Post 266.

‘Sans humanite’ is our most identifiable cultural refrain, crossing centuries with its compelling, swaying echo of dark humor, stoicism, lament, and aspiration. The cry expresses a desire for recognition, and seeks audience identification with lyrical sparring with pain, for to be a victor in conditions of defeat is to hold your humanity like your bois, and to be seen defying forces that thrive off breaking its strength.

Just to stay on your feet, answering back, fighting, insisting on the fact of your existence is to make demands which matter on the larger collective watching, cheering or calling for your head and blood. It’s a big deal; a call for acknowledgement that you are human too.

Such insistence is fundamentally important, even when it will hardly change dominant institutions, structures and elites, because in the skies between heaven and earth are ever-circling corbeaux, and you might not reach that holy place that honors the God in you if, before your final ascent, your spirit first gets torn apart limb by limb.

How to be a victor in conditions of defeat? How to hold your humanity firm as a bois? How to escape that oppressive shadow of corbeaux following you?

Insist on fairness and refuse advantage by setting humanity as our first ground rule.

Long before conceptions of rights formally established the terms of our still unjust order, notions of fairness trod the land, wafting like breeze against curtains, warm like the smell of homemade bread; carrying in the last notes of rum shop conversation, evaporating in the cool night along with salty tears; and dusting off fruit and vegetables like remnants of garden soil as police and vendors negotiate the informal line between committing a minor crime and making an honest dollar.

Legal scholars will tell you that people are more likely to accept judgments against them, with which they may still disagree, if they feel they have been treated fairly in the process of administering justice. People will turn their lives around if the opportunity they are given is truly fair, with all that encompasses.

Women will stay rather than leave if the deal they are asked to accept truly honors their sovereign and independent humanity, and offers only what is fair.

Enemies might find a middle way out of senseless killing if a sense of fairness can establish just enough mutual trust and cooperation. Elites may act out of greater social responsibility if they recognize that that there is wider profit in fairness, and putting people first.

On this new day with its invitation to a new year, there is no solution to our troubles ahead if ‘sans humanite’ remains the best description of our state and our selves.

Lawyers will continue to debate the crisis in the judiciary and create no greater fairness for those most experiencing its injustice. Cabinet will shadowbox with financiers, contracts and corruption, hitting the public below the belt, while telling us to tighten, tighten. Women will continue to die while state agencies avoid those changes necessary to give them a fair chance at love and life.

Keep refusing such advantage. Fairness is the one ideal we all understand, which can make us more humane, which might still save us from ourselves.

I could talk about necessary resolutions, reform and implementation, civic values, and programmes to nurture something other than the crushing of integrity under government boots.

But, still on our feet, our bois is the smooth, hard weapon of fairness, and its power can hold us accountable to each other as individuals and across institutions. Without fairness, advantage, with all the deaths that it brings, will continue to rule.

‘Sans humanite’ may be our most identifiable cultural refrain, but corbeaux are circling, and their shadow is filling us with terror and doubt. Fairness and humanity must be our answer from today. They are strengths neither our society nor spirits can live without.

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Post 265.

A Christmas Wish

I was wrapping Christmas gifts when I came across the BBC news story from November 3rd on a “colossal ‘sea of plastic’ which stretches for miles’ and was found floating in the Caribbean.

Miles of garbage in the very warm body of water which defines us, holds us, connects us, feeds us and heals us across our archipelago. The images are sickening, a prophesy of the sickness to follow up the food chain, into our drinking water, and into our own warm bodies. Amidst all our gathering today in the name of love, is this how we love ourselves and our own?

 I stopped wrapping, held still by a feeling of waste of precious time and of precious priorities. What did these gifts for Ziya matter when one of our greatest gifts lay in waste? What did any of our gifts matter, all over these islands, when we are withholding the real wealth and our greatest expression of love and generosity, because it requires us to sacrifice our bad habits; be real that our connection to each other, rather than consumerism, is what actually matters; and be accountable as adults and ancestors to our children and their children’s children?

I kept wrapping, imagining today’s familial bliss of presents given and received. I could also see the bags of garbage, that would pass on from house to house and from generation to generation from our ways of cherishing each other, ending up in Beetham or Guanapo or maybe just at sides of roads, and ultimately in our rivers and seas before washing right back towards our feet.

Like many of you, I profoundly love our islands’ rivers and sea shores. There are no places more sacred, no sites of communion more capable of expanding your heart and spirit, and bringing bliss and peace. Zi and I go to feed our souls, and hers finds its little way by carefully stepping through and around garbage, some washed up by the tide, some thrown next to trails by irresponsible individuals.

We’ve seen bits of so many gifts, so many family gatherings, so many efforts at community spirit strewn for miles as signs of how much less we care about ourselves and each other than we say we do, or maybe how much better we have to be about what care and love truly mean.

I continued to cut paper and stick the ends with scotch tape, thinking how everything is a cycle. Everything thing you do, every decision, comes back to you or your children. Every act has consequence. Every piece of plastic I throw away will eventually come right back to me or Ziya or those she loves.

Stick. Dream of the joy of children opening gifts. Think of the thousands of plastic and styrofoam plates, forks, spoons, bags, bottles, wrapping and cups thrown away today. See the very happiness of Christmas just as I see its implications for tomorrow

Greenpeace has an ongoing global campaign to save seas from plastic pollution. They are specifically targeting single use plastics, arguing especially against plastic bottles and bags. There’s a key line to their messaging which is that we have to think about reducing, not just recycling. We have to think about giving to seven generations, not just for today. And, if we did, how might that change today itself in our little twin-island Caribbean state?

Greenpeace itself says: “Recycling schemes are failing to keep up. We are calling on key environment ministers to lead the fight against plastic pollution. This means taking urgent measures to eliminate single-use plastic waste at its source…The moment to turn the tide is now!”

This is my Christmas wish. That these words stick with you and make you look at love, children, giving, receiving and sacrifice a little differently, and remind us all of our real gift-giving responsibilities and opportunities.

Best wishes to you and your family.

Post 264.

As term concluded all over the country, parents sat through sweet, wonderful and interminable school and extra-curricular Christmas shows of various kinds. If you want an ethnographic look at the nuances of the modern social contract, observe hundreds of parents generously applauding each others’ children’s best attempt at anything audible or coordinated on stage  (or not) in a mutual agreement of after-work patience and reciprocity. 

Thousands of parents will help make these shared moments happen; those in the parent-teacher associations, those who work full time and give far more than I can even imagine, those who are primary care-givers and are the real glue in school efforts at Christmas shows, carnival costumes, Divali celebrations, and fundraising efforts. Most, but not all are women.

I’m not one of those moms. I’m terrible at staying on top of what my one child has due in school, attending choir meetings, helping to paint the classrooms or cultivating a school food garden.  I don’t have an excuse. I know mothers of more children than me, working full-time and raising their children virtually on their own, who also make muffins for class bake sales and show up in the right length shorts for the school fundraising car wash. 

You mothers are amazing. I honor and appreciate you. I’m wracked by guilt for being what feels like a bad mom, often more interested in work than anything else, but I haven’t yet organized my life to contribute in ways that share the care. I always wonder if dads ever experience that guilt. Nonetheless, it’s a resolution for next year.

There’s the expectation that a good school will put on these Christmas plays or Carnival productions, but there’ a lot of extra effort needed to pull off something that parents won’t quietly grumble over.

This year, rather than going big, Ziya’s school held their play in the school hall and the decorations had that handmade for the school auditorium feel. It’s always a negotiation between the fanciness of the production, and the cost and effort required.  

I liked the scaled-down version because it felt authentic. It simplified the point, which was to collectively be there for children to shine for a few minutes in more than their parents’ eyes, not spend money which some don’t have during economic hard times nor make the space and style more impressive than the small people singing in or out of tune. It was clear that the teachers had acted, not only out of professional responsibility, but out of immense pride and love, to display to us how our children have grown through their hundreds of hours of care. I want to salute teachers too and recognize your contribution and value.

A school production is not only an prime example of community, it’s a rite of passage for parents; those memories you will lovingly cherish, and yet are happy to leave behind, of sitting through class after class or age group after age group of skit, song and dance of questionable though super-cute skill.  The extra-curricular end-of-year productions are like that also, lots of rehearsals and costuming, and lots of empowering parental response, an extension of the way we look at our own little ones’ drawings and imagine their adult artwork hanging in the Louvre. It’s a shared soft-focus approach and one of the best things about the end of term when everyone is tired, but a coalition of the willing.

When strife dominates the front pages, it’s easy to forget that these end of term shows can be those precious moments of life which matter most to thousands of families, often taking priority over headline news. 

I highlight them here because, now that the term and tests are over, it’s good to remember that teaching and learning is sometimes less about our heads or our ranks and marks, than the memories we are blessed enough to gather in our hearts.

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.

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.