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.

 

Post 228.

A process that began with the 2004 version of a Draft National Gender Policy is soon to be completed. Those years have involved letters to the Editor, media interviews, press releases, strategy meetings, appeals to political representatives and officials, think pieces by columnists, and public actions. All of this to maintain that approval of a gender policy is one measure of a government’s commitment to gender equality.

I put this into national print record because, although a gender policy is a reflection of the state’s position on how equality should be pursued across all ministries, its roots lie with the global women’s movement, which began to pursue women’s and gender policies from the 1980s, and fearlessly criticized governments when those policies missed core issues, contained contradictory positions, or failed at adequate consultation. It was the global women’s movement that mainstreamed the idea that every state policy, from health to education to trade, has an impact on equality and equity, on women’s lives and on the relationship between masculinities and power.

Though an approved gender policy will be marketed by government as a sign of its leadership and liberalism, that story hides the subtext of relentless lobbying by women’s and LBGT movements, whose leaders have survived and been lost to cancer, who faced the harm that comes from religious and atheist backlash to feminist aspirations, and who ushered in another generation of activists by organizing them around policy advocacy.

Hopes have been dashed, such as when ex-PM Manning trashed the first policy draft, forcing Joan Yuille-Williams to backtrack, even though she had pulled the state and women’s movement together to create a progressive product that reflected clear thinking or 20/20 vision rather than a later Vision 2020. As a young activist, I was very critical of her capitulation, but the party machine and Manning’s authoritarianism prevailed. At the time, he infamously made a statement about not believing in ‘gender flexibility’ which can only be described as a denial of vast anthropological scholarship and actual reality.

Hopes were further crushed when the 2009 draft, which informs the one now heading to Cabinet for approval, said in bold type: “The National Policy on Gender and Development does not provide measures dealing with or relating to the issues of termination of pregnancy, same-sex unions, homosexuality or sexual orientation”. In other words, rights for the respectable. There were religious constituencies happy that discrimination and inequality were front and centre in a policy meant precisely to tackle how our beliefs about gender and sexuality reproduce discrimination and inequality; a holier-than-thou, bitter irony.

Marlene McDonald led the process to the 2009 draft. I found myself, also ironically, wishing for elder stateswoman “Auntie Joan”, who included women’s rights in a way that didn’t leave us so utterly kicked out of the door. In the last election, McDonald actually used the PNM Women’s Platform to attack Brenda Gopeesingh and Hazel Brown for the fact that a gender policy was buried alive by Kamla Persad-Bissessar, knowing full well that endless advocacy continued and that the women’s movement cannot be answerable for what Cabinet decides to do or not do.

Keep this very point in mind. The current draft is founded in unfair concessions to intolerance and sheer prejudice, and divides those who have rights from those who will not any time soon. As long as a gender policy fails to acknowledge the role homophobia plays in reproducing sexism, it is running in place. Further, the fact that the policy leaves abortion out of its notion of public health means it excludes thousands of women from its idea of the citizen public.

We will celebrate approval of a gender policy for we value every step forward. We will remember that it is not only a victory for state and party, but for feminist women and men speaking out all these years. However, we will maintain that the policy should leave no woman out because of her health choices, and nor any man or woman because of sexual orientation. We will not forgo all hope that one day an approved gender policy will be inclusive and just, and no longer subject to the Machiavellian politics of governing parties. Advocacy will and must continue.

*For a discussion of the relationship between sexism and homophobia, see this TEDx PoS talk:

Diary of a mothering worker.

Post 209.

At last week Wednesday’s forum, ‘Reflecting on Gender and Politics in the 2015 Election Campaign’, young people filled the room, many of them lesbian and gay, who I hope felt that the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at UWI created a safe space for public deliberation, for once not defined by their marginality.

