momentous trivialities: diary of a mothering worker


Post 311.

Every end of term is a chance to assess whether we are teaching children the way that they learn or making them learn the way we teach; a misguided approach that helps to explain why so many students fail to do well, experience terror and fear at test time, and don’t particularly enjoy school.

In thinking about this, I’ve spent time looking at other schooling systems. In Amsterdam, they don’t begin to teach reading until seven years old. In Japan, there is no testing at all until children are ten as all their first years in school focus on developing ethics, independence and resilience; building community-spirit; and creating connections between children and nature.

As my own eight-year old child walks away from class bent over under the weight of her school bag, I’ve wondered if our understanding of childhood is the right one, for it emphasizes children’s mental development, but hardly attends to their emotions.

This is such a strange decision to make as emotional experiences which we have as children define so many adults for the rest of their lives, and because children’s development is primarily emotional – in terms of their understanding of their feelings, their ability and willingness to express them, and their capacity to connect knowledge to emotional intelligence.

Childhood is when our life long emotional map is established, often in ways we don’t come close to realizing, despite the fact that these early emotional maps determine many of our decisions and relationships as adults.

What I’m referring to here is different from teaching morals and civic virtues, and even kindness and cooperation. There’s excellent guidance for that in children’s classes already. I’m referring to children’s relationship to their feelings, to each other’s feelings, and our own understanding of how key these are for their own success as well as for the fate of the future and the world.

How else to say it? Our future isn’t only in the books weighing down the school bags of our children, but also in the hearts beating like tiny bird wings in their little chests. Let’s not forget.

Indeed, who attends to children’s emotional development with the same time, effort, guidance and revision that is put to their school curriculum? Do parents and teachers even know what this means, and when and how to do it? Or what the consequences are of it not happening?

I’ve been thinking about this myself because I’ve been wondering how to react to Ziya’s end of term results. I’m not focused on her marks, she’s too young for those to indicate her academic future, but because final marks are signs of both academic and emotional strengths and weaknesses. We can revise the curricula all through the holidays. How to know what to do about everything else that shapes how she learns and copes and feels?

In wondering what kind of parent to be, I’ve thought hard about accepting lower marks because I know she’s an emotionally complex little character and there have been a few hard months for her over the course of this term.

In accepting possibly lower marks, how do I build her confidence through appreciating she’s doing her best, she while also ushering her into the next life stages when she can do better? And in that process, how do I even know what her emotional needs are and what giving them the same focus and priority as schooling looks like?

As the end of term approaches, I’m urging gentleness and reflection from parents when opening those report cards. I’m also urging reflecting on context – both school and home – because those are where the answers to their marks also lie, with us, with our parental understanding of children’s developmental stages, with our capacity to attend to the emotional and mental fit necessary for learning.

There’s no rule book for knowing how to get the mind-heart balance. Each child is also different, and there isn’t a single parent who always gets it all right.

Keeping that in mind, know that some of their mistakes are reflections of ours, and if their report cards tell any truth, it’s that school marks count for some aspects of life, emotional learning is all that matters for others, and not one adult parent always gets an A grade at both all of the time.

I’m just trying to remember to support all forms of learning which children need. And to equally value all they know just as much as all they feel.

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Post 310.

It was entirely an old familiarity, recalled by the smell of airplane fuel in morning heat. You know when a drifting scent or shade of light suddenly puts both your feet back in the past?

As I crossed Piarco’s tarmac, I glanced up into the brightness and the yellow-painted side of the airport made me look twice, the first time mistakenly seeing a waving gallery and, the second time, vividly remembering the old one, from the old airport, as if it was there in front of me. I breathed, feeling goosebumps, maybe because of the hot wind blowing along my arms or from being caught momentarily convinced by this mirage.

As a child, I’d marvel at so many beloved families and friends crowding that second-floor verandah to share an experience of travel, to emotionally wave at their loved ones until they disappeared through the plane door, or excitedly identify them from the line of rumpled travelers as soon as they disembarked.

