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When Activists Shut Conversations Down

Over the past few months, I have been facilitator and participant in scores of conversations. In most cases, they were informal, but generative. They gave attention to issues and root causes, but also invited participants to explore different ways of addressing them that could lead to solutions. Still, it was not unusual for someone to point out that “all we’re doing is talking” or “we need to do more than talk”.

It seems as though people are not only interested in seeing someone else drive action — because they are not taking it upon themselves to do it — but they want to skip the important exercise that is conversation. It is not just about spewing words. Through conversations about human rights, justice, equality and creating change, we are able to build community, learn about each other’s interests and skills, establish trust, share ideas, identify the nonnegotiable matters and collaborate on direct action.

Even in movements that begin with rapid response, conversation plays an important role. Its usefulness is often underestimated and people tire of it quickly. This may be a signal that we need to move toward a different, more fluid form of organising that allows conversations to happen while action is underway, even in the early stages.

There is always frustration about the amount of time change seems to require. It is possible the “change takes time” rhetoric has been a tool to keep us complacent. Maybe it has been an excuse for us to take it easy and do the minimum, thinking that more effort would not bring more reward.

Change can take less time if we have more of the other ingredients. More people, more energy, more action, more dedication, more willingness to be uncomfortable and unpopular. Our desire for change has to be great enough for us to commit to doing the work and our commitment has to be greater than the competing desire for comfort. We have to be more uncomfortable with injustice and inequality than we are with the sacrifice required to wipe them out.

Among our unfortunate comforts is ignorance. Far too many people would rather pretend to know than ask a question, read an article, or watch a video to get to the answer.

Another damaging comfort is what can be termed oppositional contempt. This is the pessimistic view of all people who are not clearly and decidedly on the same side, whether or not they are in the moveable middle — the people who hold a position loosely and can be persuaded to move toward either side. Oppositional contempt leads people to shut conversations down right before a transformational engagement can take place. An example of this is fresh in my mind because I saw what could have been an unfortunate exchange on Monday.

When a question is really a quest for knowledge

Darren shared a post about discrimination against Haitian migrants regarding access to Bahamian citizenship. The post made Darren’s position clear — that children born in The Bahamas should be able to apply for Bahamian citizenship. Whatever your views on the issue, put them aside for now so that you don’t miss the point. Janae replied with questions about what this might look like in practical terms and how we would establish boundaries. Her questions boiled down to:

  1. If you designed the system, how would it work?

  2. What would be the requirements and restrictions?

Janae was seeking understanding. She could not picture a version of The Bahamas in which the children of Haitian migrants could access Bahamian citizenship. It is likely that, when she tried, she envisioned crowded classrooms and public clinics which is a predictable picture because education and healthcare are the two services Bahamians frequently cry are being monopolised by Haitian people.

She wanted to know how, if we extend these human rights, we would manage our resources in a way that allows us to continue to function at the same level. This basic question is one that governments have to answer all the time. Our government contended with this issue when it implemented a lockdown. With so many people unable to work and receive pay – and with the government’s obligation to provide for its people – how would it be able to meet its other obligations when money has to be spent differently because of the unexpected situation?

These kinds of changes to budget, legislation and policy are infrequent at this scale and level of visibility, but not unheard of. The public is not typically involved in these processes, so Janae’s questions, while possibly frustrating, are not invalid.

Some interruptions are fissures, meant to disconnect

Myrtle came along and decided to intervene with what we like to call “attitude”. She asked a rhetorical question meant to make Janae feel embarrassed for asking a question Myrtle obviously considered offensive. Janae stayed the course, however, and clearly stated that she was not seeking to cause offence, but to get a better understanding of Darren’s point of view.

Myrtle had already successfully derailed the conversation and the next few responses were to questions Janae did not ask. Janae then said that she had seen these conversations before and has never seen anyone propose a solution. She wanted to support Haitian migrants in their fight for human rights, but needed to understand the end goal. She added that, given the limited resources of the country, she would like to know if and how The Bahamas, if it grants access to citizenship, could reasonably state that it can no longer accept applications for citizenship.

