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Culture Clash: We Need to Prepare for a Plastic-Free Bahamas

The commitment has been made to ban single-use plastic in The Bahamas by next year. There have been a few mentions in the media since 2018, but I have not seen much happening to prepare the public for the changes to come.

Earlier this year, I read that single-use plastic bags would be banned in Halifax, Nova Scotia by the end of this year. I was surprised because plastic bags were being phased out for years. When I attended university there, it was a norm to separate waste. When I came back to Nassau on breaks, I’d walk around with cans or bottles for a long time before realising I would not come across the appropriate bin since we do not sort waste. In addition, while I was there, grocery stores started charging for plastic bags. The options were simple — pay ten cents for each plastic bag, buy a reusable bag from the grocery store, or bring your own reusable bag. Everyone there, including students from other countries, got with the programme. Eventually, plastic bags were not even an option in some of the stores.

On a recent trip to Antigua, I quickly realised there were no plastic bags. Some stores offered paper bags, some sold reusable tote bags and others encouraged customers to bring their own. I kept a canvas tote bag hanging on my door to remind myself to take it with me when I went to any store. Here, we fuss about certain items not being double-bagged and I have never seen anyone take their own bags to the grocery store. I rarely see anyone refuse a bag when they could put their small purchase in a bag they already have. How will we adjust when the ban is in place?

Major grocery stores should be taking the lead in preparing the public for the changes. They could start selling reusable bags at a reasonable price. Takeout restaurants and coffee shops could encourage customers to bring their own cups by offering discounts on beverages and promoting the option. It is time for a small business to make reusable utensils and lunch kits available for sale. We may even have the raw material to make them. Find out how the Small Business Development Centre can assist in getting that kind of business off the ground. Individuals can start buying the necessities, if only one item per month, to avoid a heavier burden at the end of the year. We don’t all want to get bamboo forks, spoons and straws for Christmas, nor do we want to see significant increases takeout prices in 2020. Let’s start talking about the options that exist, and those we can create. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

It is also important to note the ban on plastic straws is not as simple as it may seem. If it is not already, the Ministry of Environmental Health Services needs to specifically engage the disabilities community as bendable plastic straws are necessary – and not substitutable – for some people living with disabilities. The ban on single-use plastic will affect some of us more than others.

If this is the tunnel, where is the light?

While many celebrate the arrival of summer, this has to be the most difficult time to be in Nassau. It is hot with seemingly no relief unless you have the luxury of air conditioning. It is infuriating that something so basic – and increasingly necessary over the years as temperatures rise – is so cost-prohibitive. Many forgo the use of air conditioning because electricity bills are already too high. Even some who are willing to make the sacrifice are made to suffer as Bahamas Power and Light fails to properly manage its equipment. Even the free relief — dipping in the ocean — has been halted due to reports of sea lice or thimbles that bite and leave people itching for days. In this kind of heat, that is a risk many of us are not willing to take.

The outages come without warning, and there are two types of people — those who charge every device when they get below 80 percent and have a battery-operated fan, and those who are caught off guard every time and have come to almost enjoy posting angry comments on social media.

The bar for Bahamas Power and Light is so low that some of us were impressed when a load-shedding schedule was shared last week Monday. Unfortunately, it did not include every area, and the practice did not continue. We were, the very next day, back to being completely in the dark. We are all upset. We all say we’ve had enough. How many of us are prepared to stop paying the bill? How many are prepared to be without electricity? How many are willing to take action to compel BPL and the government to clean up the mess and provide one of the most basic needs for the residents of this country?

We are often stuck in cycles of recognising an issue, complaining about it, getting temporary relief (often knowing it will not last) and descending to the previous condition. The ongoing issue with BPL is one example. We are at the place where we do not care about the transformer problems and illegal dumping excuses. We want the problem resolved, but we keep getting bandaids. As we continue to pay electricity bills, however high the climb, sweat it out in our corners, purchase generators and keep them fuelled – and drive around for hours just to be in air conditioning – we ease the pressure. We signal that, even in our frustration, we are only prepared to whine about it for a few minutes.

BPL cannot even be bothered to give us schedule. It does not believe that we, as customers, deserve to know when the service we pay for will be disrupted. They are making decisions about who will be turned off and when, and choosing not to advise the public. Is this not enough to fire us up? To stop all payments? To get comfortable in the air conditioning on Tucker Road for a few hours? Maybe that is too extreme, requires too much planning and convincing, or would inconvenience us too much. Maybe there is another way to demonstrate our displeasure and apply pressure to the people who can do something about it for more than a few hours at a time. Are we ready to imagine, discuss and act on it yet?

The battery-operated fans, generators, air conditioned cars and mobile data are making us more comfortable and, yes, helping us to function, but let’s not get complacent. The problem still exists and it’s getting worse. We, the affected, may have to be the ones to inspire the resolution.

Published by The Tribune on July 17, 2019.

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The Bahamas — Not a Real Place?

Following the shooting of 15 people at a party in Montel Heights where the intended target ran into the crowd, the Commissioner of Police said: “I feel safe and I think you feel safe.” This is a puzzling statement, particularly given the incident being discussed.

How did he arrive at the conclusion that we feel safe? We have been expected to believe that criminals are killing each other, and as long as the rest of us keep our hands clean and away from bad company, we will be fine. Unfortunately, that is not the way crime works. Sometimes innocent people are hurt, whether or not it is intentional. What are we going to do about that?

The Commissioner of Police and the Minister of National Security said the shooters did not plan to shoot multiple people. This suggests the other 14 people were simply collateral damage, so we should all feel safe, right?

We have been further warned by the Commissioner to watch the company we keep, all while being encouraged to go about our “normal daily business”. The intended target ran into a crowd, resulting in multiple people being shot, but watching the company we keep will protect us? How can we read about people enjoying themselves at a party in one moment, and being on the ground with gunshot wounds in the next, yet believe that we are safe?

None of us are safe from a stray bullet if we ever dare to step outside.

We do not want to create a society in which people are unable to go anywhere or do anything because they fear an untimely death by a semi-automatic weapon, whether because someone wants the contents of their bags and pockets, or because they are in the vicinity of a target. We like to believe we are immune because we are good people, our family members and friends are good people, we live in good areas or in close-knit communities and we imagine we know exactly what to do if approached by a criminal. That is what we think until we hear about people at a party being shot, unable to make sense of it.