Something in the new airport design, whether for modernization, security or cost-cutting, lost sight of this Caribbean custom or never understood or valued ordinary Caribbean cultural expressions of connection and community, and the narrow, barricaded gate at which one now says quick goodbyes has shut such a space for sharing into the past.

I was coming home from commemorating the 25th anniversary of The UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies on the Cave Hill campus in Barbados. The three founding professors of the IGDS, Patricia Mohammed, Rhoda Reddock and Eudine Barriteau were being honoured, and I sat at the conference with graduate students who, in just two years’ time, would never have these Caribbean feminist foremothers on the campus with them. After nearly forty years, such passing of a generation that built scholarship, institutional strength and academic activism from scratch was the end of an era.

For twenty years on campus, I was under their wing, gaining invaluable guidance, compassion and protection. Looking through the shimmering above the tarmac, and blindly seeing a memory instead of the present, I thought about the past and what makes it live on.

These women tried to understand and value Caribbean customs and cultural practices, treated them like the true richness of theory and the deep wealth of scholarship and, in so doing, created a homegrown feminism that connected countries and generations in our region, crossing from one tarmac to another.

This homegrown Caribbean feminism’s head cornerstone was the one that the builder refused. It looked for what was ours, found the everyday ways ordinary people cared and created citizen coalitions, and built that into the design that my graduate students and I inherited.

The head cornerstone’s strength was its grounding in gendered analysis of the region and its realities; women’s rights histories and stories; mothers’ and grandmothers’, godmothers’ and aunties’ ways of raising up and nurturing; daughters’ aspirations to improve on the past; and the solidarities of male allies. None of these are yet taken seriously or valued in economics, social sciences and political theories in the Caribbean today.

Yet, somewhere, that window to our lives as they crisscross the Caribbean hasn’t disappeared. Twenty-five years on, in IGDS, it’s still here. Honouring these three women, I treasured the homegrown feminist foundation laid for us to remember to examine and empower the ways we make time and space for love, family, survival, connection and equality as well as the little traditions through which we recognize each others’ heart and humanity.

As I entered the airport’s cool interior, the past, present and future walked through with me. I thought about whether we educate both for Caribbean transformation as well as recognition of what most matters to Caribbean people, whether in terms of how we design our built environments or our social policies.

I thought about how few places teach another generation to understand, and protect from new ideas about modernization, foreign models or almighty profit, the spaces and practices that can be so easily relegated to obsolescence even when they have significance for care, connection and community. Now we get to decide what to keep.

Honouring the professors and the past would live on in our design for a future of Caribbean living and loving. For, one bright morning, the right hazy mix of scent and hue could fully return an old, familiar flutter of emotion and eagerness, along with nostalgia for what was simply deconstructed out of our collective memory.

It’s such an unnoticeable thing, the disappearance of that waving gallery.

 

Post 309.

Is justice for one, justice for all?

In the Caribbean, we have a way of dividing ourselves from each other, and from each other’s struggles. What if, instead, we thought that each of these struggles nurtured better chances for fair treatment for others. How might that make us invest in each other’s pursuit of rights, even when they seem at odds with our biases, fears or differences?

It’s a good question to ask in response to last week’s historic ruling of the Caribbean Court of Justice. Four Guyanese transwomen, Gulliver (Quincy) McEwan, Angel (Seon) Clarke, Peaches (Joseph) Fraser and Isabella (Seyon) Persaud, spent almost ten years challenging a charge and fine for “wearing women’s clothing for an improper purpose” in a public place. They spent four nights locked up for this minor crime. They pressed on despite the prejudice of the trial magistrate who lectured them about being confused about their sexuality and their status as men, and urged them to go to church.

This wasn’t the first time they had experienced the painful edge of a post-emancipation law, established in 1893 as another oppressive act of legal coercion. Such vagrancy and loitering provisions aimed precisely at denying freedom to Africans regarding their bodies, labour, gender, intimacies, religion and rights.

Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and others were also in Caribbean colonies by this time, with their own intersections of gender, sexuality, class and religion. All were now also brought again under the iron fist of colonial authority and its limits on our fundamental desires to be respected as self-determining individuals and, despite formidable hurdles, to be free.