The event was inspired by ‘the marginals’ in national talk about the election. How could we instead think about politics beyond polls and ‘the numbers’, to see multiple kinds of ‘margins’ in our landscape, especially in the deeply connected experiences of women and the LBGTI community? How could we encourage public reflection that no other site in the country would, precisely because feminist academia is founded on solidarity with these groups’ continuing struggles for equal citizenship? How could we build on civil society efforts to bring us together across political party divides?

There was the history of the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women to build on. Twenty years of producing a Women’s Manifesto and trying to get campaigning parties to commit to its goals. Twenty years of funding women candidates in the hopes that they would see the women who helped to get them into power as an important constituency. More years of encouraging a women’s cross-party caucus, where women politicians could gather as allies, rather than adversaries.

There was also the history of organisations like Caiso, Friends for Life, Women’s Caucus, Silver Lining Foundation and I am One to support. More than a decade of advocacy to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, Caiso produced a manifesto, ‘6 in 6’, which outlined six policy and leadership steps they hoped that the new government would take in its first half year in office. Five years later, with those all unfulfilled, whether in terms of police treatment of LGBTI crime victims, the creation of safe schools or the community’s greater vulnerability to homelessness, they were still challenging their marginality. Now as part of a new network of groups called Allies for Justice and Diversity, a rights-we-deserve-not-what-rights-we-are-allowed manifesto was again created in 2015.

In a country where ‘the marginals’ decide the victor, it made sense for a post-election forum to bring together marginal groups to document their overlapping analyses and strategies, as they both contested how ideals of masculinity and femininity shape the lived realities of political life. Sexism cannot be ended without also ending homophobia, and advancing emancipation requires us to fearlessly document, understand and defy an unjust status quo. Where else then, would we discuss the homophobic bullying and stereotyping experienced by gay male candidates, from the population, their own political parties, and our headline-hungry media? Where else would we share how campaigning is experienced by women as they negotiate the significance of their family roles, femininity, and sexual respectability for their acceptability as representatives and leaders? Where else would the nation’s first transgender electoral candidate affirm her right to all the rights of citizenship, including public office?

As an act of university solidarity, and to strengthen the alliance between women’s and LGBTI rights advocates, Nafeesa Mohammed, Khadijah Ameen, Sabrina Mowlah-Baksh, Luke Sinnette, Colin Robinson and Jowelle de Souza were all on one panel. Watching representatives of the PNM and UNC sit with these citizens, knowing their parties had unjustly abandoned them in their National Gender Policy drafts and in the Equal Opportunity Act, I hoped that the young people there could see that legitimacy and space is created incrementally, relentlessly, despite setbacks and disappointments. There was more than fifty years of activist history of holding the baton in that room, from Hazel Brown in her 70s to Afro-Trinidadian, lesbian, working class young women in their 20s. A generation coming after me should know that a path continues to be cut for them to run.

On election night, Dr. Keith Rowley, said that he is the Prime Minister of all of us, and “that we are all in this together”. We lead him by our example. Those young people came because they aspire for an equal place. Acknowledgment of that is what ‘all in this together’ means for politics in our nation.

Post 205.

Last Friday, the University of Guyana finally launched its own Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies.

Working at a gender institute myself, I could anticipate its limitations and opportunities. There is only so much small staff with activist passions, but with priorities of teaching and research, can do in a society with big gender problems. However, such an irreplaceable space also provides the kinds of consciousness-raising, mentorship, and commitment to women’s rights and progressive men’s movements that our societies surely need.

Having once joined at the beginning of a graduate programme that changed my own life, it was a reflective moment to be in Guyana, almost twenty years older, and hoping that as many students as possible will have the empowering experience I did.

I felt the same respect and awe for the work ahead as I got to know Renuka Beharie, coordinator of the fledgling Institute for Women, Gender and Development Studies at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname. She did not even have a full time secretary, but, after many hours and much sacrifice, I could only imagine how many would think of her the way I do about the pioneers in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and beyond who similarly built the gender studies institutes that generations of us will inherit.

