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Post 310.

It was entirely an old familiarity, recalled by the smell of airplane fuel in morning heat. You know when a drifting scent or shade of light suddenly puts both your feet back in the past?

As I crossed Piarco’s tarmac, I glanced up into the brightness and the yellow-painted side of the airport made me look twice, the first time mistakenly seeing a waving gallery and, the second time, vividly remembering the old one, from the old airport, as if it was there in front of me. I breathed, feeling goosebumps, maybe because of the hot wind blowing along my arms or from being caught momentarily convinced by this mirage.

As a child, I’d marvel at so many beloved families and friends crowding that second-floor verandah to share an experience of travel, to emotionally wave at their loved ones until they disappeared through the plane door, or excitedly identify them from the line of rumpled travelers as soon as they disembarked.

Something in the new airport design, whether for modernization, security or cost-cutting, lost sight of this Caribbean custom or never understood or valued ordinary Caribbean cultural expressions of connection and community, and the narrow, barricaded gate at which one now says quick goodbyes has shut such a space for sharing into the past.

I was coming home from commemorating the 25th anniversary of The UWI’s Institute for Gender and Development Studies on the Cave Hill campus in Barbados. The three founding professors of the IGDS, Patricia Mohammed, Rhoda Reddock and Eudine Barriteau were being honoured, and I sat at the conference with graduate students who, in just two years’ time, would never have these Caribbean feminist foremothers on the campus with them. After nearly forty years, such passing of a generation that built scholarship, institutional strength and academic activism from scratch was the end of an era.

For twenty years on campus, I was under their wing, gaining invaluable guidance, compassion and protection. Looking through the shimmering above the tarmac, and blindly seeing a memory instead of the present, I thought about the past and what makes it live on.

These women tried to understand and value Caribbean customs and cultural practices, treated them like the true richness of theory and the deep wealth of scholarship and, in so doing, created a homegrown feminism that connected countries and generations in our region, crossing from one tarmac to another.

This homegrown Caribbean feminism’s head cornerstone was the one that the builder refused. It looked for what was ours, found the everyday ways ordinary people cared and created citizen coalitions, and built that into the design that my graduate students and I inherited.

The head cornerstone’s strength was its grounding in gendered analysis of the region and its realities; women’s rights histories and stories; mothers’ and grandmothers’, godmothers’ and aunties’ ways of raising up and nurturing; daughters’ aspirations to improve on the past; and the solidarities of male allies. None of these are yet taken seriously or valued in economics, social sciences and political theories in the Caribbean today.

Yet, somewhere, that window to our lives as they crisscross the Caribbean hasn’t disappeared. Twenty-five years on, in IGDS, it’s still here. Honouring these three women, I treasured the homegrown feminist foundation laid for us to remember to examine and empower the ways we make time and space for love, family, survival, connection and equality as well as the little traditions through which we recognize each others’ heart and humanity.

As I entered the airport’s cool interior, the past, present and future walked through with me. I thought about whether we educate both for Caribbean transformation as well as recognition of what most matters to Caribbean people, whether in terms of how we design our built environments or our social policies.

I thought about how few places teach another generation to understand, and protect from new ideas about modernization, foreign models or almighty profit, the spaces and practices that can be so easily relegated to obsolescence even when they have significance for care, connection and community. Now we get to decide what to keep.

Honouring the professors and the past would live on in our design for a future of Caribbean living and loving. For, one bright morning, the right hazy mix of scent and hue could fully return an old, familiar flutter of emotion and eagerness, along with nostalgia for what was simply deconstructed out of our collective memory.

It’s such an unnoticeable thing, the disappearance of that waving gallery.

 

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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 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 232.

I’m a child of the UWI.

I came here as an MPhil student in 1997, but my earliest memories are of roller skating in the quadrangle at six years old or bicycling on a weekend with other children of UWI parents, over an expanse of concrete that then seemed unimaginably vast. I return to then whenever I see staff and their children getting exercise or playing on campus. As a younger generation, we gather long memories of the place, over decades, as if it is our second home.

There are many of us. Children of academic and administrative staff who grew up with intimate familiarity of the campus. We come to the UWI as students and meet lecturers who know us since we were small. We follow in the footsteps of our uncles, aunts and parents who studied or worked here, who were part of student politics, or who made life-long friends and memories.

Such a long view indelibly informs my deep commitment to the UWI today. The university is a place where people grow and give back, where knowledge can come to matter for how it changes individual lives and families, not just meets state ‘development’ goals.

Three generations of my family have been academics here. After Naparima College, my dad’s mother’s brother, Inayat Hosein, gained a diploma from the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in 1937. In 1945, he graduated from Mc Gill University with a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Agriculture. In 1948, he was offered a scholarship to Kew Gardens. He obtained the M.Sc. in Botany from London University in 1955. He was a citrus expert and Senior Lecturer at the UWI when he retired in 1977.

My dad’s sister, Taimoon, studied international relations at UWI and became a senior research fellow focusing on trade and competition law at the Institute for Social and Economic Relations. Just before I submitted my thesis, she gave me her mother’s wedding ring, which she had promised me as a gift when I finished. She was the first among my dad’s siblings to earn a PhD and retired soon after I became faculty. I never take off the ring, remembering a matrilineal investment in education.

For a while, my dad was Head of Management Studies. I recollect sharp images of walking across endless grass to the huge rooms housing the university’s mainframe computers, trying to keep up while he carried tall stacks of rectangular boxes full of punch cards used for creating and storing computer programmes. As a child, I’d marvel that these cards could communicate with this hulking, futuristic technology. This week, I became Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, after nineteen years first studying and then teaching here. On my first day at work, my dad texted to say that he expected me to surpass him one day, as a professor. I guess what one generation doesn’t fully achieve, but continues to aspire to, it hopes for in the next.

I remember lecturers in dashikis and leather sandals. There was Vere Knight, who wore shorts throughout his university career, whose family was like mine as a child. Today, tertiary education has narrowed to an ideal of preparation for employment and entrepreneurship, and jackets, worn by both women and men, fill a meeting room. I always thought of jackets as a capitalist uniform, drawing on Rastafarian cultural resistance, but bought my first jacket this year, in preparation for headship, on the advice of my predecessors who know women need every resource to negotiate the system and its hierarchies in a neoliberal age. Times indeed change a place.

Stories communicate how we make the history, community and landscape around us meaningful. Our stories give spaces humanity, inviting others to share where matters and why, allowing for our eccentricities. We tell such stories about Naps or Bishops. For UWI, they are a counter-narrative to easy public disparagement and generalized dismissal or, alternatively, to policy language and economic rationales.

Others can point to such generational relationships, chances for a first job, inspirational teachers and supervisors, and long-term mentorship. We follow in the footsteps of those who came before, literally walking the paths under the trees as they once did.

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On my first day at Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies, UWI, St. Augustine Campus. It’s been 19 years under the mentorship of countless academics, especially women, especially Professor Rhoda Reddock and Professor Patricia Mohammed. I walk with all their spirits. Forward ever.