Imagine for a second, then, that Gulliver, Angel, Peaches and Isabella showed unbelievable valor to end another vestige of colonial authority that continued to sharpen its blade right up until the twenty-first century. Imagine that, in doing so, they didn’t win a victory just for themselves or for transpersons or for gender diversity.

Step out of your biases, fears and framework of us and them for long enough to also see that their struggle edged forward free Caribbean people’s resistance to colonial rule, discriminatory laws and dehumanizing policing practices.

The highest Caribbean court struck down Guyana’s crossdressing law, arguing that it violates the Constitution of Guyana and is void. It found that the law invalidly criminalized intentions, not proven actions. It illegitimately defined some forms of clothing as objectionable. It lacked sufficient clarity for ordinary people to understand what conduct is prohibited. It gave police wide and almost arbitrary discretionary powers, creating real risks of victimization. It treated transgender and gender non-conforming persons unfavourably because of their gender expression and gender identity. Finally, the CCJ affirmed the validity of inclusion of advocates and social justice movements as interested parties.

The judgment affirmed a powerful promise that those most poor, marginal or powerless could, nonetheless, legitimately expect the system to defend them. As CAISO director Colin Robinson put it, “This is an historic ruling, particularly because it was brought by working class, transgender women who had the bravery and courage to seek justice from a system that does not usually work for them”.

Haven’t so many, particularly among the working classes, looked around and felt, as Isabella Persaud, one of the appellants said, “We are always treated like trash.” Their cause shares ground with Hindus, Muslims, Spiritual Baptists, Rastafarians, and poor Indians and Africans around the region who have turned to the courts for protection against being unfairly targeted or denied equality, respect and inclusion.

To quote the Hon. Mr. Justice Saunders, newly appointed President, “No one should have his or her dignity trampled on, or human rights denied, merely on account of a difference, especially one that poses no threat to public safety or public order.”

This line, and its logic, is one with which we all can agree, for it speaks not just to these four Caribbean citizens, but to each of us, and an ideal we surely must enshrine as necessary. Justice, however, isn’t only won in the courts. It’s also won in our nod to each other’s humanity in the streets. AS IGDS’ Angelique Nixon, acknowledged, “as important as laws are, we also have to do work to transform the culture to create more acceptance and tolerance” locally and regionally.

Regardless of who is expanding our access to justice, but especially when they are poor, working-class and beyond the pale of respectability, being Caribbean requires us to value the victory of those creating our regional future of greater justice and equality.

 

Post 308.

The story goes like this. On November 22, 1948, at the mosque on Prince Albert Street in San Fernando, a nineteen-year-old young lady, Sister Zarina Yusuf Mohammed, suggested to her aunt, Mrs. Ameena Rahamut, that they form a women’s association. At the time, electricity bills needed to be paid for the masjid, and the women were asked to respond with a financial solution.

From that moment until now, seventy years later, the San Fernando Muslim Women’s Association (SMWA) has been active on just about every front imaginable; from outings to fundraisers, charity, bazaars, iftar dinners, religious education, primary schooling, fashion shows and improvements to the masjid itself.  And, Sister Zarina is still an Association member.

I was humbled to be in the room with these honorable and humble ladies who have nurtured a women’s group for three generations, created a social space through which women could exercise leadership and form strong networks, and had an impact both within and outside the Muslim community through their support to students and children, care for the ill and poor, and much more.

I have a special love for Caribbean Muslim women’s organisations. You meet these women, who run battered women’s shelters or quietly support feminist struggles or work in children’s rights, and come face to face with some of the most hands-on community organisers in the country.

Sometimes, I’m intimidated. These women are proper in a way I’m not. They seem indefatigable, raising whole families of children and running their community like a dynasty, when I’m exhausted just trying to get through the day. They’re effective in a way I dream to be, making an impact, year after year for decades, that crosses class differences.

I was at the SMWA’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, wondering why they invited me as a speaker, for surely my public activism hasn’t put me in the movement for respectability as much as it has for respect for women’s rights. The two are not the same, and may at times be at odds.