The truth is we are particularly vulnerable in certain settings. We cannot predict what will happen. We tend to assume, in many cases, we will be safe. We go about our daily business – and for some of us that includes particular precautions – without expecting harm to come to us. Even as we go on as usual, we remember what happened on the weekend. The victims were are at a party, and we go parties without knowing everyone present all the time.

What does it mean to carry on as usual and to watch the company we keep? What does it mean to feel safe, especially in a place with so few degrees of separation between people, inability to reach emergency services when one phone company’s system goes down, and too many guns (coming from somewhere, because we do not manufacture them here) in the hands of people who use them to solve problems?

The Ministry of National Security needs to focus on getting guns off the street and stopping them from entering the country. Figure out what it is happens at ports of entry and deal with it. Spare us the positive spins on statistics and illusions of safety. Deal with the gun problem.

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The Bahamas is in a real place and we have work to do if we want it to work for us

Hashtags that say a particular country “is not a real place” have become quite popular. It usually accompanies the story, photo or video of a ridiculous experience. It is often used to bring humour to an otherwise sad state of affairs, but is sometimes a sign of frustration or disappointment. There is very little to connect the broad range of experiences the hashtag connects except for the sentiment that the people participating in its use are not impressed. Whether it is a joke or a protest, it reduces the place to a particular deficiency and does not directly challenge systems or the people within them to do better, nor does it offer solutions. We can all think of situations that made us wonder where we are and why whatever was happening seemed to be acceptable. Take a minute to think of your own recent example.

As I write this, the electricity is off for the second time in a 15-hour period. I know there are people in Nassau who have been having a worse experience, suffering through outages for long periods of time and with greater frequency. Does anything rile us up more than this? It is hot and there is very little breeze. Households with babies and elderly people become especially miserable when everyone is hot, no one can do what they want to do and essential functions are more difficult to access. Traffic is a disaster near certain intersections. Many businesses cannot operate, or the cost increases because they have to run on generators. Other utilities are affected. We do not just lose the lights, but the ability to function. Feeling the heat becomes even more frustrating because its source, the sun, laughs at us and our refusal to acknowledge its ability to give us power. It just doesn’t make sense. Is The Bahamas a real place?

Days ago, I observed as people went back and forth, arguing about the announcement that scholarships would be made available for students with GPAs of 2.0 or higher to attend University of The Bahamas. Some said the standard was too low, and would ultimately lead to the devaluation of the degree. Some said students with less than a 3.0 GPA did not deserve scholarships. These were the two main arguments and they are terribly flawed.

Education is not just for the individual, but for the society we form together. It does not lose its value. The real issue is that some people derive their own value from the resources they are able to access that others cannot. They build a sense of self on the privilege — nothing they have earned — to access, use and control resources like information and services. Mobile devices do not lose their value when more people have them, but it sure feels great to have the latest model while everyone else is “behind”.

It is strange to see people argue against wider access to education, particularly for those who would otherwise be locked out due to financial need. We want stronger leadership, better customer service, deeper public dialogue and improvements all-around, but oppose access to tertiary education for a student with a 2.5?

It is important to note our school system is imperfect, does not adequately respond to student needs and misses opportunities to recognise learning differences and mental health issues, and does not account for this in curricula or examination design. We look at examination results and GPAs as if they are separate from other systems, practices, and circumstance. We do not agree that financial difficulty should not keep anyone from pursuing tertiary education. Is The Bahamas a real place?

A man convicted of rape had his sentence reduced because he is a first-time rapist. Is The Bahamas a real place? We are paying $9000 for the Governor General’s housing rental. Is The Bahamas a real place? BTC systems were down and it was impossible to reach emergency services. Is The Bahamas a real place?

The Bahamas is a real place when Shaunae Miller wins a medal or breaks a record. The Bahamas is a real place when Sir Sidney Poitier is on the big screen. The Bahamas is a real place when anyone outside of it says the wrong thing about it and faces the online abuse many Bahamians unleash. It has produced people who make Bahamians proud. It drew over a half million people to its shores just in the month of May. It may have a certain magic, blessing, or favour, but it cannot be great in the ways we want if we do not turn our lamentations into demands. If we do not turn our demands into actions. If we do not act collectively. If our collective actions does not have vision. If our vision is not stated, understood, shared and consistently used to drive us forward.

The Bahamas is a real place and Bahamians are real people. We have the opportunity to not only identify the challenges we are facing, but to create and implement solutions. Where is the hashtag for that? Before climate change takes us seriously and makes The Bahamas history, let’s understand we are in a real place and have work to do if we want it to work for us.

Published by The Tribune on July 3, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Lights Out All Around

We know it happens and with greater frequency during the summer months, but we are frustrated by the disruption and inconvenience of electricity outages. No one wants to be left in the dark, least of all to sweat and wonder when we will see the light again. When the electricity unexpectedly went off for hours on Sunday, multiple times in some places, we were not asking for much. We wanted to know what caused the outage, how long it would be and when each area could expect an outage.

It was a simple ask, but seemed to be too much for Bahamas Power and Light to handle. It would not give us a schedule of the electricity outage it was obviously controlling. It used its Facebook page to share the details of what led to the outage and how the issue would eventually be resolved, but it did not answer what many clearly stated was the most important question. We want reliable electricity, but since that does not seem immediately possible, we would like to know when it will be available so we can iron, do laundry, have hot showers and charge our devices.

We are not in control of the electricity provided by BPL. If it would provide a schedule, at least we would be able to plan accordingly. We do not only need electricity for what many consider to be frivolous activities such as watching television and powering other electronic devices. Electricity impacts sanitation, storage of food, entertainment, business operations and medical devices among other functions. In fact, a parent commented on the BPL Facebook page about reliance on electricity to administer medication to a child. This was a reminder of the essential nature of electricity and being able to plan around outages.

