Post 219.

We are stewards of our nation.

Each morning, waking to a fresh opportunity to refuse a dark time for now or the future.  The alternative to boom and bust cycles may not feed our glittering fantasy of El Dorado, but it can fire hope amidst an oncoming bruising and battering for self-preservation.

The question of where to cut and to invest are ours, not the government or the Prime Minister, but we citizen’s own. We must look around our communities, at ourselves and with our representatives, and insist on our own budgetary priorities. For this reason, I appreciated the Prime Minister’s address, particularly the presentation of numbers and his direct challenge to the business community to share profits. All of us have to find more ways to go local and spend wisely. In the last decade when even workers were only drinking Johnny Walker, we were clearly living beyond our means.

My first choice for investment is the environment and renewable energy. Our natural resources will sustain wealth for generations, even centuries. And, when it comes to our air, seas and rivers, we will not get a second chance. Trinidad is full of permaculture and environmental management specialists who can tell us how our environment produces food, community and profit. Planning should anticipate how cost saving, health and wealth generation could look in seven generations. For such sustainability, now is the time to invest.

Culture is also on my priority list. Not the millions won in a night by soca stars, but investment in the yards of pan and mas making. Over years of doctoral ethnographic research with mas camps, I came to understand the incredible way that they sustain traditions to land, language, life lessons, and making a living. Going for wide dispersion of available funds to create community around the families and schools of jab jab, or blue devil, moko jumbies or Indian mas can also help with tackling issues of boys and masculinities.

On the supply side, the governments’ plan to stimulate jobs through the construction sector, e.g. plumbers, masons and joiners, will disproportionately benefit men. This has social costs, and reproduces women’s economic dependence, and their clustering in low waged sectors. Such explicitly gendered effects have to be empirically understood if this is pursued, along with strategies to equalize access of qualified individuals of both sexes to a construction boom. The location of a Gender Division under the Office of the PM should provide exactly such cross-sectoral policy analysis and direction. Also keep in mind that while taxes, particularly on land, are necessary, sales tax always affects women more because of their greater responsibility for food provision and making groceries.

Beyond economic policy, the government’s primary focus should be on containing corruption through measured change in effective public service monitoring and evaluation, passage of whistleblower legislation, and successful prosecution of cases. Sheer waste and mismanagement of money account for billions bled from schools, hospitals and NGOs. Governments like to say that people don’t show up to town hall and regional corporation meetings, but people know the consultation process can also be both insult and joke. Still, even if it is only through a media that powerfully tackles fiscal scandals, we must insist on government for the people, which means suturing waste and corruption in 2016.

Wherever you are when the year begins, may you experience it with safety and joy, and carry a sense of togetherness in your heart in the days ahead. May we remain pensive, grateful and blessed, drawing on our best sources for long term sustainability. Let us be guided by ground up lessons on opportunities for our islands to navigate predicted rough seas.

“Who are the magnificent here? Not I with this torn shirt”, you may say. Even with scars upon our soul, wounds on our bodies, fury in our hands and scorn for ourselves, to quote Martin Carter, it is possible to turn to the world of tomorrow with strength. The sources of such strength are all around us to recognise.

My new-year tune is Nina Simone’s song, ‘Feeling Good’. There is a new dawn. There is always a new day. Tomorrow when you awake, look it up and press play.

 

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Post 168.

I was unapologetically proud when Kamla Persad-Bissessar became the country’s first woman Prime Minister. I loved her clean election campaign in comparison to the PNM’s labeling their opponents ‘skeletons’ and throwing insults for cheap political gain. I was completely excited that this astute politician could defeat lesser men and lead a complex coalition, unlike any other Caribbean leader before, and miles ahead of PNM’s go-it-alone politics. I’d watch Persad-Bissessar on TV and teach my daughter the name of the first Indian woman to crack that glass ceiling.