I found myself thinking about our probable political differences in relation to reproductive rights and justice, sexual and gender diversity, and gender roles and responsibilities. More importantly, I found myself thinking that despite these likely differences in our feminisms, there was far more than I ever realized I could learn from these women.

Muslim women’s organisations in Trinidad have a long and resilient history. They should. Aisha, third wife of the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him), born at the turn of the seventh century, delivered public speeches, became directly involved in war and even battles, and was considered a stateswoman, scholar, mufti, and judge.

In Trinidad, from the 1930s, Muslim women were delivering lectures to mixed audiences, becoming members of elected mosque boards and councils, holding meetings to develop women’s groups, and participating in debates regarding women’s equality.

From the 1950s, the Young Muslim Women’s Association, the San Juan Muslim Ladies Organisation, and the Islamic Ladies Social and Cultural Association also began to be established. Muslim women in both the TML and Nur-E-Islam mosques also have a history of pushback against partitions narrowing their space for prayer in the masjid, and ASJA women have challenged their exclusion from voting in organizational elections when they perceived their association or jamaat being a “boys’ club”.

An “understated stridency” (to use Patricia Mohammed’s words) is at work here, despite stereotypes of Muslim Indian women as more passive, and even more oppressed. As I was reminded on Sunday, these women are formidable and fierce, they are generous and giving, and deeply committed to correct ways of living that create greater common good.

As I listened to their awards for earliest membership, longest service, and contribution after contribution, including by several women who are national award winners, I found myself dreaming that if I could help build and sustain a Caribbean feminist movement for seventy years, as they have for the SMWA, patriarchy and its harms might just be run out of town.

These are women from whom we can learn about the last half century of Muslim Indian women’s associational history. There’s capacity, connection, wisdom and will of steel to observe up close. Brother Kalamazad Mohammed is also an encouragingly progressive imam.

“It was essential to motivate women…into empowering themselves”, says Sister Zarina in an interview, “We were born to help the less fortunate. We were certainly not created to only dwell within the walls of our homes…”.

Sign me up, I thought. Alhamdulillah. I want to be a part.

Post 307.

When UWI students protested their vulnerability to robbery and rape on campus, we witnessed the brutality of overly-weaponised police unnecessarily roughing up two young dreadlocked male students, pressing their faces to the ground with their knees on their necks, and then throwing them in the back of the police jeep in order to later charge them for protesting feelings of insecurity to crime.

There didn’t seem to be any sense of irony that that dealing with such feelings of insecurity through repressive state force misses what a younger generation is legitimately telling both police and the nation about our own institutional failures. It was clear that police escalated the situation and that their training to deal with illegality – whether student protests or gang turf wars – is a single-minded and excessive hypermasculinity that strikes back to strike fear in the hearts of anyone out of order.

I thought about students’ lack of familiarity with strong-arm policing, and their naïve investment in police benevolence. Students believe they have a right to pursue a neoliberal dream of individual study, advancement and success as if the society isn’t falling apart around the borders of the campus.

Rather, students have to recognize that such a dream is a myth. Individual advancement is threatened night and day by wider social alienation, by widespread gender-based harm, by state institutional failure, and by systemic inequality and injustice – and this will reach students through threat of all kinds, whether robbery or rape, on campus just as anywhere else.

I’m not saying there isn’t more that the campus could do, but that fear and insecurity are social and economic problems, requiring institutional responses from an integrated justice system, and collective citizen investment and involvement in everything required for such transformation.

I thought too about how those very students probably don’t think too much about such policing as the modus operandi in poor and insecure communities, and the necessity of their solidarity with them, having experienced what that m.o. looks and feels like when the “good”, versus ghetto, youth get violently put in place.

We are all horrified by the murder rate and widespread fear of armed robbery and random shootings. We understand justification for shooting back at criminals who shoot at police. We understand that police are defending law-abiding citizens, and even wealthy non-law abiding and corrupt elites, with their working-class lives and families on the line. We understand that police share our fear as individuals and experience even greater occupational fear.

