanctions and fines against the state, and have also have called for a tribunal with teeth to resolve these issues out of court. Imagine, three years ago, this is a battle they thought they won.

Cristina Coc, spokesperson for the Mayan Leaders’ Alliance, and a long fighter in this struggle, said to me, “This case is being watched by Indigenous communities all over who are using this case to leverage their own land claims, and it was highlighted in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” This is happening in our midst in Port of Spain. The world is watching, are we?

Carrying the burden, costs and tears of this with them, Maya communities continue to organize, demarcate their traditional boundaries, and envision sustainable alternatives which put ancestral reverence for nature at the heart of a Maya economy. Cristina’s heart was heavy, but her words committed: “Maya people have to remain resilient in face of these challenges, uphold our wellbeing, be a self-sustaining people, resist these violations, and protect our lands, territories, culture and identity.”

Their struggle may seem far from yours, but injustice is something with which we can all identify. The Belizean government seeks to replace Maya victory with defeat. The injustice of a battle already won, yet still having to be fought, reflects on us all from the CCJ’s glassy front on Henry Street.

Post 257.

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Get up. Stand up. Speak up.

“To achieve the full and equal participation of women and men in our national and regional development as competent human beings, and not property or real estate, then we have to stand up for gender justice”. Lyrics to make a politician cringe, delivered, as they rarely are at UWI’s graduation ceremonies, by Dr. Hazel Brown.

The podium was a platform for advocacy in common-sense style. Her walk to the microphone suggested frailties that come with age, but her words were tough talk from a tireless soldier still in the trenches. She wondered aloud how being conferred an honorary doctorate would help her to achieve long-pursued dreams for women’s rights, consumer rights, transformational leadership, and fair distribution of wealth and power to meet household needs. That’s the damn question self.

How do the degrees we receive, handed like a baton from the past to the future, become our fighting words and weapons against corruption, mismanagement, violence and inequality? “My greatest disappointment during my years of advocacy has been the lack of consistent, purposeful organizing by people like yourselves, in this room, in areas of active citizenship. There’s much talk, but there’s not enough of the necessary action that is required around the advocacy and for social justice”, she cautioned another generation.

Fifty years in the work of social change and people’s empowerment, and goodly Dr. Brown’s greatest disappointment is the well-schooled, well-heeled and well-robed who, by our thousands, are responsible for today’s perfect storm of fossil fuel dependence, increasing insecurity, and near institutional collapse; all avoidable if we mobilised our degree like a hammer and sickle, a small axe, a bilna, or a broom for the sweeping changes we long need.

Few know that Hazel started at UWI and left, finding organisations like the Housewives Association of Trinidad and Tobago, and later the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, a better academy for a woman of action. I can’t disagree.

Invest enough time supporting and learning from fearless activists and you emerge with lifelong intimacy with and commitment to standing up and speaking up, rather than remaining silent. You don’t conceive the work, and its demands and risks, as somebody else’s responsibility. I’m not convinced we’ve yet dreadlocked that fierce will to be truculent about transparency and justice, in the face of elite decision-making, into a UWI degree.

This can’t be top-down. Students have to demand of themselves that they learn to get up, stand up and speak up. Three weeks ago, I made my own students count all the readings they had not done and told them to give back one dollar for every one. Their education is an investment, and when they waste it the way WASA wastes water or the way the THA can’t account to the Auditor General and doesn’t care, they commit the crime that has left our Heritage and Stabilisation fund woefully empty. They directly take what could have bought another hospital bed in another Ministry’s budget, or paid another social worker to help the almost 20 000 school children seeking counseling.

Because I’ve been thinking about budgets in an economic crisis, I was dead serious about how blithe indolence is almost like tiefing. They were more offended at my demand for their pocket money than horrified at their entitlement, but how will we produce graduands who won’t waste one more public penny?

So, what are we conferring on Dr. Brown? Is it promise of solidarity? Is it institutional backing? Is it commitment to households, consumers and communities, rather than alignment with the tripartite box of labour, government and industry? Will this mean that a university dominated by men will bring its bois to back Dr. Brown in her decades-long call for a national gender policy?

Being close to her advocacy for over twenty years has taught me more than my degrees. There are not many people from whom you learn something activist, strategic, global, grounded, historical, feminist, and community-centered every time you sit in a room with them. The honor acknowledges her contribution to knowledge for Caribbean transformation. It should give her the power to be able to call on a university graduating women and men of action.

 

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