Janae’s engagement remained respectful in the face of a toxic politeness — the skillful use of careful tone and wording adopted by someone who knows they are being aggressive and do not want anyone to be able to call them out on it — even when Myrtle came back to tell her she was unfairly burdening Darren with her questions and should seek out an organisation, activist, policymaker or academic instead.

Interestingly, Darren is an activist, personally known to Myrtle and perfectly capable of saying he was not interested in having the conversation. He, however, is a consistent and active participant in these conversations, often starting them on his own. Myrtle noted that she knows Darren and would prefer to engage him and understand his perspective.

Some interruptions are bridges, meant to (re)connect

At this point, Darren stated there was no simple answer and pointed to systemic issues of political and economic exploitation which directly impacts migration, the need for migrant labor and the usefulness of a focus on controlling migration rather than attempting to stop it completely.

These are valid points, but did not quite answer the questions, so it was a relief to see Rufina enter the conversation and deliver seven helpful points which included action steps including regularisation of people already here and a direct challenge to the idea that migrants are a strain on resources. If a standing ovation was possible on Facebook, it would have happened at this moment. Someone read the conversation, saw the questions asked in sincerity, chose not to lambaste or embarrass anyone, and provided thoughtful responses.

We like to believe we are ready for change. That change should not take such a long time. That we spend too much time talking. That we need to get to the action. Somehow, however, we prove every single day that we are not on the same page. We are not prepared to engage one another with respect and share knowledge, even when it is to the benefit of the communities we care about.

The issue of immigration is one example, but there are many other issues on which we do not agree. There have been thousands of conversations that could have resulted in conversation, but participants gave in to oppositional contempt or toxic politeness rather than doing the work — the action — of sharing information and ideas with a person in the middle who could be moved by what they said.

If we are not prepared to properly engage even the moveable middle, then no action we take will be successful. We cannot rush to move when we leave behind the people who make a movement. Conversation matters — the content, the tone and the motivations of the people in it.

To be the smartest, the loudest, or the one with the hardest shutdown should never be the goal. We have to move the middle.

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Conversation with Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Racial Justice

In response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, QCT has been running a weekly discussion with young people looking at various forms of injustice on the experiences of young people today. This is part of the Trust’s wider work on considering historic injustice, which started in late 2019. QCT exists to champion, fund and connect young leaders around the world; this work is being driven by young people in its network and is helping to inform the Trust’s future direction.

In the special session last week, QCT was joined by The Duke and Duchess alongside Chrisann Jarrett, QCT Trustee and co-founder and co-CEO of We Belong; Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas; Mike Omoniyi, founder and CEO of The Common Sense Network; and Abdullahi Alim who leads the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers network of emerging young leaders in Africa and the Middle East.

The above is taken directly from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust press release. Read more about the conversation here, and watch the edited recording here.

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We Know Opening the Borders in the COVID-19 Crisis Doesn’t Add Up

Is this freedom? Beaches and parks, gyms and spas, places of worship, and businesses are now open. The requirements are different from what we expected. Masks do not have to be worn during exercise. They must be worn to enter and exit gyms and beaches, but not for the duration of the stay. There are to be no gathering of more than five people on beaches and parks. It is not clear why five is the magic number, or why it would be safe to be in close proximity to people from different households at this time. While the risk might have been lower because we have successfully flattened the curve and reduced the spread of COVID-19, it is sure to increase in due time.

The borders are now open to commercial flights. People all over the world, including Americans, have been waiting to be able to go somewhere else — almost anywhere else — for a vacation for months. Visitors are sure to come to The Bahamas, where we have put in the work to protect public health, but does it make sense to risk that for the US dollar?

On Friday, Florida reported 8,942 new cases of COVID-19. More than 13 percent of new tests were positive. This is just one state, and it is the one closest to us.

Most visitors to The Bahamas come from the US. It is not difficult to imagine a person with COVID-19 coming here and spreading the virus. It can easily happen, especially since all visitors need to do is present the results of test taken within the seven days prior to travel. Seven days is more than enough time to contract the virus, and we have already established there are asymptomatic carriers. Someone can take the test on Monday, contract the virus on Thursday, and be in The Bahamas strolling the beach mask-free, dining in a popular restaurant and playing black jack on Saturday. This is the risk authorities have chosen to take, and we need to be aware of it rather than taking relaxation of restrictions to mean we can safely go back to normal.