At one meeting, along with feminist grandmothers like Hazel Brown and Brenda Gopeesingh, I breastfed Ziya while the PM talked with us and I took notes. I wondered who before had breastfed while with a PM in a Cabinet meeting room, and of course Persad-Bissessar didn’t even blink, knowing that this is what women can do in boardrooms when grandmothers and mothers hold office.

I liked little decisions the People’s Partnership made, for example to ban hunting despite a myopic ‘no hunting, no vote’ campaign, to actually answer the parliamentary questions put to the government, and the initial choice to put the gender machinery in the ministry of planning. I took heat from all kinds of people because I was seen as too silent and too uncritical in Persad-Bissessar’s first years. It was because, perhaps naively, I had such hope.

Since then, I’ve found myself ending up and again on the side of citizens, led by other women, mothers and grandmothers, protesting through media and on the street. My hope has tumbled, knocked down by bad appointments, murky state spending, the homophobia of the Children’s Act, patron-clientelism, mishandled electoral changes, and reliance on PR and attacks.

In the PM’s showdown with Wayne Kublalsingh, popular sentiment that he is mere nuisance is on her side. Regardless, his death will leave no escape from unexpected kinds of regret. By first marching against the highway and then switching position once in power, the PM created the path that led to such reckoning. Her own supporters, or advisors with their own agendas who want her to fail, may spin around and say why not have chosen mediation, and why not just agree to properly done hydrology and cost-benefit analyses? What about compassion? As we grow more committed to accountability, which we will with each decade, the principles at stake here will grow less personalized to one man and become more publicly and historically clear.

I wish I could thank the PM for setting the standard for how development should best be done, through consensus rather than division. I wish I could ask her what her grandmother would advise. I wish I could congratulate her for ending this impasse as an informed, transformational leader would. After all, a patriot is one who wrestles for the Soul of her country. I wish that, as woman, she would roar at puppet master financiers. I wish her decisions meant no future struggle over the same issues, taking up time for committed, concerned citizens like you and me.

Being a woman is public and personal, for government sets the context for the intimate, for love spans ecology, neighbor and nation, justice and future, just as it does family. Knowing more than wishing is necessary, I wake up wondering which words and deeds can make the world right. These days I awake almost holding my breath, wondering how stories I’m telling are going to end. Knowing that every decision made for the country I love feels like a turning point, I wish the PM would inspire again the hope I felt in 2010.

 

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.

Post 127.

On Saturday, at Central Bank, I gave a talk on why we should end sexism and homophobia. The talk explains why ending them would improve life for everyone, and is aimed at those in power. It’s pitched to all the people who think that they are not hurt by sexism and homophobia, and to those people who don’t want to be treated unequally. The talk includes statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes, cool pics and performance poetry.

Shout outs to my students are the sub-text of the entire presentation. The slide background was the awesome logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’.  They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI slutwalk action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They initiated the CARICOM-targeted campaign to end homophobia and transphobia. These students are also active in the gender studies-led Break the Silence campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. When people ask for feminism, these are its young leaders in their actively expanding numbers. Women and men working in a wide range of movements. Rock on, radical university youth!

Among the coolest things I showed was the picture of my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my students have done popular actions on women’s rights at UWI, in a course first taught in 1982. These are the people doing movement engaging and building, and I got to put their faces in her/history. My students this year were open-minded, thoughtful, ethical and courageous. It’s wonderful to see a politically conscious, Caribbean feminist generation coming out of UWI.

I hope the PNM, in its upcoming Parliamentary critique, doesn’t miss this kind of national contribution, particularly in light of the party’s anti-choice and homophobic prejudice, simply so they can score political points. We will see.

I struggled a lot with the words in my talk. In Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or words like ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. I also wrestled a lot with my talk’s absence of direct reference to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons and women, though it is hard-core anti-sexism activism.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. In about a week, Google TEDx POS 2013, sit back and check them out.

There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. My talk included Episode 4 of my ‘If I was Prime Minister’ series, started in 2009. For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, it’s a must-see.

