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.

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Post 254. 


Wednesday afternoon found me playing a game.

Every two years, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at Cave Hill hosts a summer Institute in Gender and Development. This is their twelfth session, and participants from Dominica, Jamaica, Bahamas, St. Lucia, Barbados, Belize, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Cuba, Guyana, Antigua and Grenada were there. More than two dozen people of all ages, ethnicities and sexualities in one of those special opportunities to come together as Caribbean people. 

I’ve been playing this game for twelve years. Called ‘Steppin Up’, it’s a feminist-movement building game focused on consciousness-raising, strategy-sharing and solidarity-building. The board is the size of the room, made with masking tape. Each square offers scenarios in which groups must choose options, sometimes thus moving forward or back, and understanding more about the complexities of addressing issues from child sexual abuse, fair trade and youth leadership to working across religious boundaries. 

Regardless of your organization or issue, the Caribbean terrain is beset by all these challenges.

The goal is to provide players with an experience they can reflect on, for plenty people, especially with activist commitments and aspirations, talk good politics without reflecting on how they actually engage others, make decisions, and assess their movement’s strategic gains and losses.

Someone always starts off asking how to win. After playing, I ask them for the answer. They realise it’s not a race and that frame prevents them from creating collaborations or working across divides when possible. Also, what’s gained if you rush ahead to complete the content, but miss the group dynamics that mean people feel silenced, trivialized or disrespected along the way?

I set no rules and, later, players realise how many they conservatively set themselves. Nothing stops them from challenging everything they have been taught about competition, and how much it alienates us from each other and ourselves. Yet, they rarely make the radical decision to collaborate across groups although that could transform their entire experience of the game.

Players reproduce competition, hierarchy, and goal-oriented rather than people-oriented decision-making because of Caribbean schooling, which continues to work for some individuals, but not for the region. 

We just don’t provide enough lessons of collaboration, attention to emotion within and across our collectivities, rewards for rethinking alienating rules, and strategies for enabling all, rather than just those who come first, to ‘win’. That deficit shows up in our capacity to ultimately create equity, justice and social inclusion.

Many spoke about the joy of a methodology that prioritized participation, decision-making, group-learning, activity, self-reflection and fun. It’s unsettling to think about how much less they would have learned had I opted for readings plus a chalk and talk approach.

Draw down from this lesson to our children whose age makes learning through activity, self-reflection, challenge and collaboration the most appropriate model. Add those children who are especially least likely to get the most from desk-bound, chalk and talk approaches, whether in relation to math or creative writing. Think of how many up and coming Caribbean young people we set up to fall two steps back.
I see the risks for Ziya too. She’s not yet clicked into desk work and becomes dreamier in the face of stressful schooling, though she loves learning through activities, discussions, play and books. 
At home, I get my news from reading, Stone gets his from TV. As it is, he knows much more than I do from the volume of news and commentaries he watches. Imagine if it was newspapers or nothing. That’s our schools. We enforce one way of teaching and testing, rather than the necessity of multiple routes.

Imagine even students who ace high stakes assessments may end up in their third choice of school and feel like failures because of a slew of layered hierarchies and inequalities. Surely, this result says more about our inadequacies than our children, about our commitment to the exam over equity, justice and social inclusion.

When a region of adults still wishes to learn through methods, including games, that validate how well-rounded, socially-conscious Caribbean people grow, we should step up and account for the real politics of our pedagogy, what works and should stay, and what fails and must go.

Post 231.

Global emphasis on women’s economic empowerment has taken centre stage. The UN is talking about it as are Commonwealth countries and top women execs. Headlines on this goal are set to become more common. What do they signal?

Feminist goals regarding economic power build on a century of analysis regarding women and work around the world. ‘Economic empowerment’ is an idea with long history: from the complexity of women’s experiences of sexual, reproductive and labour exploitation for colonial plantation profits to contemporary women’s subsistence agriculture or informal economic activities and housework hours remaining uncounted and unvalued. The idea has filtered into decades of focus on micro-finance, small-scale saving, sustainable income opportunities, fair trade, and public policies to support work-family balance.

Caribbean women have deep knowledge of the intricacies and challenges of economic empowerment. Our grandmothers were raising families, theirs and sometimes others, while also taking in sewing work, selling cakes and pastelles or marketing their garden produce. Many Caribbean women labour in the informal economy, manage small savings through sou sou systems, and take risks to start their medium-scale businesses. Yet, it’s only been in the last decades that women have shattered glass ceilings in middle management. They have yet to do so among top CEOs and in areas like finance.

Caribbean feminists have added an important dimension. For them, economic empowerment should not be reduced to women’s entrepreneurial survival and success. In other words, empowerment isn’t only how well you do at business nor is business logic the best way to ensure equity, rights, freedoms and a good life.

Rather, economic empowerment is when women, including the poorest among us, can collectively and powerfully influence states’ macro-economic policy, and push through legislation and protocols that effectively stop waste and corruption, which ultimately emaciate social sector spending. Have women secured such influence in Trinidad and Tobago today? If more women became successful business leaders, would they be more likely to take on these issues?

Economic empowerment is when women’s experience of labouring in both the public sphere and private businesses occurs within the context of all the policies that they need. It is when market vendors can shape agricultural trade policy or when domestic workers can get the government to ratify International Labour Organisation Convention 189, which enshrines their right to decent work.

Women’s economic empowerment isn’t just about jobs, financial services, property ownership and legal rights, though those are important. It’s more than increasing the numbers of individually wealthy women. It’s certainly about more than their charity and greater ability to help others. It’s about more than increasing the numbers of women in the workplace, for many of those jobs may be dead-end, like hotel cleaners at a Tobago Sandals resort.

Strong, women-led, social movements, which successfully hold the state and political-economic elites accountable for our economic conditions, are the best example of women’s economic empowerment. These movements recognize the unequal burdens and intersecting sources of subordination as well as the forms of dignity and value that characterize women’s labour. They collectively challenge ideologies and institutions that sustain existing inequities in power and patterns of control over economic, natural and intellectual resources. They compel investment in public infrastructure, for example in drinkable water and safe transportation, that affect women’s home-based and waged-based work.

Will the current focus on women’s entrepreneurship advance such movement-building? Will it sustain commitment to cross-class solidarities among women, or a trickle-down form of feminism?

Indian feminist, Srilatha Batliwala, writes, “in keeping with the insidious dominance of the neo-liberal ideology and its consumerist core, we see the transition of empowerment out of the realm of societal and systemic change and into the individual – from a noun signifying shifts in social power to a verb signaling individual power, achievement, status” (OpenDemocracy 2007).

Yes, there should be more equal numbers of wealthy women to wealthy men. But, there should also be less extreme economic inequality between wealthy and poor. There should be access to justice for all regardless of their place in the economy.  Such justice must include the legitimacy and influence of movements to end gender inequalities.

Given all that women’s economic empowerment thus means, we wait to see what emphasis on women’s entrepreneurship actually achieves.