Post 372.

Our societies were already defined by exclusion, inequality, and lack of sustainability prior to COVID-19.  Now, Trinidad and Tobago can no longer rely on oil and gas revenues to distribute the basic welfare provisions that kept so many from homelessness, crime, illness and starvation. We simply will not be earning what we spend.

Increased insecurity means that we will not be able to buffer ourselves against the next crisis, whether epidemiological or ecological, unless we plan our recovery as if we are already protecting ourselves from such an inevitability.

To be honest, I’ve struggled with what those options are, and their realism, and will explore them over the next weeks in this column.

On the one hand, as the Guardian Weekly noted last month, “whenever a crisis visits a given community, the fundamental reality of that community is laid bare. Who has more and who has less. Where the power lies. What people treasure and what they fear”.

On this basis, I’ve wanted to argue that we commit to economic and social justice, which is more than welfare provision to women and the poor, as the goal around which we plan national growth. How will our economic recovery also renew the possibilities for women to carry less unequal burden for care; how will it prevent increasing distance between rich and poor; how will it include an education transformation that doesn’t leave so many alienated from learning, how will it create greater inclusion for those on the margins?

Even as we emerge from this period, we also have to keep in mind that the biggest threat to all future generations remains climate-related destruction and death. Around the world, both governments and corporations are rolling back environmental protections in the wake of a focus on the economic recovery.

I’ve wanted to call for us to not lose momentum. Climate change, like COVID-19, is a global disaster which does not respect borders or identities, and requires the very global collaboration, respect for science, speed of response and individual investment in preventing unnecessary deaths that have shaped our lives these past weeks. If we understood the climate crisis as far more lethal, we would find the funds to invest in renewable energy and low-carbon alternatives on every front, so many of which are our endless resources in the Caribbean. “We would see these kinds of emergency packages that would get people off of the fossil fuel grid and onto a clean grid right away” says May Boeve, executive director of the climate advocacy group 350.org.   

These are the big issues of social, economic and climate justice which require not just big ideas, but much bigger political will. I’ve been drawn to them, knowing as we now do that everything we consider harmful can be stopped, regardless of the impact on international travel or school exams, if we decide an emergency response is required. If we think of the injustices we were living with all along as a disaster, we could decide this was a time like no other.

On the other hand, I’ve been drawn down from thinking that every big idea is one we should be allowed to consider to focusing on the nitty-gritty of immediate protections. Corruption and mismanagement has been the major harm to our financial wealth since independence. This is why our national savings are so small – they have been stolen and wasted by our very own, leaving us less able to protect our most vulnerable or turn our economies around on our own. Enact procurement legislation so that it no longer occurs from today.

Negative growth across the region and increasing indebtedness – both individual and national –  means harder times for most, increasing hunger and hardening anger. We need hope that comes from alternatives, imagined with our broadest, most inclusive ideas of justice at their heart, quieting the cynicism we have all felt that nothing changes, at the very moment when everything absolutely can.  

Frankly, the whole society – every cook, cleaner, caterer, cashier and child carer –  should have a say in how we will survive, including on the basis of cooperative-based and solidarity economy models, such as bartering and sharing. So many development solutions can come from listening.   

From the midst of economic and emotional despair, we must therefore find on a future defined by each other’s resilience and renewal, and do so collectively and transparently. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to move beyond recovery of an older order and, instead, birth long dreamed and long overdue possibilities.    

Post 344.

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Ziya’s class recently concluded a class president election. In the run-up, she practiced her speech, highlighting qualities of kindness and loyalty, and roles such listening, helping, resolving conflicts, and encouraging good behaviour.

I was pleased that she felt confident enough to consider being elected and that her teacher had enthused such a sense of possibility among the students. Many children in the class offered themselves as candidates. It seemed like an excellent lesson in democracy.

“The boys only voted for boys,” Zi later huffed. Why did this matter? From her description, the girls seem to have mostly voted for each other or for themselves. ‘Did a boy give the best speech?’ I asked, but she was noncommittal.

Turns out that there are more boys than girls in the class, and the other girls had eventually concluded their speeches didn’t matter as the boys were never going to vote for a girl. This meant that the girls would never get to be president, and why run if you can’t win?

Why did she think the boys wouldn’t vote for girls? “The boys don’t think girls exist”, she said. As decades of efforts to create gender equality attest, when searching for nominees to appoint to private sector and state boards, an argument is often made that enough qualified women can’t be found.

In the early 2000s, when state boards and companies on the stock exchange couldn’t find women to nominate, the Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women found 200 qualified women. Women’s representation went up to 29% that year.  The global numbers tell us that girls remain invisible to boys, in both corporate and political leadership, in the adult world today.