Sometimes people wonder about the point of spending money to travel to events that seem to achieve little or signal only an uphill battle, but I was struck by the sense of regionalism sparked each time we meet up and connect to our work across borders and seas.

I had heard Hazel Brown talk many times about wanting the government to establish a Commission for Women and Gender Equality, and found a 2010 pre-election newspaper clipping where the PM promised she would. Yet, it felt so much more real when I met the commissioners in Guyana, who continued to hope to bring women together across party lines, who were pushing the government to approve a national gender policy, and who spoke openly about the fact that the new government’s appointment of only 30% of women to state boards, with some boards having no women at all, wasn’t good enough.

On the flight there, I sat next to a young woman, twenty years younger than me, who was so passionate about her work with the Trinidad Youth Council, and who said all the right things about good organizing, that my heart lifted, and I self-consciously felt myself filling the shoes of those older activists who go to civic meetings and talk about how nice it is to see all the young people there.

Having been nurtured by a progessive youth movement, and seeing how many from there continue to exercise leadership however we can, I was certain of the passionate possibilities for a young woman interested in social change, the guidance available, and the power of her oncoming experiences.

As we talked, it turned out she had never heard of this person, Hazel Brown, something I didn’t think was possible for any activist, youth or not, in T and T. Here was a wake up call for women’s and youth movements, a reminder we must make an extra effort to reintroduce every generation, especially of young women, especially of activists, to the makers of our too-quickly forgotten history. I wondered if you asked fifth form students around the country to name one women’s rights activist, who they would name, and if no one, why.  What would that say about the value of such women’s work in our country?

I invited the young woman to an evening gathering of NGOs, hoping that being in the room with women like Vanda Radzik, Jocelyne Dow, Karen de Souza and other Guyanese stalwarts in the struggle for Caribbean women would in turn spark her connection to Caribbean feminism’s regionality.

That one day in Guyana rested on my mind throughout my first class at UWI this week. How did you end up here I asked? Students wanted to understand feminisms, their rights, themselves and power relations in their families. Gender studies institutes were founded, and continue to be, to provide precisely the knowledge that each generation, discovering injustice, finds that they need.

Post 186.

Though most days I don’t leave work until 6.30pm, my mid-week classes end even later and I don’t get home until Ziya is already asleep.

At that point, the best part of the day is finally having the chance to snuggle close to her, smell her eyebrows, neck and hair, and feel her reposition her warm, soft self all around me, with all the entitlement of familiarity.

In these moments, I wonder if the long hours are worth it, and what kind of sacrifices would be necessary to organize life otherwise.

Something would have to give, but what? Maybe my support to Caribbean feminisms, without which I’d feel empty of passion and meaning, or this diary, which provides crucial oxygen for creativity, or the greater sanity resulting from exercise, which women over forty need to do just to survive. Maybe, I’d just have to choose slower career advancement, with implications both for my worries about making ends meet as well as for my fulfillment of dreams that demanded fourteen years in university.

Truth is, as much as I miss irreplaceable moments with Zi, there are also other identities, as activist, writer and worker, which matter. As we entangle under the covers, I wonder if that’s okay or whether I’m being selfish, whether I’ll regret or defend these choices, even just for giving Zi reason to be proud of me.

I had decided my searching the dark for answers was privileged fluff, best kept to myself, for there are more important issues to talk about, like the fact that police shouldn’t have to engage in civil disobedience to get pay and benefits that are overdue, or the fact that come election day, our choices are between two political parties that have proven records of overseeing and overlooking massive corruption, waste and mismanagement, or the fact that we have a mere six months to make sure that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources and EMA actually put everything in place for proper, promised national recycling to become reality.

Yet, over this weekend, so many other women shared similar negotiations, I was reminded that our collective experiences tell us about the times in which we live, and deserve more than self-conscious silence.