There is no discernible reason for the failure of BPL to provide a schedule. We should be able to visit its social media pages and website to see when our areas will be off. We should be able to call and find out – whether through an automated system or agent – what we can expect for the next 24 hours at the very least. We have good reason to complain about the failure of BPL to do its one job and its refusal to properly devise and share a schedule when it fails at that one task.

Some have attempted to shame the people making valid complaints, directing them to buy generators, as though they can be picked up from the side of the road. Generators are expensive, not only to purchase, but to maintain and fuel. The assumption that everyone can afford a generator demonstrates a lack of understanding of issues of class. The suggestion that it is an individual’s or household’s responsibility to provide its own electricity when paying for the provision of service and facing barriers to alternatives reeks of privilege and a lack of understanding of the provision and and maintenance of infrastructure.

For many, purchase of a generator is out of reach. For others, it is an unattractive option because it signals resignation to dealing with a system that does not work and becoming part of the growing number of people who are willing to buy their way out of discomfort while leaving others to suffer and complain on their own. Buying a generator may feel necessary, but it can also be a political decision. Either way, loud generators and burning more fuel is not the answer to the energy crisis we are experiencing in a supposed paradise of sun and sea, both of which are waiting to be part of the solution.

Let’s wake up and teach youngsters about sex – they’re doing it anyway

Deputy Leader of the Progressive Liberal Party Chester Cooper, in an address to the Women’s Branch, spoke of initiatives related to family planning and equality that his party is considering. Among them is an increase in the age of consent from 16 to 18. Similarly, an increase from 18 to 21 was suggested by someone else last week. There are numerous issues with these suggestions and those issues are connected to the intent and the most likely outcome.

An increase in the age of consent is often suggested to deter young people from having sex and to make the age of consent the same as the “age of maturity” at which we can access health care — and, by extension, contraceptives — on our own.

It is an undeniable challenge that young people can legally give consent for sexual activity for two years before they can access sexual and reproductive health care. The answer to this problem is not to increase the age of consent. That will not discourage young people from having sex. They will continue to have the same desires. We desperately need to ensure — through comprehensive sexual education and access to sexual and reproductive health services — that young people are prepared to appropriately respond to those desires. To effectively do this, we have to first recognize that abstinence is not the only way, nor is it realistic for everyone. It is possible to promote abstinence while providing information on the other options.

Comprehensive sexual education is needed in schools and it would be helpful for parents to play a role in providing accurate information, answering questions, quelling anxiety and providing resources for young people in sex-positive ways, whether or not they are sexually active.

Understand there is no harm in providing information. The danger is in lack of information, resources and access to the same. Comprehensive sexual education does not encourage people to have sex, but ensures they are equipped with the information and tools that enable them to make the best possible decisions for themselves and their sexual partner(s).

If the PLP is interested in initiatives that contribute to gender equality and improve family planning, it should engage with organizations working in these areas. Organizations including Equality Bahamas would encourage the party to push for the marital rape bill to see the light of day and work on its positive response (through action) to the recommendations made by the CEDAW Committee on numerous issues including women’s conferral of citizenship, sex-based discrimination, access to abortion, and elimination of discrimination against vulnerable people including migrant women and LGBT+ people. The PLP could pledge to institute a living wage, support domestic workers and create systems that enable women to safely report gender-based violence and easily gain access to the range of services they need.

Raising the age of consent does nothing for women, girls, or family planning. It is not a good idea, will not reduce the number of young people having sex and will not change their sexual practices. We need to change the way we talk about sex and include both consent and pleasure in our conversations. We need to ensure young people are able to access the resources we mention and know how to properly use them.

Have you ever opened a condom with your teeth? Started to put it on the wrong way, then turned it around and used it anyway? Put two on for extra protection? Stored it in your wallet? Have you engaged in sexual activities without protection because you thought they were safe? How old were you when you did those things, and when did you learn you were wrong? People of all ages are making these mistakes every day and this does not have to be the case.

We need to change the way we respond to challenges. No electricity? Get a generator. Young people are having unprotected sex, experiencing teen pregnancy, being preyed upon by older men? Raise the age of consent. If only we were ready to face reality and implement solutions that address the problem. If only.

Published by The Tribune on June 26, 2019.

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Bring On Political Quotas

Last week, when questioned about the lack of representation of women in parliament, Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis said 30 to 40 percent of the Progressive Liberal Party’s 2022 slate of candidates will be women. He noted the best proportion could be higher, but it depends on who makes themselves available. Both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement both had outrageously low numbers of female candidates in the 2017 general election. It is clear political parties in The Bahamas are not paying enough attention to issues of gender, how they contribute to them, or the ways they can bring transformation.

Public sentiment about political quotas has been negative over the past few years. The topic draws commentary from people who are not only annoyed by conversations about gender equality, but do not understand how quotas work. Political quotas are not about arbitrarily putting women in seats. They are about creating environments in which women have the opportunity to receive the necessary training, education and experience, present themselves as candidates, receive party and public support to run for winnable seats and represent their constituencies well. Quotas encourage political parties to make adjustments that result in increased access for women. If every political party has to ensure 30 percent of its slate is women, they will have to invest in better recruitment and training practices because they want to win. Their wins are inextricably tied to the performance of individual candidates and women should be included.

It is important to dispel the most widespread myth about political quotas. We do not advocate for a political quota only to see a high number of women candidates in a general election. We want great representation. Our support will go to exceptional candidates who show understanding of issues of national concern, critical thinking skills, ability to develop solutions and other characteristics and relationships that ensure they will be effective (such as the full support of the political party and its leadership). Today, we are not convinced candidates with the greatest potential truly have access.

Can they engage in the process to become candidates? Do they have the support they need, especially if they are not already well-known? How can they compete with people who embody what so many believe a leader to be, just by being men?

Women, feminists and women’s rights advocates want true representation and are as concerned about the quality of candidates as everyone else, if not more. We have seen what appointing a woman just because she is a woman can do. We want excellent candidates. A political quota would help us to ensure such candidates are able to participate and not blocked because it is more politically expedient to run someone who is more readily seen as capable because he is a man. We have to intentionally make space for women and, by doing so, change the way we see women, leadership and women in positions of leadership.