Her second explanation was that “the boys only vote for their friends, and all their friends are the other boys”. She was describing the budding version of the resilient, powerful and informal influence of an ‘old boys’ network’.

There’s significant data on the mentoring and deal-making that occurs on golf courses, football fields and bars or in lodges, where familiarities and friendships among men develop outside of formal spheres. We may all turn to our networks first, nurturing them with respect and reciprocity as part of strengthening their ties, their reach and our place in them.

When those networks also intersect with power over decision-making, and the lower status and greater invisibility of those outside, they are a formula for exclusion. Those in these networks don’t have to be personally bad, and the exclusion doesn’t have to be deliberate. Nonetheless, the outcome is no longer innocent.

Zi’s third explanation was that “the boys think they are smarter than the girls”. Think of how worried society becomes when girls “outperform” boys at SEA, but how the nation celebrates when a boy finally “tops” girls, as if stopping reversal of the natural order from going too far. Think of how women in Obama’s administration had to amplify each other for their ideas to even be heard. Imagine, long-held biases about lesser female competency are still clear enough for her to articulate.

Boys’ implicit gender bias plus social networks plus majority vote created unequal opportunity. I told Zi to talk to her teacher. She couldn’t let an unfair system become entrenched, even if she was afraid of getting in trouble for “complaining”. I told her about quota systems, and that for every boy or girl class president, there could be an alternative vice-president, and that there should be alternating class presidents so girls would have an equal chance.

I gave her everything I got, from Audrey Jeffers to the Suffragettes. Eventually, she ran to her room and came back with a poster titled, THE Election REBELLION. Over her title, she wrote, ‘Vote = Voice of the Electorate”, a reference to nineteen years earlier when Svenn Miki Grant and I handed out a thousand copies of a youth manifesto at a public launch on the promenade. Below she wrote, “the choice is yours to vote for girls”. And, in huge and colourful letters, between a heart and a star, was the message: “THE GIRLS WANT VOTES”.

Next morning, she took her poster to school and went to rouse her friends. Her teacher held a girls’ meeting at lunch and they represented their sense of unfairness. She then met with the whole class so all the children could recognise that being in the voting minority meant it would always be an uphill battle for the girls to secure power through democratic means.

By the end of day, Zi reported the rebellion to be over. Yet, was the electoral system really changed? Zi wasn’t sure what new rules they had secured. She hadn’t confirmed whether there would now be alternating leadership. Until she’s sure and it’s enacted, the struggle continues.

What’s clear is that the unjust political realities of adult women are already reflected in the eyes of eight year old girls. We have a responsibility to address unfair male domination at all ages, levels of power and processes of decision-making. An election rebellion is long overdue. The girls deserve votes.

 

Post 335.

Today, I turned 45. I’m not sure I feel celebratory. I feel like a survivor. Like the walking wounded. Moving slowly, but surely on my feet.

For all my empowerment, I’m amazed I’m still negotiating women’s timeworn challenges. Like an increasing number of us, precisely because sheer hard work has led to vastly more university educated women than men, I’m a main breadwinner.

At the same time, because male privilege remains so resilient, I also put in the majority of time on child care and carry the majority of responsibility for managing all the logistics and planning related to family life.

This comes at the cost of my savings and my career. It brings the exhaustion that so many single mothers are familiar with, and dust off like just another day.

It’s labour that is mostly invisible, undervalued, taken-for-granted, and assumed to be mine. For the good of my daughter, like so many moms, I do it willingly and wholeheartedly. I’m clear-eyed about the inequalities, but I’m prepared to sacrifice, to provide the absolute best, and to teach lessons of generosity, care and justice with joy.

I’ve started a whole new life. It’s like adulthood, which is cynical at best, but blushed with rose-coloured bliss. Maybe bliss is just a choice. I imagine I’m past life’s half-way mark so, at this point, I have fewer years ahead than I’ve already lived. These days, therefore, I’m just trying to be happy.

There’s debt to climb out of, overdue publications to submit, a house to buy, and ends to meet. It’s the kind of stress that keeps you up calculating at night.

There are also rivers to walk, waterfalls to find and beaches to remind of the wind and the waves, alternately whispering and roaring, as both wash across the shore.

There’s also love which feels like winning the Lotto every day. Maybe past forty you are not looking for perfect, maybe you are not even looking, maybe you just get lucky enough to cross paths with someone committed to growing.

Inside, I’ve turned bountiful like the hillsides after first rains. I awake more aware that love is a harvest you sow each morning. I count lessons about commitment and communication like seeds, in between calculations at night.

Some days, I lift each limb depressed and empty, like Sisyphus waking to discover the boulder he had shouldered uphill had rolled back down again. What working mother doesn’t know the feeling of not having an hour for herself, to breathe, to think, to feel or to stay sane.

