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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: Why VAT rise hits hardest for the people who can least afford it

Bahamians tuned in to the Budget Communication in Parliament last week Wednesday with great interest. After laying out a number of supposed benefits to the Bahamian people, Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest showed the price tag. The FNM administration intends to increase Value Added Tax (VAT) by 60 percent, taking it up from 7.5 percent to 12 percent on July 1. It expects this tax hike to increase revenue by $400 million in the next fiscal year.

In a press conference, Turnquest suggested this is the best way to pay off arrears left by the former administration of approximately $360 million. He insisted that the government is doing the right thing by being honest with the Bahamian people as opposed to presenting a misleading budget and delaying pay day.

Under-budget or increase taxes. These are clearly not the only options. This administration is depending on us to play into the stereotype of “lazy” and “D-average” so it can do as it sees fit with little to no pushback.

Even if VAT is the best option for The Bahamas, it would have been more transparent — a term the FNM enjoyed using before May 2017 — and shown a commitment to more participatory governance to share the details of its financial concerns with the people before this point. It would have been easier to understand this decision if we had been provided with this information before the Budget Communication and had the opportunity to offer ideas. The people sitting in Parliament are, after all, our representatives and not a collective dictatorship.

Flip-flop

Over the past few days, many people have quoted the 2016 version of Dr. Hubert Minnis who said, “I don’t believe in increasing taxes, I believe in decreasing taxes and increasing opportunities. Increasing taxes is a lazy way out. When you don’t want to think, you just tax.”

In 2013, Dr. Minnis said the PLP should share its economic studies and analyses as well as alternatives it considered with the Bahamian people. Today, the Bahamian people are making the same request. We want to know how this administration came to the conclusion that a 60% increase in VAT is best for the country. We also want to see the other options that were under consideration, why they failed, and how the administration arrived at this conclusion. Hearing from the Prime Minister on his change in position would be welcome as well.

VAT and Customs Duty

In the Budget Communication, it was announced that Customs exemption would be increased from $300 to $500, twice per year. There is also a reduction in Customs duty on new small cars and excise duty on new electric and hybrid cars under $50,000 in value. Neither of these benefit the poor.

We learned that VAT will not be applied to bread basket items. These include rice, flour, grits, cheese, butter, cooking oil, milk, evaporated milk, soups, and mustard. Concerns have been raised about the lack of healthy options on the bread basket list, and Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands suggested more items, including fresh produce, will be added. VAT is also being waived from electricity bills below $100 and water bills below $50 impacting 30,000 and 43,000 people respectively — close to the 40,000 reportedly living in poverty. This measure, clearly meant for the poor, still does not bringing balance when we are looking at 12% VAT on everything else. The 2013 Household and Expenditure Survey showed 12.8% of the population in The Bahamas is living in poverty — on less than $5,000 per year.

What is poverty?

We need to understand what it means to be poor. Poverty is not the inability to purchase a particular brand of cellphone. It is not making the decision to attend a community college instead of a well-known university. It is not driving a 2010 Honda Civic. It is not being a college student and living with your parents. It is not a situation you can see your way out of at any given time. It is not a decision or series of decisions you consider prudent or responsible. It is having $5000 per year, and being unable to make decisions that do not fit that budget. Poverty is not a choice, and it is not about choices. It is not the result of working less, or working less hard.

Poverty is a systemic issue, and a monster we continue to feed with unilateral decisions like VAT and VAT increases and discriminatory practices. It is an issue we trivialize and makes jokes about when we hear about VAT going up and declare ourselves “poor” because we may not be able to go to crossfit any more. Not being able to benefit from the elimination of duty on airplanes does not make you poor, and jokes about it are lazy and D-average. Dine on the Line — an awareness campaign in which participants spend $4 on food every day — was last week, and maybe we should we have an exercise of doing everything else on the line for a month. Can you live on $11.64 per day? And no, 12% VAT is not likely to force many of us below the poverty line, but think about what it means for those already living in poverty. The reality of the over-burdened Bahamians living in poverty is not a punchline, and we do not need that kind of comic relief.