In some countries, there are political parties that have instituted quotas. Voluntary quotas have been adopted by political parties in Argentina, Australia, Botswana, Canada, Germany, Kenya and Malta among others. If the Progressive Liberal Party is serious about ensuring women are given equal opportunity to participate in frontline politics by responding by the inequalities in systems and practices, it has the opportunity to set a precedent. It can be the first political party in The Bahamas to reserve a proportion of its slate for women and develop a process for recruitment, training and campaign management that accounts for gender relations. This needs to happen and it is imperative it is not a one-time deal, but is embedded in the party’s constitution, pushing others to do the same. The political quota is not the only need, but will prompt the systemic changes we need in order to move toward gender equality more broadly and proper representation in frontline politics in particular.

When we begin to see women as leaders and as effective representatives, we will no longer need a political quota. For now, it can only help us to move further along with people in parliament who look like us, live like us, understand us and can advocate for our specific needs as a constituency.

Published by The Tribune on June 12, 2019.

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Religious Leaders Need to Work to End Sexual Violence

Bishop Simeon Hall recently called on the church to take a stance against sexual violence, specifically including acts within families and marriage. He made a distinction between the desire for sex and the attempt to gain power which leads to sexual violence. Hall also correctly made the connection between the dehumanisation of women and failure to see us as valuable people, noting society must value women in order for sexual violence rates to go down.

We need more leaders of the church to not only “boldly decry” sexual violence, but to implement programmes and policies that address the issue and support survivors. Hall encouraged women to report to the police, seek medical care, and take their time to heal. These are all important to hear, particularly for women who have been taught their wellbeing is worth less than the reputation of male relatives.

Many churches have men’s groups and women’s groups. Are they talking about sexual violence, making a distinction between sex and rape, making members aware of available resources, and advising of the support they can expect from the church and its leadership? They need to do all of this, but also to sensitise members to the issue and encourage them to support survivors and refrain from trying to silence them for any reason, biblical or otherwise.

A troubling part of Hall’s statement, however, was his comment about Bahamian women accepting and promoting “a low self-image of themselves and other women”. It is not clear exactly what he meant, but it appears to be a form of victim-blaming — pointing to women’s own behaviour or beliefs as contributing factors.

It is important to understand that nothing women do outside of perpetrating acts of sexual violence is a cause of sexual violence. Self-image could mean appearance in which case I emphatically state that nothing about a woman’s appearance is a cause of rape, whether she looks a certain age, wears a particular outfit, is visibly differently-abled, or seems to earn a low income. There is no such thing as asking for sexual violence.

Self-image could also refer to sense of self including abilities and value. Again, this is not a cause of sexual violence. It is, however, important to separate perceptions of women (including our perceptions of ourselves) from the value of women as human beings and as contributors to family, society, and economy in a system rigged to extract our labour in excessive amounts without appropriate compensation or consideration to the need for change.

Men do not just need to learn to take rejection. They need to respect women and recognise us as human beings. They need to be taught about consent and agency which is our ability to make decisions on our own. It is critical we all understand consent where agreement to participate in a specific activity is given freely and enthusiastically without coaxing and can be withdrawn at any time, whether or not the activity has started.

Some structures function to limit us and force non-consensual activities such as the belief that men are entitled to the bodies of their wives and wives are biblically bound by a one-time consent rule. These cause harm on multiple levels and are contributing factors in the high rate of sexual violence in The Bahamas. People look to the church for direction, and the leadership needs to stand up and provide it in ways that create change.

Published by The Tribune on May 1, 2019.

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Culture Clash: Super Value President on Staff’s Sexual Behavior

Last week, Super Value President Rupert Roberts said the company will no longer cover maternity costs. The company practices a form of self-insurance, setting money aside to cover medical costs rather than engaging an insurance company which could cost more money. It has decided to discontinue maternity coverage in order to have more money available for catastrophic illness and life-saving treatment. Roberts claimed this decision came as a result of the increase in pregnancy over the past 24 months. He added that covering the expenses is “no problem,” but the company wants to keep its reserve big. He then said he hoped this change in policy would impact employees’ sexual behavior, noting that some had been caught having sex at work. He suggested that young women — whom he referred to as “girls” — specifically want to work at Super Value to benefit from the maternity coverage. This is a preposterous assertion as maternity coverage does not come close to the cost of having a child, but if it is a strategy for reducing the initial cost, some might call it family planning.

The public debate sparked by Roberts’ comments zeroed in on a number of concerns, but there are others that did not get the same attention. His comments leave quite a bit to be unpacked.

Compensation is not a gift

Far too much of the conversation about Super Value discontinuing coverage of maternity expenses frames it as a gift or a kindness. Health care is essential and, aside from public health services, insurance is that only way it is possible for many people. Health insurance is also expensive, especially for women. When asked why health insurance for women costs more, insurance agents say it is because women give birth. It is assumed that women will, at some point, become pregnant and give birth. Not only is that assumption made, but it is built into health insurance plans to ensure those expenses can be covered, at least in part. This is considered essential, from prenatal to postnatal.

Most of us do not work for fun. Some of us are fortunate and innovate enough to enjoy what we do for a living, but compensation is a part of the deal. Employers offer compensation packages. These packages can include money, vacation time, flexible schedule, incentives, a company vehicle, and yes, you have probably guessed it — health insurance. Employers are not always able to offer a salary that adequately compensates for employee output, so there are other components in the package. In some cases, employees can even take study leave, bring their children to work, or access special offers and discounts. Most employers, however, include health insurance in their compensation packages. Sometimes employees contribute to the group plan, and sometimes the employer covers the cost. This is not extraordinary, and it is not an act of benevolence. It is earned. Super Value has not been doing its employees a favor; health coverage is a part of the package because the salaries alone are not sufficient compensation.

Right to have sex as adults

It has been said that sex is a national past time, right up there with drinking alcohol. This is not exclusive to Bahamians. It is not a special fact about young people. It is not limited to a particular gender. People have sex because it feels good. Consenting adults have the right to enjoy sexual activity. At times, people choose to have sex in inappropriate places for a range of reasons, from not having access to a private space to looking for an extra thrill. It happens.