On Saturday, at the Fearless Politics conference honouring Hazel Brown, both Nicole Dyer-Griffith and Khadijah Ameen spoke about the challenge of balancing mothering with public life, especially given politics’ history as male dominated and defined, where parliamentary hours are set by the assumption that someone else is caring for your family and where parliament has no crèche, daycare or breastfeeding space, as if the business of the House is not answerable to the business of the home.

On Sunday, at Zi’s school friend’s birthday party, all the women there were also mothering workers; teachers, administrators, lawyers, web designers, flight attendants and more. Women who leave work at 5pm, spend evenings with their children, and then complete their deliverables from 9pm to 1am. Women who have no choice but to collect their children at 2.30pm and bring them to work for two hours, despite their boss’ annoyance, for between traffic and cost, what else could they do? Women who leave their children with their mother or sister while they and their husbands fulfill their scheduled shifts. Women whose wish to have more than one child came at exactly the age when they wished to achieve their professional aspirations.

It is much worse for more disadvantaged women and I’m not describing dire circumstances here. Just late night recognition that reconciling work and family is less simple than it appears.

Post 185.

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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 158.

Last Thursday, I watched Hazel Brown encourage women in local government to fearlessly and strategically represent the rights and needs of women and girls. Nearly twenty years had passed since I attended almost exactly the same meeting, participating for the first time in Caribbean feminist efforts to make party politics less male dominated and male defined.

Caught in a two-decade time loop, I was humbled by the commitment it takes to advance equality, given that it is an achievement simply to not lose ground, to make incremental inroads, and to embolden mere handfuls of individuals at a time.

In 1995, at 21 years old, I was introduced to the idea of a Women’s Manifesto, called Ten Points for Power. Jacquie Burgess, Gemma Tang Nain, Rhoda Reddock, Thelma Henderson, Elizabeth Nicholas, Merle Hodge, Cathy Shepherd, Jennifer Baptiste-Primus and other women were there, aiming to convince political parties to add these commitments to women and girls to their own election manifestos, and to champion them on their platform.

Here still was Hazel, optimistic, steadfast and subversive. If she wasn’t giving up, how could I? Beyond thinking that change is possible, she was making it possible. Another meeting, another decade, whatever it takes. I saw such determination spark in the women around the room.

These councillors from around the country had one idea they all agreed on, that it is a man’s world. Just getting into power doesn’t mean that its inequalities have been transformed, nor does it mean that women are any less fearful of seeming to step beyond party line, or appear too feminist or, for that matter, too confident.

Women in local government want help being brave about representing everyone better, but also want to be able to make a difference for women. They want assistance strategizing for collaboration across political party lines, across regional corporation boundaries, and across state agencies. They want funds, training, networks and support that their own parties do not provide, and it seemed that only the women’s movement has been, above all, on their side.

Hazel wanted them to expertly bring women’s experiences of that ‘man’s world’ to the Regional Corporation table, to recognize that women’s challenges were shared across party and could not be solved through division, and to penetrate local government so that individual women wouldn’t have to take on an ungendered agenda, one aimed at less than ending violence and promoting democracy through community connection and service delivery. All the women councillors, these natural rebels, had to do was make an attempt they had not done before.

Since 1995, women’s organizations have advocated for more women on state and corporate boards. When male prime ministers said they couldn’t find suitable women, the women’s movement compiled a list. When four corporations had no women councillors, the 50/50 campaign resulted in at least one in every corporation, and then went after Mayor and Deputy Mayor positions. The Put a Woman in the House campaign acknowledged that women should be as present in the House of Parliament as they are in housework, rather than under-represented in one and crowded in the other.

‘What women’s movement?’, some cynically ask me. For twenty years, I’ve watched women’s efforts, far from enough or perfect, but making invaluable steps, however small. If it seems like there is no mass movement or that feminism has failed to secure sweeping change, recognize that inequality is so overwhelming, institutionalized and endlessly implicated that part of the struggle is always against the complete negation of any presence and gains. As another twenty-year loop appears about to repeat, I’ve learned that commitment means decades of refusing defeat.