Equal, but not fair

The general conversation about the increase in VAT has revealed what we do and do not understand. It has been made clear, repeatedly, that the privilege some of us enjoy helps us to ignore or be completely unaware of the challenges other people face.

VAT is paid by all, but our experiences are not the same. We are not all in the same situation. VAT is a regressive — as opposed to progressive — tax. It is not higher for people with higher income. VAT is flat, so everyone pays the same rate, but it is not equitable. Middle class and poor people pay a larger proportion of their income in taxes through VAT. Though everyone is paying the same tax on individual items, the effect is different.

There is a popular pair of images used to show the difference between equality and equity. There are three people of different heights trying to watch a game over a fence, and there are three boxes they can stand on. In the first image, they each get one box. The shortest person still cannot see the game at all while the other two can. That is equality. In the second image, the tallest person does not get a box, and the shortest person gets two. In this image, they are all able to see and enjoy the game. That is equity.

What if taxation was equitable? What if the government found a way to alleviate the burden that has always been on the poor? What if we, as citizens, cared enough to look for alternatives to the quick fixes our representatives find and implement?

What we need

Fiscal responsibility is critical. We know the government needs money to provide services, from education and health care to road repairs and waste disposal. None of this is free, and the government needs a source of revenue. It does not, however, need to disproportionately burden the poor to meet its needs. It does not need to keep financial records and decisions out of our reach.

This administration needs to recognize that while the people did not necessarily vote FNM as much as it voted anti-PLP, there were expectations. Expectations of accountability. Transparency. An understanding that the Bahamian people are not interested in being blissfully unaware of the government action and inaction. We expect to be involved, and to have the opportunity to contribute, critique, co-create the systems and programs we need and demand.

We need to have a conversation about wages. Over the past few days, many have talked about the need to increase minimum wage, but that comes with its own effects. Even so, it is time to talk about a living wage so every working person can afford adequate food, shelter, and other physiological needs.

VAT is in the spotlight. No one wants to hear about taxes, much less increased taxes. We can agree on taxes, bills, and poverty. We do not want them, but they exist. Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other and not only these issues for ourselves, but use our power as a people to call on our representatives to stand with us, regardless of class or color.

Published in The Tribune on June 6, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Mottley cruises to electoral wipeout

On May 24, 2018, Barbados elected its first female prime minister. Mia Amor Mottley led the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) to victory, winning over 74% of the votes. This election brought an end to ten years of governance by Democratic Labour Party (DPL) led by Freundel Stuart since 2010. The BLP won all 30 seats in the House of Assembly—a first in the country’s history. Political parties in The Bahamas should look at the BLP’s campaign and collateral as there is a great deal that can be learned and practiced.

Mia Mottley, now the eighth prime minister of Barbados, has served as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Assembly twice and Attorney General. Her political career has been impressive since her entry in 1991 at the age of 26. She has held ministerial portfolios including Education, Youth Affairs and Culture, Economic Affairs and Development and worked on a National Youth Development programme. Mottley also served as Deputy Prime Minister from 2003 to 2008. Mottley has now joined the ranks of other first female prime ministers in the English-speaking Caribbean—Dame Eugenia Charles of Dominica, Janet Jagan of Guyana, Portia Simpson Miller of Jamaica, and Kamla Persad Bissessar of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Campaign

The Barbados Labour Party ran a campaign focused on the main issues of concern with significant emphasis on the economy. In the lead-up to election day, the party reminded the people of its values and commitments. The DLP, on the other hand, resorted to cheap tactics, including a speech from former Minister of Environment and Drainage Denis Lowe stating that “the Barbados Labour Party is led by a self-proclaimed wicker.” (“Wicker” is a Barbadian pejorative for “lesbian.”) He claimed she “doesn’t have any liking for men, except those men who don’t have balls,” and the men in the BLP have been neutered. The DLP put its energy in the wrong place, expecting fear and hatred to rule the ballots.

The BLP has worked to be transparent and involve citizens in the governance of Barbados. In January, the party shared its draft Integrity Commission Bill, calling on the public to offer comments which would be considered. It noted that enactment of the bill would be a matter of priority if elected. In her statement on the occasion of Barbados’ 51st Independence, Mottley committed to a journey of “certainty, consultation and a common gaol that brings everyone on board.” The messaging from the BLP was consistent, calling for everyone to work together to bring a collective vision to fruition.