It is understandable for an employer to be upset about employees having sex on property. It is, however, ridiculous for an employer to bring that issue to the public. If it is true that employees are having sex — and we must keep in mind that this is hearsay — there are better, more effective ways to deal with it. There should be a conversation with the staff which may be accompanied by new policies and consequences. These policies and consequences, however, do not need to include public lambasting and shaming or the loss of compensation owed to all employees.

Again, it is important to note that we do not know that what Roberts said is true. If it is, he has a strange way of dealing with the issue. I find it difficult to believe the offense would be repeated to the extend he suggested if it had been appropriately addressed internally. Even if employees have been behaving this way, it is unacceptable to punish them or try to change their behavior by altering their compensation packages and publicly sharing the details of the situation. It is also paternalistic of him to suggest that the loss of maternity coverage might stop them from having sex. People have sex. It does not mean they want to have children, or want to benefit from “free” maternity health care. It means they want to have sex. All Roberts needs to concern himself with is ensuring sexual activity does not happen at work.

Creating an unsafe work environment

It is clear from the conversations about these comments that Roberts has created an unsafe environment for the women working at Super Value. In particular, cashiers are very visible as they are on the frontline and have the most interaction with customers. Men have shared their plans to go and “get a Super Value woman.” In a misogynistic society where sexual education is lacking, rape culture is seen as normal, and sexual harassment is a common occurrence, it is irresponsible to publicly share a narrative about the women working in the stores. At the very least, Super Value needs to make a public apology to its employees — specifically the women — as well as reverse its change to the compensation package and increase security at its stores for the protection of the women it has made particularly vulnerable.

Sexual education opportunity

It is no secret that sexual education is either nonexistent or woefully lacking in most schools. This has always been the case, so there are thousands of adults who do not have critical information. Now is a good time to do some research, visit a medical professional, or get other resources to learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is an excellent time for Super Value to bring in professionals to talk to staff, conduct HIV testing, give information on STD testing, and offer male and female condoms. With its large reserve and the amount of money it stands to save since it has cut maternity coverage, the company can certainly afford to pay nonprofit organizations for a few hours of work. Make it a community event. Invite the general public to visit booths, get free condoms, learn the correct way to store, open, and put on condoms, and engage with sex educators. The company made a big mistake, but should not ignore the opportunity that now exists. There is a lesson for everyone to learn.

Published in The Tribune on July 25, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Minnis’ Cabinet Shuffle

No matter how low we set our expectations, there seems to be surprise, embarrassment, and frustration at every turn. There has not been much to celebrate in recent weeks, the increase in Value Added Tax bringing a muddy tinge to our reality. It puts everything in a different perspective. We do not think about anything without considering the twelve percent VAT added onto it, or the twelve percent VAT that should cover it. This is about more than grocery. It is about management of funds, yes, but also about government operations and the way resources — especially human resources — are used.

We are more watchful, critical, and vocal when it feels like the money is coming directly out of our pockets, and it is. From the decision not to appoint new parliamentary secretaries with a reason — that the positions are unnecessary — pointing to a waste of $90,000 to reneging on the commitment to host the IAAF World Relays and, at the same time, claiming the Bahamian people “accepted” the VAT increase, the Prime Minister is obviously determined to do as he likes whenever he likes and create false narratives while refusing to acknowledge criticism.

Cabinet shuffle on our dime

The cabinet shuffle came at an unexpected time. This administration has not even been in for eighteen months and we have already ministers and permanent secretaries moved from one ministry to another. How is this beneficial to the Bahamian people? Is is cost-effective? Does it increase productivity? Is it a morale boost? There is no reason anyone can find to support this move.

When asked to explain the reason for the shuffle, Minnis said, “It gives individuals exposure and experience in all the different ministries. That’s why I don’t have any ministry. I have no ministry so I can look at all and learn about all.”

This raises even more questions. Why is the Government of The Bahamas in the business of offering work-study placements? We all know cabinet appointments are rewards to the faithful and the spineless. Prime Ministers treat those who have supported and spoken no ill of them with favor in the form of an additional salary. They would have us believe it is too much to ask for some consideration to the qualifications and experience suitable for each post.

It is clear that the intention is not to put people where they will perform best, or give ministries the benefit of experienced ministers. Minnis said, “Individuals are moved and they become knowledgeable in certain things. There is no so-called pre-training before you engage in a post. You learn and you become very good.”

Well, thank goodness for that. As long as the Ministers are benefitting from these educational experiences, right?

Of course most appointments depend on the limited range of education, skills, and experience of members of parliament elected, but due consideration to the optimal mix should be a part of the nomination process. There is no excuse for using government ministries — responsible for areas critical to our economic, social, and physical wellbeing such as health, education, youth, sports, culture, and tourism — as training grounds for people paid tens of thousands of dollars from the public purse. This is an insult and an outrage.

Minnis: Looking and learning or primary duties only?

As for the statement that Minnis has no ministry so that he can “look at all and learn about all,” similar concerns arise. Minnis is not the Prime Minister so he can get paid work experience in numerous fields. It is doubly troubling when we bring to mind his 2017 explanation for having no ministerial portfolio which is quite the opposite of this new line of reasoning.

“I made this decision in order to perform my primary constitutional duty as prime minister. This primary constitutional duty is the coordination and oversight of the Cabinet of the Bahamas,” Minnis said.

There is a difference between looking at and learning about all ministries and performing the primary duty of the Prime Minister. He should be able to entrust ministers with the task of overseeing their ministries and the departments therein and communicate regularly with the permanent secretaries, department heads, and cabinet. There is no reason for the Prime Minister to be intimately involved in every ministry, and no explanation for the waste of resources in reassignments and loss of productivity due to unnecessary, often disruptive changes.

Minnis said it himself. “You go in, you read, you understand, and many instances you become better than who was there, sometimes you’re not.”

A more believable version

Maybe we choose to buy the “exposure” story because it is easier to accept that the Prime Minister really thinks governance is a game of musical chairs, or appointments are collectible items and his people need to get as many as possible. What if there is another version of the story? Recall the appointment of Lanisha Rolle as Minister of Social Services and Community Development. People were not happy about it; least of all the people who celebrated the upgrade of The Bureau of Women’s Affairs to the Department of Gender and Family Affairs in 2016. The establishment of the Department felt like a step into the twenty-first century, but Rolle’s appointment was disappointing at best, terrifying at worst. She had already made it clear that she did not stand with the women’s rights advocates in The Bahamas.