However, there is more to this seductive, simplistic, narrative. Where do individual badmen come from? Do they emerge in our society from nowhere? Is the gun-talk of “a war they want…a war they will get” going to change the disturbingly low rate of convictions or the shockingly slow pace of the justice system which institutionally reproduce the problem? Will it solve the fact that crime also continues because those responsible for patrolling streets and borders also are those running blocks or, as Rudder would put it, letting the guns and cocaine pass? Will it solve the fact that men in prison have higher than average rates of illiteracy or that they come from poorer households and communities, and schools failing children or, often, from situations of familial neglect and abuse?

In countries where crime has been reduced and jails emptied, has it been through being “rottweilers of aggression”? What of the fact that prison creates criminals by mixing men convicted of smaller offenses with gangs to whom they must show loyalty both in and, later, outside of jail in order to survive inside and, later, outside? As the restorative justice movement has long warned us, the fact that prisons officers, and police officers, are at risk of death is a problem exacerbated by how we imprison.

Anti-punk policing seems like the solution we have been waiting for, but fighting firearms with more firepower may leave us without sustained pursuit of real solutions. UWI students should know, only those solutions will offer greater safety. Who else in their generation will make them happen? As students should also now know, police can very quickly and forcibly turn against you, no matter how good a student you are, how respectable your family or how just your protest.

Students must invest in a creating a different society as part of investing in themselves, for peace is not the imprisoned security of greater surveillance and more guns, nor a society where support for police killings intensifies a spiral of excessive violence without end.

Post 306.

I called Miss Pinky to ask how she was and this time she wasn’t in tears. Her washing machine was lost after floods last year, and with help she recovered. This year, the new one was lost, along with her fridge and stove. Next door, her children and grandchildren “lost everything”, a phrase that is now so common across the country, despite remaining so surreal.

Compassion, care and help will be needed for months, for whole communities have been devastated, whole areas of small enterprise and home-based businesses lost, and thousands left traumatized.

I thought of Miss Pinky because she’s retired. Though she worked as a cleaner for decades at UWI, from just this month, she’s no longer here. As the university collected its list of staff and students affected, I thought about senior citizens and their additional vulnerabilities, their health complications, their economic insecurity and how much they will have to rely on their children for their recovery, if their children are able to provide.

When I called, Miss Pinky was using a hair dryer to try to dry out and fix her stove. She was by friends because her doctor advised her against staying surrounded by water where she could get an infection. They had been provided with food. I wondered at her resilient positivity, at her shock, at the fact that she was focusing on the immediate, rather than the full flood of tears that was she was absorbing after such a setback.

There’s a lot to say about the immediate crisis intervention, but we should also focus our attention on the state’s coordination of a longer social response. People have to leave their damaged possessions in their yards as proof of their suffering, but this only furthers their sense of trauma and inability to move on with recovery as they wait for local government representatives to arrive.

If your documents are destroyed or lost, you can go to Richmond St. to have them re-issued, but this should be coordinated through the regional corporations so that you are not waiting for state officials to come to your house at the same time as having to go to the health centre to get antibiotics or anything else needed while finding someone to take you to PoS as your muddied vehicle is no longer working and then waiting there amidst hundreds of others with the same plight all while managing despair and PTSD without a counselor in sight.

Does every house need to keep its destroyed appliances? State officials know which neighbhourhoods and streets were flooded, already know the maximum amount that will be disbursed per household, and are keenly aware that this is barely enough to get a start, and only then because citizens everywhere are stepping in to help.

Any future disaster management plan must have the post-disaster recovery far better coordinated, with all state services available in one community location, whether the school shelters or regional corporations or police stations that are unaffected.

There’s something to keep in mind too: the situation for all our sister and brother citizens in a few months’ time when its Christmas and Carnival, and the media has moved on. Will we be able to track the effect of the flooding on children’s scores at SEA and in end of year tests? Was there a Ministry of Education plan for how to support those children in coping and thriving between now and then?

Do we know how women and men’s recovery will be affected by being in a female-headed household or a two-parent family or in an extended family with elderly or ailing parents or with disabled children? Or, among households that survived on home-based businesses, and who are now without both a place to live and a livelihood?