It’s also for those with homophobic religious beliefs, or who care about children, the economy and creating safe communities. Watch it with an eye to the leadership we will need beyond 2015.

Post 105. 

I’m spending much of the next three weeks in Chaguanas West, following the by-election. I’m interested in the extent to which having a woman PM and party leader expands the possibilities for women’s political leadership and democratic participation, and their ability to challenge an entirely male dominated political culture. I’m interested in women’s experience of contesting elections, the roles played by young women, housewives and those in the women’s arms, and whether aspects of masculinity and femininity shape how men and women voters view Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Jack Warner and Khadijah Ameen. 

As an older, wealthy, dominant man, and as one who expertly plays the politics of patronage from his own and state largesse, Jack starts out with status, resources and power that Khadijah has no access to, even with the backing of the UNC. There is a reason that Jack can gun sling on his own, like a Clint Eastwood. We understand this model of manhood well, and it always commands respect. 

 
Khadijah Ameen is a young mother, racially-mixed, politically experienced, loyal and, frankly, quite brave. At some level, she knows she is positioned as the party’s sacrificial lamb as she faces off against Jack Warner, who has managed to constitute himself as both David and Goliath. Some think that Khadijah is ineffectual, too green, not friendly enough or has a problematic political history. Kamla’s direct support of her brings both benefits and costs, after all, in this election, the PM is fighting for her life as well. For feminist political anthropologists like myself, this election is gold mine for when and why gender does and doesn’t matter. 
 
The fact is that the call to party loyalty is falling on deaf ears. Jack’s supporters are absorbed by his ability to be their savior, fixing everyday sufferation with box drains, scholarships, wheel-chairs and groceries, when state institutions have seem to have entirely failed. Constituency voters think that everyone in the UNC is corrupt anyway, at least Jack is a Robin Hood for the poor.They don’t care if the UNC and Partnership government falls, Jack is the man they want for Prime Minister. Let’s be clear, Jack’s rallies may have the euphoria of a fete, but they carry the momentum of a mutiny.
 
If the government had strengthened the institutions of the state, people would look to local government and the right ministries for what they are willing to turn to Jack for. If the people of Chaguanas West were not so fearful of being abandoned again by the political parties, they could see the wider national skepticism about Jack as a future Prime Minister. If we didn’t think that elite corruption was everywhere, we wouldn’t be so willing to excuse it. 
 
Women don’t necessarily make better leaders than men, nor represent women’s needs better, but I’d like to see women be given the chance to make the differences and the mistakes that men have had since the beginning of the social contract. As both Kamla and Khadijah lead this struggle, two of the total minority of women in our politics, we will see how the forces of Jack, Inshan and others square off against Anand, Roodal, Suruj, Devant, Vasant and so on, and their financiers. I’ve my own fears that in the end none of us are really going to win.
 

Post 81.

I’m not as bad as Stone, who once got lost in a parking lot, but I’m a very close second. I’ve been lucky to have good friends who are natural geographers and who would again and again direct me around streets in Woodbrook that I should know well and to the location of their houses, which by all rights I should be able to find blindfolded.

I was reflecting on this while getting lost near Monroe Road last week as I was trying to find my way to the National Muslim Women’s Organisation meeting.

This amazing group of primarily grandmothers is doing so many national activities and is so well organised that they would do a better job than the Partnership if they decided to put up a slate for the next election or decided to stage the most friendly, flowersy and motherly coup one could imagine, thus offering a Muslim women’s alternative to anything Abu Bakr would ever have conceived.

Coup is a bad word in Trinidad and rightly so, but we need much more of friendly on the political and national stage.

This became wretchedly obvious last week Monday as I watched Roodal Moonilal’s now-notorious character assassination of Wayne Kublalsingh. If Roody wasn’t several bags of aloo heavier than me, and because I wasn’t actually there with the UNC heartland getting a lesson in gutter politics, I wasn’t able to run up with a broom (borrowed from the back of an authentic Debe doubles stall) and sweep him and his dirt off the stage.

