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.

 

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Post 229.

I spend a lot of time asking questions about numbers. The low numbers of women in political leadership and why such inequity seems to matter so little. The high numbers of women in low-waged, insecure, nonunionized, informal work, and why such clustering seems to change too slowly or barely at all. The low numbers of women who own property in their own name, only about 15% in Trinidad and Tobago, and how that limits their options in life. The high number women who experience any form of violence, from sexual harassment on the street to death at the hands of intimate partners, and the explanations that seem sufficient amidst popular perception that equality has been already won.

Those numbers reveal clear realities. Equality has not been won. Decades of women’s work has been allowed to have only partial effect on dismantling institutionalized male domination and the status afforded to dominant ideals of manhood. The pace of securing rights and justice is indefensibly slow. We desperately need transformational leadership to stop us from repeating these mistakes of the past.

What makes such leadership transformational is not simply its individually empowered or empowering qualities. It is that it is committed to working to end all hierarchies on the basis of sex, gender or sexuality, and their role in reinforcing asymmetries of access to or allocation of status, power and material resources. It is that it recognizes these asymmetries are deeply entrenched in political parties, elite business culture, the economy and households, as well as in law, religion and media.

Transformation doesn’t mean strategizing to get to the top, but using whatever power you get to lessen the pains and losses of the majority in public life. It means recognising that class doesn’t protect any of us from destruction of the commons, whether in relation to public drinking water, public hospitals, public safety or an ecology that our children are systematically being denied. All of us, in the end, live downstream of the poisons, whether social problems or environmental pollution, that we do not fix today.

I’ve become impatient at how little social, economic, environmental or gender justice we seem to achieve. How infrequently those with the most power act decisively to democratize this small place, in the widest sense of what that means to each of us. I struggle to remain optimistic while watching influential anti-feminist discourses, which first denied women’s right to choice, freedom and authority because of ‘tradition’, morph into more contemporary anti-feminist discourses, which now deny that women need more choice, freedom and authority than they have.

Masculinism is the currently popular, if empirically wrong, position that “men are in crisis and suffering because of women in general and feminists in particular”, with the solution involving “curbing the influence of feminism and revalorizing masculinity”. We have seen this in “ongoing attempts by institutions and individuals to maintain conditions of women’s inequality”, from successive prime ministers to successive adult men married to girl children under sixteen.

More girls are graduating from UWI? More women are managers? Didn’t we have one woman Prime Minister? Aren’t women the backbone of political parties? These numbers tell us little about why legislation, draft gender policies, budgets and gendered bureaucracies haven’t become transformational leadership tools in women’s hands. They also tell us little about why manhood remains defined by privilege when it is everyone’s work, not simply women’s, to make the world less violent, less exclusionary, and less unfairly waged for women.

As Caribbean scholars point out, “Ongoing projects of nation-state building that promote allegedly gender free notions of nationalist cohesion should be contested and unmasked as skillful projections of modern masculine political power”. Note, secondly, “a welfarist modus operandi of ‘what you are doing for women’” cannot substitute for “addressing the more critical question of ‘how we are creating systemic change for women’” and their communities.

The numbers regarding women’s lives do not show a transformed reality. Individual empowerment and charity aren’t enough when beliefs and structures still protect inequality. Referenda and consultations that go nowhere are excuses, for rights are not won through popularity. Transformational leadership isn’t an idea. It is a necessity yet to be achieved.

Powerful women out there, who’s ready?