It was, as expected, a disaster. The RISE (conditional cash transfer) program was discontinued in less than two months, never to be discussed again. Little, if any, information was provided to the press on this or any other issue. Regular meetings with women’s organizations suddenly stopped. It became more difficult members of civil society to get information. The then Minister of Social Services and Community Development outright refused to meet with many stakeholders. It seemed every single thing needed her approval, and this resulted in very little being done, and last minute announcements of events like National Women’s Week and International Women’s Day.

We learned from observation that her brand of empowerment, for women and those living in poverty, was the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps variety. There have been reports of her blatant disrespect of others and intentionally impeding progress on new and existing projects. She was certainly ill-suited to this ministerial portfolio, and it took far too long for her to be moved. Now, the question. Was this the real reason for the cabinet shuffle? Did Minnis finally get the memo — that Rolle needed to be moved from the Ministry — and choose other people to move at the same time in hopes that it would be less obvious?

If this is not the case, it is quite strange that the Ministry of Youth, Sports, and Culture lost Michael Pintard. It is odd that only four ministers are being shuffled. The others must be just as deserving of the “exposure” Minnis is giving out at our expense.

There is more than enough happening — and not happening — to upset us. One of the most frustrating is certainly the lack of honesty and integrity that would prompt leaders and representatives to plainly state the reasons for their action. Lay out the logic behind decisions. It is not good enough to give a quick response to move on to the next question or end the engagement. Bahamian citizens must demand to be treated with respect. After all, we are the employers. We pay twelve percent VAT. That has to count for something.

Published in The Tribune on July 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: How You Can Prepare for the Arrival of VAT

Value Added Tax will be increased to twelve percent in a matter of days, and many of us are still trying to figure out how to make it work. Adjustments have to be made, some on a daily basis, but this does not mean we have to be uncomfortable. It means we have to plan, and we have to look at what we have.

Some people do not like to look at their money. Sure, they cash checks, make withdrawals, and make cash transactions, but they do not like to count the money they have and face what it means for their lives and lifestyles. They avoid it, at almost any cost.

When is the last time you checked your account balances? Do you know how much cash you have in your wallet and stashed in other locations?

Some of it could be laziness, but the reluctance to check balances is most often linked to fear and discomfort with facing the reality real numbers force upon us. If you know you have two hundred dollars for the next month, you may be forced to make some decisions about what and where you will be eating, how you will get around, and which invitations you can accept. If you do not know there is only two hundred dollars left in your wallet, you can go for sushi three times in ten days, grocery shop without a plan, and pick up that layaway without stress. Not knowing is false freedom, and it can feel good. Until the consequences creep up.

How are you approaching the twelve percent VAT and its impact on your purchasing power? Do you plan to operate as usual until you run out of money, or are you making a plan?

Changing the mindset

It may be helpful to view the increase in VAT as a pay cut. It has the same effect. You will not be able to buy the same items in the same quantity as before. Once you come to this realization, having a plan will probably feel more important.

It is a good idea to spend some time on a budget. No, budgeting is not fun for most people, but it can significantly reduce stress. Start with your income, then assess your necessities including your mortgage or rent and payments on debt. Keep in mind that every monthly bill is not a necessity. Yes, this is a direct attack on cable television, Netflix, and other subscriptions. These are luxuries and they belong in a separate column so you can identify them easily if and when you need to make adjustments to your spending.

Negotiating and eliminating expenses

What can you spend less on? If you usually buy lunch, figure out how many days you need to take lunch to work instead. You can not negotiate necessities, but how can you reduce the cost? Maybe it is time to move into a less expensive apartment or get a roommate. We all need grocery and sometimes we need to get that hard-to-find ingredient, but we do not need to buy everything from the most expensive store.

One of the ways we can begin to work around VAT, eat better, and live more sustainably is growing our own food. We may not be able to produce everything for ourselves, but we can at least grow fruit, vegetables, and herbs. It does not have to take up a lot of space, and there are even options for people living in apartments with no ability to plant in the ground. A few years ago, I bought a hanging garden from a friend who put them together for clients. The twelve plants included green pepper, onion, Bahamian spinach, and rosemary. I hung it on a fence, watered it as instructed, and watched my food grow. The next year, I sourced my own seeds and seedlings and set about it again. There is really no satisfaction like eating food you have grown yourself, VAT-free. We all know people who garden. Talk to them, ask for a little something to get started, and get to work.

Let’s make a deal

On the same day the 60 percent increase in VAT was announced, bartering became a serious topic among groups of friends and acquaintances. Bartering is not over. Many people barter all the time without realizing it. Civil society organizations often exchange meals for hours of service. People do not mind spending an hour or two at a booth or packing welcome bags if they get lunch and a networking opportunity in exchange. People in the beauty industry exchange services among themselves — a massage for makeup application, for example. No money is exchanged, but two parties exchange products and services of equal value. This is bartering, and it is time to be more intentional about it. What do you need, and what you can provide in exchange? Check out the bartering groups on Facebook, start the conversation within your own networks, and reduce the amount of money you spend on services when you can trade skills.

Sacrifice to save

Saving money is difficult under any circumstances. No one really wants to set money aside for short-term or long-term savings instead of spending it on immediate desires. Many of us are living hand-to-mouth with little or no room to save. Where saving is a possibility, it definitely requires lifestyle changes. If you can afford to buy a hot beverage every day on the way to work, you can save. If you can drive to and from work every day, you can save. It may not been convenient, and it may cramp your style, but you can do it. Make your morning beverage at home, put that café money in a jar every day, and deposit it monthly. Carpool with your family members, friends, and coworkers. It could be part of a go-green initiative at the office, or a way to catch up with the cousins you never find the time to meet. This may not be something you do all the time, but it is an option for reducing spending on gas.

There are a number of saving strategies that come up with a quick online search. A popular one is never spending five dollar bills. Any time you get a five dollar bill in change, you put it in a separate section of your wallet or a different pocket, then deposit it to a container or account. Do this for a year, and see how much you save. If you are inclined to open a savings account, check out the credit unions. They offer far better interest rates and service than commercial banks, and the asue accounts are definitely worth consideration.