I’d have to have kept sweeping too, as Jack came up to do his best imitation of Ziya’s diaper before she learned to use the potty. You think I’m joking? I’m not.

I felt genuinely ill and sad watching them divide citizen against citizen, use the platform that we, the people gave them to legitimise insult and offence as a mode of political deliberation, and substitute the full depth of logical, transparent argument for the hollowness of bacchanal and crowd frenzy.

I had to stop myself from thinking that if Jack just died quick, quicker than he hoped for Wayne, there would be one less out-of-date politician sowing poison for future generations to reap as spoiled and bitter fruit.

You can understand now why I get lost driving. Being driven to distraction and destruction can make you lose your way.

To their credit, they were right, though. We should all know where Mon Desir is and Roody and Jack probably know the country better than most.

I therefore also felt inspired right then. Lost by a wrong turn and marvelling at the beauty of ordinary Trinidadian communities with their pink and yellow houses, undulating fields and pious flags, I decided that when Ziya got old enough, we would get in the car together, with a map, and just drive. Buenos Ayres, Busy Corner, Mundo Nuevo, Caigual, Cumaca, Princes Town and Poole as well as Chatham and Mon Desir, here we come.

She would learn to be a better geographer than her parents, she would see the communities for which Wayne was willing to give his life, we would visit all the Muslim women whose mission is about national harmony, respect and equality, and we’d talk politics so that Zi could chart her own path away from where lost politicians will lead.

Post 80.

What happens when you fill ordinary people’s heads with the idea of being good citizens is that they become hungry for responsible government.

What happens when you emphasise the importance of civics to children is that they become hungry for the kind of participation that is accountable to their voice, their views and their needs. What happens when citizens start to believe in putting country first is that they become hungry for transparency and accountability from our national institutions.

What happens when we erect statues to Gandhi and Cipriani in our most populous cities is that we become hungry for people of conscience to move amongst us, ordinary mortals drawn from our ranks but answering to a more transcendent sense of justice.

Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike shares the belly pain of those of us hungry for an end to illegitimate authority, the kind that tells us what to do but will not tell us why so that we can decide for ourselves.

His act of conscience draws on no moral authority beyond his own body or beyond his own belonging as Trini and Tobagonian to the bone. We are distrustful of this as a society and yet we know it so well. Office, patronage funds, legislation, fancy suits and big words have always exercised control, but they have never fully consumed our hearts, and our sense of what is fair, reasonable and right. We make peace with power but remain hungry, and quick to anger and rebellion, because the promises we believed continually leave us empty.

Writing this, my gut hurts because no citizen should have to starve just to show how hungry we all are for government that knows a way beyond division, corruption, secrecy and domination. No good citizen should have to risk death so that those of us alive today do not gorge on the sustenance of future generations: ecosystems; agriculture; community; family; local businesses and a non-violent state.

In the public debate, most don’t know that Wayne is fasting simply for the public release of the impact assessments, the hydrology reports, the cost-benefit analyses and the technical reviews of the highway section planned from Debe to Mon Desir. He is not fasting to stop the highway, he is hungry for information, for answers which should be out there but which he must beg for like crumbs, like a vagrant lying on the street outside an all-inclusive party. What is frightening is that he is not alone. His hunger for answers, his simple request to be given some room at the table, is heard every day in citizens’ grumblings.

As a new generation, Ziya’s generation, begins to realise that we are fast consuming all and leaving only our debris behind, they too will feel the pangs of hunger for some other way ahead that can only be found together, without insult and injury between each other.

Wayne, know that your hunger shows ours as stark, unnecessary and untenable. Prime Minister, know that our hunger has been centuries in the making, but that you can help us as we struggle to find a different way to survive and thrive.

People of this Republic, know that beyond all the polarising politics, is a citizen like us filled with love for his nation and nourishing our hunger with his care. Let us not feed this moment with division and hate when we are hungry for common ground and consensus across our communities.