The manifesto

The BLP manifesto, while short on details, is easy to read and digest. The two-part document separates longterm goals from the more immediate agenda to be carried out in the first six months. The latter includes rebuilding foreign reserves, dealing with debt, tax relief, improving sewerage systems, putting buses back on the road, and preparing for natural disasters. The list includes action steps for each of the 17 items which give an idea of what the BLP intends to take.

The transformational agenda for the five-year term is divided into X pillars—Better Society, Strong Economy, Good Governance, Repair and Renewal (of infrastructure), Blue and Green Economies, and Engaging the World. The website allowed people to view sections based on their identities such as youth, senior citizen, and middle class, and had an audio version which made the manifesto more accessible.

Focus on youth

Recognizing one of the largest voting blocks, the BLP made a youth-specific manifesto available on its website, making it easy for young people to see its intentions. In this plan, the six-month rescue plan is set out in three step—fix the economy, fix infrastructure, and create opportunity. These are later divided into more specific steps like lowering the cost of living through measures including the abolition of road tax and repeal on the municipal solid waste tax and returning free UWI tuition to Barbadian students. The second phase of the plan goes beyond the first six months with sections called live (including health and the justice system), learn (including prioritization of STEAM), create (including a talent showcase), do business (including procurement), play (including entertainment), work (including the development of new industries), and dream (including the creation of citizen wealth). At the end, it offers information for first-time voters.

The success of the Barbados Labour Party and its campaign and collateral are indicative in a necessary shift in the culture of politics in Barbados and throughout the region. Party loyalty is almost nonexistent. Citizens are not interested in petty back and forth arguments on rally stages. People are beginning to understand the importance of civic participation that goes beyond the casting of ballots. Good governance has been a requirement, and political parties are being called to exercise it within their internal systems. Personal attacks sully the names and characters of the people launching them. Voters are paying attention to track records, plans, and the level and frequency of engagement.

Good feelings

The BLP win and Mottley’s win feel good. They feel like progress. They seem like a change with a promise to never go back. Still, there are unknowns and there are harsh truths that must be faced. Barbados has its first female prime minister, but still only has six women in the House of Assembly. In its manifesto, the section on gender equality has only four points—equal pay for equal work, paternity leave, male participation in tertiary education, and female entrepreneurship. These leaves a lot to be desired. There is, for example, no mention of women’s political participation or the introduction of a quota. It must be noted that it could be difficult for Mottley to push a women’s rights agenda. Being a woman and the prime minister is not a panacea. Women’s rights advocates have to continue their work and the press for progress.

Like having a female prime minister for the first time, a clean sweep feels good. It is an undeniable victory, and a clear message from the nation. This has its own challenges, and The Bahamas is becoming familiar with them. There is nothing to celebrate in not having an opposition, and it is critical that the people resist the inclination to relax and believe that all will be well and their jobs are done. The lack of opposition makes the role of the citizen even more critical. There will likely be no one in Parliament to see and hear the questionable and make statements to the press that will inform the public. Who is going to pay attention? The people have to pay attention. To take notes. To ask questions. To challenge ideas. To offer commentary. The citizens have to step up.

As Mottley said in her first address after the election, “All ideas must contend. Even before a government has the right to take a decision, all ideas must contend.”

Published in The Tribune on May 30, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Royal Wedding

Of all the movies in theaters, plays on stage, and weddings all over the world, none drew attention to match that of the royal wedding on Saturday. People set alarms and woke up early to spot celebrities, critique the wedding dress, give meaning to Queen Elizabeth II’s expressions, and see the way Prince Harry and Meghan Markle looked at each other during the ceremony at St. George’s Castle.