It’s so important for us to always understand that social context – income level, family type, source of income, disability, age, gender, experience of household violence – influences how people recover, their experience accessing social services and their approach to trauma.

Amidst the apocalyptic and heartbreaking destruction are people’s different and unequal capacities to recover. This is not a ‘national security’ issue, it’s an issue of coordination and sensitivity in post-disaster service provision. It is as necessary as life vests, ropes and rafts in police stations for the next time. And, there will be a next time.

Disaster recovery efforts should have planned for this, and for grandmothers like Miss Pinky who are living by the grace of God until the next such rain.   O

Post 305.

IMG_0135

 

Standing ankle deep in the gentle waters of Point Sable beach, with miles of thick mangrove behind, all of Trinidad’s west coast curving ahead and families of pelicans soaring between, it’s hard to imagine that the fish in the Gulf of Paria are so poisoned, by oil spills and the toxins used in clean up, that they are not safe for consumption.

Indeed, dead fish and birds lie all along the shore. These are examples of how Petrotrin has devastated one of the island’s main fish nesting and catching grounds with multiple leaks of hundreds of thousands of barrels, with about two hundred pipelines with slow leaks which are unlikely to ever be fixed, and with chemicals that disperse the oil, but have toxic effects lasting years.

I saw the marks left by oil on the old jetty nearby. I met a fisherman who won’t eat the fish, but who can’t find another livelihood, and so is prepared to return to the Gulf after four years so that he can survive.

Fishing as traditionally practiced is a noble industry. Fishermen go out with their nets and exercise the kind of individual entrepreneurial spirit that state managers are now cajoling out of ordinary people, as if it isn’t how we have survived all along.

The footprint of working class fishing communities is relatively small compared to the trawlers and fishing boats of big companies or even boat owners who are minor millionaires, and it is the small man and small woman and small children in these families who will be worst affected by both the decline of the fishing industry and the poisoning of our marine environments. Dead fish mean, one day, dead people, for we are not immune to pollution in our air, land or seas, nor its impact on any part of the food chain.

I was walking the beach with Lisa Premchand, a young woman once working on seismic surveys, with a graduate degree in environmental management, for whom it one day clicked. She joined Fishermen and Friends of the Sea, an organization which has been working on issues from mangrove protection to squatters’ rights to marine pollution for decades.

I admire them because I admire citizens who take risks to protect our ecology, which includes humans, for we are part of nature, from corporate irresponsibility and state-managed harm. For the record, I have more time for FFOS than its critics, if those critics themselves are not stepping in to do better.

Lisa realized that the global data suggests that seismic surveys also kill fish, driving them away for years, and she turned her sights instead to learning how to legally defend nature and its inhabitants.

Listening her talk about the governments’ plan to build a highway mere feet from the Aripo Savannah, which is the only ecosystem of its kind in Trinidad with species found nowhere else in the world, makes you appreciate citizen investment and sacrifice to resist the unholy trinity of private contractors, state planners and the EMA, none of whom care about the rest of us as much as one young woman with her boots on.

I identified with her. Twenty years ago, I was helping hand out fliers to protect the mangroves from plans for Movietowne. Those mangroves and the biodiversity they contained took millennia to form and had a vastly complex relationship to the entire western coast, to migratory species, and to marine life and its food systems. For our entertainment, they’re now gone.

The ones on Point Sable beach will themselves be destroyed for a dry dock facility being built, using Chinese loans, in collaboration with a company, CHEC, globally considered corrupt. Bangladesh won’t let them in the door. The PM said there were 2700 direct jobs to be had, but Caribbean maritime industry lobbyists put this “bright new dawn” for La Brea at between 600 and 1200.

We don’t yet know the final cost to the nation for this facility, though it’s expected to push GDP up by 2.4%. How fisher folk and fishing traditions will endure, no one knows.

Standing ankle deep with Lisa, in this nesting ground for scarlet ibis for thousands of years, all I could think is that we understand money, but not wealth.

As I said goodbye to the 900 acres which will forever be turned into or contained by concrete, in another irreversible industry footprint, all I could think is that we cannot eat the money. Already, we should no longer eat the fish.

 

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