Community

We are all paying the same VAT, but we all have different income levels. No matter how much we would like to think we are all in the same boat, we are not. Women and approximately twelve percent of people in The Bahamas living below the poverty line are disproportionately affected. Some can not even begin to think about budgets or saving. Look out for them.

This unfortunate increase is coming, but maybe a better sense of community and willingness to help one another can come with it. Can you help someone start a business? Maybe you have raw material to help them get started, a space they can work from, or money they can pay back in service. Check in with your loved ones. Make strategies for dealing with the VAT increase a community effort. Grow food together. Exchange goods and services. Start a savings challenge. Let’s get creative.

Published in The Tribune on June 27, 2018.

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Culture Clash: The Lessons We Can Learn from the Budget

The world of partisan politics is never dull. The Budget Communication certainly makes for a lively few weeks, full of debate, pontification, and a range of emotions. It is probably the time we are most attentive to the government and political maneuverings aside from election season. It gives insight into the real agenda of administrations and reveals values like nothing else. In their contributions, our representatives show us, in practice, what is important to them. They speak to specific parts of the budget as we listen for signs that they are just another cog in the wheel, or thinking representative giving due consideration to the everyday realities of our lives before taking a position.

More information please

The 2018-2019 budget could keep us talking for days on end. The controversy and confusion that arise from the budget debate often lead to conversations, arguments, research, and critical thinking, increasing our knowledge and understanding of governance and government. Other events — like the vote of no confidence by the rebel seven in 2016 — become practical teaching tools and open our eyes to what was previously unknown. Many of us only recently learned that the official Leader of the Opposition in Parliament is not necessarily the opposition party leader. We are learning as we go.

How is that working for us?

Sure, there is always more to learn. Yes, it is great that we are able to start and sustain conversations in the aftermath of political events that lead to an expansion of individual and national knowledge, but are we figuring it all out too late, and too piecemeal?

We are in desperate need of a national civics lesson. Yes, some schools have civics class, but not all of them. It should be a requirement at every school in The Bahamas. If we can give five-year-olds projects on the governor generals of The Bahamas, we can offer civic education to school-age children. There should be educational programming on television and radio, supplements in newspapers, open online courses, and resources in public libraries. If political parties and candidates can go door-to-door with their paraphernalia, they can make information about the Westminster system, political history, and governance easily accessible to every Bahamian resident.

Voting against party position

Over the past few days, we have been talking about the four FNM Members of Parliament who voted no on the bill to increase Value Added Tax to twelve percent. Golden Isles MP Vaughn Miller, Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine, Bain and Grants Town MP Travis Robinson and Centreville MP Reece Chipman did not support the VAT increase, and seven other FNM Members of Parliament did not show up to vote. This came after Attorney General Carl Bethel said “the whip is on” and suggested to anyone voting no, “you may as well tender your resignation at the same time that you vote with the opposition.”

Many people of varied political allegiances expressed disdain, shock, and disappointment at the Prime Ministers actions yesterday. Robinson and Miller were terminated from their parliamentary secretary positions at Ministry of Tourism and Aviation and Ministry of Social Services respectively, and McAlpine was terminated from his position as chairman of the Hotel Corporation. Their termination letters referred to Part III, Section 21 of the Manual of Cabinet and Ministry Procedure.

Following their budget contributions, it was made clear to these Members of Parliament that they had a decision to make. They could support the budget in its entirety, including relevant bills, and keep their appointments or they could represent their constituents by not supporting every aspect of the budget and be terminated. They chose to stand for the people, knowing the consequences stipulated by the Westminster system.

The Minnis mistake

Minnis is obviously trying to look strong. He is opposed to compromise. He is not interested in engaging the press, or communicating with the Bahamian people. He wants to eat lunch. He disappears and goes quiet, pushing other people to the fore. Maybe he thinks we will not see him as the bad guy. Maybe he thinks if he is not the one to deliver the bad news, we will not know where it came from. One thing is certain — he does not take kindly to being opposed, questioned, or criticized. That is too bad, especially since opposition, questions, and criticism could be instructive, especially for someone so clearly out of touch.

Minnis does not seem to understand the implications of the budget. He has not grasped the fact that the Bahamian people are not interested in any of the spins being offered. We are especially not going to accept the idea that we have to suffer now to benefit later.

Minnis said, ”My budget is not necessarily about VAT. My budget is more about a better tomorrow for the young people of this country, the future.”

In two sentences, he took ownership of the budget, demonstrated his lack of awareness of the general understanding of the budget and the most dominant component, and suggested that there is a focus on youth and the future. There is too much in that statement to refute here and now, but young people are not buying it; especially not after Robinson’s termination yesterday.

The Robinson effect

Many people are confused by what has taken place. Some are likening Minnis to dictators and fascists. There have been numerous questions about the validity of this move, whether or not it was necessary, and possible loopholes. More than anyone else, Travis Robinson has the attention of the Bahamian people — especially young people. For many, his termination feels like a punch to the gut. We have to remember, however, that he remains the representative for Bain and Grants Towns, that was what he wanted at the beginning, and his current situation is the outcome of fulfilling his duty to the people of that constituency. He has done what many others have failed to do. He consulted with his constituents and spoke on their behalf, even when it was to his own detriment. He has proven that a young person who is new to politics and has been courted by a major political party can truly represent the people.

What will this do for Bahamian politics? Maybe we will see a wave of more inspired leaders and leadership emerge. There could be new boldness. Perhaps we can expect present and future Members of Parliament to give careful consideration to everything put before them, consult with constituents, and truly work for them rather than the party. We may get representatives who care more about our communities than their own titles and salaries. Didn’t this seem unrealistic a short time ago?

Whether or not we see change, incremental or substantial, in the practice of politics depends on more than one person. Travis Robinson, at the very least, took a risk. What about us? What is our response going to be? Beyond the initial social media posts and paraphrasing of what others have said, what are we going to do?

At this point, our action is just as important as his. If we want to see more representatives truly representing us, we have to show it with our support. That means resisting the urge to make jokes about his lost income, and going beyond the lazy explain-it-away method of posting a screenshot of the relevant Westminster rule or section of the cabinet manual. Okay, the system brought us here. What now? What of that system? Is it serving us?