Let’s be clear: We are taking a risk

It seems the government has decided that, since COVID-19 is not going away before a vaccine is introduced and most people have received it, it makes sense to bring in some US dollars while we can. However the important the tourism industry may currently be, this is a risk and we need to regard it as such. As other countries open their borders, most E.U. nations are not likely to allow people from the US to enter because of its high rate of infection.

Our borders are now open, the beaches and parks opened for us to enjoy them for two days before tourists start arriving, and we have been told that we should not travel. If it is safe for people to enter the country, why wouldn’t it be safe for us to visit other countries and return? If we know the entry of tourists will increase the risk of COVID-19 community spread, why are households being allowed to break social distancing on the beach?

If the number of COVID-19 infections goes up, we will face longer lockdowns. Whether we travel or not, we will live with the consequences of new cases.

While we may be happy to be able to go to the beach and for hotel workers and taxi drivers to return to work, we have to think about the information we have been given, realise that is doesn’t all add up and behave accordingly.

Don’t get “lost in the sauce”. We are free to work out, to swim, to shop and to gather in groups of five. That does not mean we are safe. COVID-19 has not vanished. It is still possible to contact the virus. Even as we enjoy freedom, we can take precautions. Maintain the six-foot distance and wear a mask as much as possible. We complied with the Emergency Order for months and we have benefitted from it. There is no reason for us to rush into a second round when we can reduce the risk in simple, if inconvenient, ways.

To be clear, this is not to say the Emergency Order should be continued at this time or indefinitely. It does not make any more sense for us to continue to be under curfew than it does for us to have weekend lockdowns or tourists freely entering the country, especially from countries that have not adequately responded to the pandemic. This is to encourage consideration of the facts, discussion on the repercussions of decisions being made, and both personal and community responsibility.

Who will handle non-compliant tourists, and how?

Potential visitors have expressed their displeasure with the mask policy on the Ministry of Tourism’s social media accounts. Some have said they are cancelling their trips because wearing masks is not a part of their island fantasy. It would not be surprising to see tourists walking around resort properties with masks sitting under their chins or covering their mouths but not noses. Are hotel staff prepared to enforce this? How will they do that while maintaining the welcoming, (bordering on) deferential demeanours? How are employees being protected?

There should be health and safety protocols approved by Ministry of Health in place at all properties. There should also be guidelines for baggage handlers, flight attendants, Customs and Immigration officers, taxi drivers and anyone else coming into direct contact with visitors. If they exist, they should be shared and as models for vendors and other businesses — not only those coming into direct contact with visitors, but those who will be in contact with those on the frontlines of the tourism industry.

What do you need to change?

The past few months have been difficult. Our work lives have been upended, some of us somehow ended up with more responsibilities, we’ve spent far too much time with the people who live with us, and we have not really been able to socialise. There have been a lot of sudden, drastic changes. While there is some return to the way things were before, we can still feel a bit off balance. It is important to acknowledge this as a normal response to very abnormal circumstances.

For many, it is time to go to the barber, have a beach day, or enjoy a nice meal at a favourite spot. These are easy ways to get back to where we want to be. It may be a good idea to do a bit more than that, and try to address underlying issues and observations made during the lockdown period. Did you find yourself saving money because you weren’t able to eat takeout as much as you usually do? Do you want to change that habit for the benefit of your savings account? Did you realise you tend to shop online when you’re bored or under stress? Maybe it’s time to come up with more helpful, healthy alternatives.

Who did you call when you felt like you were at your limit, and how did they support you? Family members and friends don’t always know the right thing to say or have the tools to help you through a difficult time, so it may be a good time to look for a mental health professional.

What about work-life balance? Did it go out the window, or did you not have it from the start? Working from home can reveal a lot about the way we work and manage time. If you’ve noticed you’re consistently doing more than a day’s work, it could be time to reassess your position, duties, and compensation.

These are just a few examples of areas in our lives that we may see in a different way now. They are not just to be observed, but addressed. Now may not be the best time to make sweeping changes, but make note of everything you’ve noticed about your life that makes you uncomfortable. Ask yourself what would make it better, and move in that direction. While the world around us changes, we have the opportunity to at least plan for changes of our own.

Published by The Tribune on July 1, 2020.