I pole dance twice a week now which is both hard and hot AF. It enables me to support a woman-run and women-only small business which challenges women to become strong, to feel good, to recognize their challenges, to value themselves, and to connect to their sexuality. My goal is simply to show up, for me.

I’ve reached here through taking on and giving up, through gathering and letting go. I remind myself that it’s not possible to have it all, at least not at the same time, wondering if men tell themselves that daily too.

Patriarchy, from politician to religious leader to employer to lover, is a killer, but it’s like rising above the falling rain when you finally reach where you know yourself, your rights and your power. Women come into our own because we’ve hurt and healed, stooped and conquered. I hope I can carry my own independence and freedom, for it has been hard earned.

I now understand how women seem to become more certain, more centred, more unapologetic, and more fearless in their fifties, sixties and seventies. They’ve paid their dues pleasing everybody. Having learned through love and loss, they know there’s far less to fear than they thought. Such insight is a trade with age.

I’ve learned gratitude and forgiveness for those on my side, for those in my softly-beating heart, for the giants in my life, for the child who teaches me, for allies and inspiration, for opportunities to become a better person, and for laughter and cool mornings with trees in the distance.

Every dawn, we receive life as a gift to keep opening. Every dusk, women know the weariness from standing tall like a silk cotton tree, carrying our scars and imperfections, worries and burdens.

Over my shoulder, my own jahajin bundle is slung. Thirty kilometres per second on this next rotation of the sun, and blossoming in my own time and season, here I come.

 

Post 307.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post 228.

“On behalf of the Government and People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, I wish to convey heartfelt condolences to the President of the United States of America and the American People with respect to the unspeakable horrors of the June 12th attack on an Orlando, Florida nightclub, the worst mass shooting in twentieth century US history.

Today, we urge the American people to acknowledge the national and global danger of their pro-gun culture; religiously-legitimized sexism and homophobia; embedded racism and classism against African-descended persons, people of colour and immigrants; and pervasive realities of violence against women. Violence against persons, who do not fit dominant ideals of manhood, womanhood and heterosexuality, profoundly intersects these other issues and experiences. True greatness is showing fearless will to dismantle these points where oppression and fear meet, instead making them meeting points for cross-cutting transformation.

The People of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago recognize that members of the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender communities share the right of all citizens of all nations to live in conditions of safety, respect and equality, and to create spaces for affirmation, empowerment and joy. Members of these communities are part of our nations’ families, civil society organizations, workplaces, religions and schools. We understand that threat to their lives also harms those who know and love them, and whose solidarities are with them.

As the Government and people of the United States of America struggle to come to terms with this terrible tragedy, Trinidad and Tobago is also gripped by shock, sadness and outrage. This strengthens our resolve to collaborate across the region and hemisphere to fulfill the dream of full emancipation born out of the subjugation experienced, refused and resisted by so many of our resilient peoples. The lesson to us is that violence to one constitutes violence to all as it violates the hope of a world of greater justice and peace.

No doubt, members of Trinidad and Tobago’s LBGT community wish to hear even greater government commitment to ending discrimination and criminalization on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, knowing that such laws perpetuate the conditions for many forms of gender based violence, which harm citizens, including children, across all sexualities.

Without commitment behind them, words remain just such. They offer little genuine solace or solidarity on behalf of the nation’s representatives, highlighting above all our own fears of challenging homophobia and surviving in political life.

Acknowledging this vulnerability means being truthful about what it takes for LBGT persons to survive and thrive daily. Therefore, my government takes this moment to conscientiously state its commitment to ending the conditions within which such an American massacre becomes possible. It is not enough to say may it never happen or should never happen in Trinidad and Tobago. True leadership means taking action so that it does not. Prejudice will not keep us from acting, for our watchword of tolerance does not extend to inhumanity and inequity.

Our hearts are also heavy at the loss of so many young, promising lives. We are reminded that protection of children and youth includes those who are lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender, for they face greater vulnerability. As Prime Minister, I assure our own LBGT young people that we honour your need for safe spaces to grow and flourish, whether in schools or other public places.

No nation should ever have to face such tragedy and it is hoped that nothing of this nature will ever befall any nation again. I call on everyone, from religious leaders to teachers, from youth to parliamentarians, to affirm a place for the human rights of all.

Join me in assuring the LGBT community that the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago will unite to treat each other as we wish to be treated, to choose compassion instead of conflict, and to tolerate and protect gender and sexual diversity as we do religious and cultural diversity. May we strengthen our resolve to create a nation where each of us is surrounded by love, and safe within our shared home.”

Dr. Gabrielle Hosein for Dr the Honourable Keith Rowley
Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago