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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Post 187.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 185.

HazelBrwownStamp

It’s the stories that I love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Post 179.

You don’t go there thinking that you will learn about how to live, but so it was last week at the funeral of Marcia Henville. How humbling to sit among her children and best friends, those she helped or who helped her, and some who never met her at all, everyone reflecting on what difference one life could make.

I was moved by invocations of forgiveness, knowing that this choice is not about excusing a wrong, but preventing it from devouring you from inside, particularly when your family is already torn asunder. I heard people say it was too soon, Marcia wasn’t even buried yet, but I couldn’t imagine what else her children could be expected to do.

We all live in families where we have had to learn to forgive hurts large and small. That hasn’t meant forgetting, and it does not displace necessary expectations for accountability, care and justice. But, as you walk with your wounds, you need to travel light. Fear, anger and hate are too heavy burdens when grief, regret and disappointment may be all you can bear.

Forgiveness is never about the other person and his or her lesson, it is only always about your ability to heal. When you forgive, you fit something that happened into your past, freeing your present, knowing there is no other exit from a darkening maze.

I admired that Marcia’s family and community understood this immediately. In my heart, I asked myself if I could be that good, that strong, that insightful about how to survive such a painful path ahead.

I also listened closely to what people remembered. She taught her children to be themselves, and she was their friend. Her friends said that she would go wherever she heard someone cry. She roamed the country helping families. She connected shotters with their desire to live differently, rather than by the gun. She had her own vision for the marginalised.  It felt like not letting such commitment die could be so simple, but her coffin was a reminder that it is not.

We still ask the wrong questions about violence against women. Why ask why women don’t leave? There are many reasons, from commitment to children and abiding love to terror and low self-confidence to lack of support and economic insecurity. While women must be empowered to secure their own safety, our questions should instead be: Why doesn’t every societal message tell boys and men who resort to violence that seeking help is their responsibility? Why don’t more men’s groups take action against men’s violence and for men’s healing? When will powerful men visibly lead transformations of masculinity beyond its associations with power, recognising the point of women’s struggle for peace and equality?

My own male Guardian Media bosses can begin to set examples that may save women’s lives. Stag’s totally sexist, ‘It’s a man’s world. Rule responsibly’, campaign should be the first to fund national anti-violence messaging everywhere that Stag sells, throughout and beyond Carnival. Profiting from dangerous ideals of men’s right to rule, despite statistics showing what that means for women in reality, means on every billboard and bottle you should be the first to market men’s responsibility to stop violence against women.

Reflecting on what difference one life, one effort, one campaign could make, I left Marcia Henville’s funeral with lessons resonating in my head like a conversation between tenor pan and bass. Remembering that love is a practice of forgiveness as much as of justice, I walked away under noon sun, grateful for an example of the kind of person I still could become.

(An interesting note: when this column was published, the Guardian editors removed the reference to the company, Guardian Media. Just reminder that what we read is, ultimately, corporate controlled.)

Post 180.

Now that the government has collapsed and a general election should be called, people will start asking ‘who we go put?’

Elected to power in May 2010, a collaboration of parties and principles was formed to oust Patrick Manning, but nonetheless brought the UNC, COP, MSJ, NJAC and TOP into a hopeful coalition. COP is at odds with itself and the government. TOP and NJAC bring no votes. MSJ has left never to return and the UNC, which cannot by itself constitute the People’s Partnership government, has spent four years destroying its own legitimacy from within.

Those who are left, from Speaker Wade Mark to Minister Howai, have also lost public credibility. Vasant Barath’s unholy alliance with propagandist Ernie Ross, which conjured up such ill-begotten campaigns as the ‘Kublal’ lizard, the belligerent attacks on media for censorship, and the entirely vacuous Petrotrin-funded ‘happiness’ full page ads, seems to have been involved in both setting up Gary Griffith and attempting to hoodwink the population on official letterhead. The UNC’s only political capital is Kamla Persad-Bissessar herself, her strategy of endless direct patronage, and her Faustian deals with financiers who can bling her back into power.

For those willing to assume office for the next few months, the first Cabinet meeting could only be compared to Alice’s entry to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or newbie skiers leaping recklessly onto a snowballing avalanche or a relay race where the runners enter from anywhere and run in any politically expedient direction. Sorry to mix metaphors, but it is that kind of pretense at coherence going on.

Then, there is the PNM. Amongst other factors, if Patrick Manning somehow makes it through the nomination process, gunning as he is to undermine Rowley, then that too will render the party completely unelectable to anyone who voted precisely to get Manning out in the first place.

So, who we go put? Perhaps, these reflections will stop us from asking this.

Perhaps, taking a break from brilliant mauvai langue memes, radio callers will push discussions on what in our political culture creates such lack of options for leadership. We’ve been having this conversation for the last decades so there is much for a new generation to draw on and this is no time to give up.

What needs to change in our constitution, state institutions and civil bureaucracy? What is the first step in our own national campaign to create more focused questions and answers about responsible government? What constitutes accountability? How is that best ensured? How can Parliament better prevent both corruption and maximum leadership? What policies and democratic practices do we expect from political parties? What must we all change in the way we relate to state resources and power across every community?

Late last year, Winston Dookeran admonished me about the importance of getting involved in politics, which in his view was the only way to change leadership and governance. You civil society activists create a lot of noise and little impact, and mostly gain a feel-good sense of self from complaining outside the walls of authority, he said. I couldn’t see how his getting into Cabinet gave him any more voice, relevance or influence, and had already chosen to invest in civil society because building power by, of and for the people from the ground up is what remains necessary.

We will ask ‘who we go put?’ for another fifty years if we don’t think of what vox populi, vox dei means beyond voting in an election. Our demand a fresh mandate should kickstart our campaign for answers to far more transformational questions.