We talk about democracy in very general terms, and most of us have done very little to learn more about it. We go through the motions of a specific part of democracy. We vote every five years, and spend all the time in between making threats about what we will do with our one vote when the time comes again. Democracy is and must be more than that. We have to be able to talk about what it has and has not been for us, and co-create a better functioning democracy that goes beyond a vote. We can have our say on any day at any time, if only we learn to tap into the power of the collective. When we do, as Progressive Liberal Party Deputy Leader Chester Cooper put it, “The day of reckoning is going to come. And that is the beauty of democracy.”

Published in The Tribune on June 20, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Facing Up to Mental Health Challenges

I know people with mental health challenges, some of whom are getting professional help and others who cannot afford it, do not want anyone else to know what they are going through, or do not think it would help. I have received phone calls and in-person visits from people who needed immediate assistance. During and after university, I was a live-in youth worker for at-risk women and girls. Before that job, I harshly judged people living in poverty, drug-addicted people, teenage parents, and any number of other people. I had decided that we all get to choose what we do with our lives, and our ability to succeed is completely within our control.

Coming face-to-face with my own ignorance and hypocrisy in a matter of days was nowhere near easy, but it was the most life-changing experience I have ever had. Among other opportunities and challenges, I completed suicide intervention training with a group of social workers. It was long, intense, transformative, and unexpectedly emotional. It reminded me of previous experiences, made me question the way I responded to situations in the past, and committed me to paying attention, asking questions, and listening for what is not being said.

On June 8, Anthony Bourdain was found dead in his hotel room in Strasbourg, France. The host of the award-winning CNN series Parts Unknown who had publicly talked about his mental health struggles died by suicide. Many people, so accustomed to watching Bourdain explore new places and food with acerbic wit, feel like they have lost a friend. They were attracted to the contagious curiosity that led him to ask people what they liked to cook and what they liked to eat, and the honesty that delivered his unfiltered thoughts.

Bourdain was not without success and did not lack money. He was a world-renowned chef and bestselling author. In Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Bourdain went beyond food, telling stories about his abuse of drugs and sex. He consistently proved himself to be a real, multidimensional person, but that he could suffer from depression and exit the world by suicide is still a shock. We have certain expectations of the rich and the famous.

Don’t they have everything they could possibly want and more? Can’t they afford to pay every problem to get lost? And what is there to be depressed about?

Bourdain’s partner Asia Argento described him as her love, her rock, and her protector. He stood by her side when she went public with accusations against Harvey Weinstein and spoke out in support of the women of the #MeToo movement. Bourdain is an example of a person who managed to support other people, but did not manage to save himself.

Are we supposed to save ourselves?

Just days before Bourdain’s death, fashion designer Kate Valentine (previously known as Kate Space) died of suicide in her apartment in Manhattan. Though she had not had a hand in the brand still bearing her name, many people responded to the news of her death with stories of their first Kate Spade handbag purchase.

Both Bourdain and Spade had what most of us are still trying to achieve. They found their passions and ways to share them with the world, and got more than pay checks in return. They each had a fan base. They had families and friends. They were household names. Still, something else they had in common overshadows all of their achievements and possessions and the love in their lives. That may be what is most difficult to understand about depression. It does not match itself to the good in our lives. As large as the sun is, clouds can completely obscure our view of it. We may know it is still there, but that knowledge does nothing to replace the light. At night, when darkness comes, there is no sign that the sun will rise again.

As a child, I heard people talk about suicide. I learned that people saw it as a dishonorable act. A selfish act. A cowardly act. I heard people talk about depression too. I learned that people saw it as a weakness. A demon. A punishment for wrongdoing. A clear instruction to turn to god. Good, god-fearing people, then, did not have depression. Brave, selfless people did not attempt suicide.

To prove I was living my life in the best possible way, I had to ensure that there was never a sign of depression, or even sadness. Even if I experienced them, no one could know. This dictated countless thoughts and actions. This knowledge made it so that I never admitted to anything being wrong, and whenever anything was wrong, I suffered alone. I know that I am not the only one. There are other people who go to battle with parts of themselves that want to be vulnerable and honest, and allow someone else to help. They fight those parts because we are taught that it is better to be strong, smiling, and satisfied with whatever we have.

It has taken me a long time to realize that vulnerability is not weakness, and having challenges does not mean we are, in some way, deficient. It is still difficult for me to treat myself with the same kindness I extend to my loved ones. Maybe it is because I came to my understanding of mental health issues through my role as carer for others that it is easier to acknowledge, affirm, and attend to the needs of others than it is to even sit with my own. Part of it too, of course, is the way I heard people talk about mental health challenges when I was growing up. It is hard to trust people with personal information when it feels safer to keep it secret, even from the closest people to us. The people who are, perhaps, the most judgmental of them all.

After reports of suicide or attempted suicide, there is always an influx of positive messaging around mental health. Social media is flooded with posts encouraging people to seek the help they need. Talk to someone. Call a hotline. Text a friend. See a psychologist. There are numerous barriers to what seems like a quick and easy solution. To talk to someone, we have to trust them and be reasonably certain that they will only do what is in our best interest. To call a hotline, we probably want to be assured that we can maintain anonymity, and that the person on the other end is a trained professional. To see a psychologist, we need money. And not a small amount of money. To ask for help, we have to admit that we do not always have it all together, we are not always as happy as we look, and our strength sometimes wavers.

We have a great deal of work to do. We have to earn the trust of the people around us. We need to understand mental health and recognize that it is just as important as physical health. Depression and anxiety are public health issues and should be treated as such. Health care needs to include mental health care.

We have to do more than pray. As family members, friends, coworkers, and club members, we need to pay attention, be willing to listen, and hear what is not being said. We need to advocate for policy change. We need to check on our people, and not always expect them to ask for the help they need. Suicide is not a choice, and it is not selfish. Limiting lifesaving options through stigma, however, is a choice. Give your loved ones the chance to cope, to overcome, and to live. Do research, start conversation, and demand mental health care services.

Published in The Tribune on June 13, 2018.