Post 172.

One day I woke up and realized that I was twice as old as the university students I teach, cast as too serious about school work, obedient to an institutionalized hierarchy and long past any connection to rebellious irreverence.

I thought about this when a student came to tell me her essay was late because she was too busy with activism. We were on break, during a guest lecture that challenged gender studies’ students about academic feminists’ commitment to more than our own professional advancement, to the everyday needs of women’s lives and to social change. Why laud writing books when we should be helping communities prevent another abuse of a woman or child? What was achieved by articles instead of direct action?

With the guest lecturer’s questions resonating in her mind, the student felt she was on strong footing to school me on the truly radical politics of a late essay justified by on-the-ground civic involvement.

I laughed quietly because she reminded me of myself when I had that heady certainty that those older than me had given up the revolution for work wear and girl shoes, monthly salaries, and the class privileges of Babylon. She thought I had sold out, not continually redefined subversive commitment.

I told her the story of my University of Toronto lecturer, Guyanese Arnold Itwaru, who assigned us an essay on our Caribbean identity. Weekly, while reading Kamau Braithwaite, Franz Fanon, Eduard Glissant and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o outside of class, I’d tell him I couldn’t write the essay because I had no nation language, only the colonizer’s English, and only equally foreign forms such as poetry, prose and plays to substitute for the alienation of academic writing style.

Given that class was all about decolonization, and we were so inspired that my nineteen year old friends and I had stopped eating with knives and forks and forever forsworn jackets, I was sure Professor Itwaru would understand I was wrestling with the whole point of essays and education.

Indeed, I had called up my mother from my dorm room and asked her if she wanted me to get a degree or get an education. Any parent or person over nineteen knows exactly what she said.

I had also just challenged my college’s insistence that we wear academic gowns every night to dinner in our dormitory dining halls. Trinity College, at University of Toronto, took and still takes that tradition seriously. Naturally, I wasn’t down with wearing no symbol of academic, colonial elitism on my post-independence, fervently brown-is-beautiful shoulders.

The college said to wear the gown or get kicked out. I said me and my Iranian comrade sistren would go to the press about racism. They said ok, the college will collectively vote on your right to refuse in one week’s time, wear the gown until then. We complied by painting ‘fight the power’ and ‘oppression’ in red, with our hands, down the front of the gowns, and walked in to eat with young Marley as our life soundtrack. Turns out, we successfully argued for a decolonial right that was non-existent before, winning by three votes in a packed room. In May, Professor Itwaru accepted the paper that was due in December, and gave me an A.

Now on the other side of youthful idealism, that is being seen as neither youthful nor radical, I appreciate that scholarship can save lives, and that reading and reflection can enable better activism. Education is both a practice of discipline and freedom, I told my student. I understand why my mother wanted me to graduate. Now, write that essay.

Post 164.

Close to the Highway Re-route Movement and Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh’s second hunger strike, there have been moments of self-reckoning, of seeking optimism in every step forward, and of continuing to weave passion for a better world with level-headed analysis about the actual terrain.

I’ve asked myself what constitutes a movement and how many must comprise its ranks? Are a handful of active individuals with wider, more passive public sympathy enough?

What happens when those few individuals become worn down, hopeless, unable to sacrifice more, and alienated by others who find them too troublesome or disloyal? What is our role in supporting them and how can larger popular energy be genuinely gathered rather than appear as manufactured momentum?

What does it mean when the public does not rally en masse behind citizen challenge to state power, but when that engagement is doubtlessly better for public life now and in the future? Wrapped in the mix of public dialogue are also PR spin, media control, prejudices, misinformation, anger, fear and an array of other pressing sufferations. How to effectively engage our volatile but potential paradise with clarity and conscience, knowing that the status quo is backed by elite silences, political party loyalties, narrowly calculated development models, entrenched interests with bigger resources, and complex histories of distrust?

It’s easy to sit back and criticize what ordinary citizens, fighting for one kind of justice or another, haven’t done, to have the privilege of hindsight in evaluating their strategy, or to misinterpret their failures as proof of their illegitimacy.

It’s easy to point to questions of ego or single-minded leadership as if reflection on ego, pride and single-mindedness isn’t part of our own being human too. It’s easy to be uninformed, to disparage and to resort to quick anger. Rather, we should be asking how we can build consensus, connect to each other in ways that reveal resolution, and hold each other as allies whatever our differences, for aren’t we all called on to create one nation?

Hard and honest answers are necessary for the consciousness raising, advocacy and organizing that seem endlessly ahead, whether in relation to governmental transparency, gender equality, ending violence or preservation of the only ecosystem we will ever have.

In reckoning, I’ve asked myself what kind of leader I want to be, navigating between clear personal vision and responsibility to a shared mandate. I’ve thought hard about how the revolutionary act of motherhood, a feminist commitment to public politics but also to family, must be a strategic guide. I’ve questioned the implications of using guilt or pressure, or even unfairly disparaging citizens or officials’ names, avoiding the manipulation, and divide and rule of politicians. I’ve wondered at the costs of giving your lifetime or your life to a political principle, and hope I could find any of that commitment, knowing that there should be no other way to live.

These past weeks of this unique hunger strike, whatever its outcome, have brought me up close with passion, for who feels it knows. Wayne’s individual defense of democracy, community and sustainability as inalienable from development’s meanings is only part of a much larger collective which will soldier on for rights, justice, accountability, compassion and more, in every way we can imagine, in the ways already ongoing, fearlessly.

When in doubt, there is always our own Caribbean history, reminding that change is always possible, and that we inherit a homegrown spirit of defiance instead of defeat.

These are dread times, but when have they not been? What to remember from this moment? To keep giving life to optimism, passion and uncompromising truth.