Markle arrived by car with her mother, Doria Ragland, and stepped out in a silk dress by British designer Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy. The palace described it as “timeless minimal elegance.” With a boat neckline, long sleeves, and no embellishments, the soft matte dress drew attention to her shoulders and waist. It stayed true to Markle’s minimalist sophistication and preference for an understated aesthetic. Her hair was styled in a low chignon bun and she wore the diamond bandeau tiara from Queen Elizabeth II’s collection. The trim of her 16-foot silk tulle veil, also designed by Waight Keller, was a composition of distinctive flora from each of the 53 Commonwealth countries, hand-embroidered in silk threads and organza. The yellow elder was representative of The Bahamas.

Celebrities in attendance included Amal Clooney, Victoria Beckham and, Serena Williams and their husbands, Oprah Winfrey, Gina Torres, and Idris Elba.

To enjoy, or not to enjoy?

On Saturday, everyone was talking about the royal wedding. Even those who claimed they did not care about it made statements to assure everyone that they, in fact, did not have any interest in the event. Some even took time to berate or subtly shame people who watched the ceremony or commented on any aspect of the event. There seemed to be two camps — the completely enthused and the utterly uninterested (who still needed to be involved in the conversations of the completely enthused). The first camp was seen as mentally enslaved, foolishly addicted to colonialism, and the reason we are not in a better position today. The second camp, through its most vocal members, became the thief of joy. Because of slavery, colonialism, and the continued effects of white supremacy, they said there should be no black person with an ounce of interest in the royal wedding.

Let’s face it. Most of us are interested in the weddings, funerals, birthday parties, baby showers, and vacations of complete strangers. No? How many days has it been since you looked through pictures of someone else’s event because someone you know (or sort of know) was tagged in one of the photos and you just kept going, because why not?

We can — and should — be angry about slavery and colonialism. We should be a part of the movement for reparations. It should bother us to see people continue to benefit from kidnapping, slavery, murdering, cultural genocide, and crimes and injustices that go unacknowledged by perpetrators and beneficiaries. This, however, does not mean we cannot seek and find joy in the pomp and pageantry of a royal wedding, the supposed discomfort of the queen, the possibility of royal children with afros, the imagination of the monarchy being taken down, or spirited arguments with friends and family members about aspects of the ceremony and its guests.

We can love Wakanda and still sip tea throughout the ceremony, celebrating every drop of blackness we find, real or imagined. We deserve that much. A little bit of joy goes a long way and, for some people, that wedding was the beginning of something else.

Since Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s engagement, the discussion about the royal family and race has been endless. Many seem to expect Markle’s presence, as a biracial person in the British royal family, to revolutionize it.

What does Meghan Markle represent?

Meghan Markle is an American woman with a white father and black mother. She has worked as an actress, best known for her role as Rachel Zane in Suits. She is divorced. She is not a typical “royal.” She has had a career, public persona, and demonstrable interests. The Tig — her now defunct lifestyle blog — gave insight into her love for food, wanderlust, and engagement in sociopolitical issues. She comes across as both a dreamer and a practical person and, overall, quite low-key.

Markle has been the kind of black woman it is easiest to like. To love. To respect. To idolize. She is not only light-skinned, but has a biological proximity to whiteness. She has been what most consider to be modest. She has been likable; not controversial in her statements or actions. She is “respectable.”

To the optimistic among us, she signals the acceptance of black people and blackness by the royal family. Maybe she will breathe new life into the family, relax the formalities, and expose personalities. Maybe.

There has been a lot of talk about what Meghan Markle represents for us, but far less about what she represents for the royal family. Might they have an agenda of their own? The family has always been known as stuffy and uptight. Princess Diana brought a new energy that does not seem to have stuck around since her death. They may have realized that, at this point, a change in brand could be helpful. This is not to say that her relationship with Prince Harry is not real, but that the unexpected acceptance — or the illusion of acceptance — could be strategic.

Think about what Princess Diana brought to the family. Recall the reactions to her death. Look at the conversations taking place everywhere, everyday, about gender, race, class, and migration. Markle’s place in the family is no more the end of racism or an erasure of slavery than Obama’s presidency. It looks good, it feels good, and it encourages optimism, but it might not be all we think or dare to hope.

What can we expect from the Duchess of Sussex?

She is certainly different from what we might expect of a “royal.” On the wedding day alone, she made this clear. She was intentional about including black people such as  The Most Rev Michael Bruce Curry of the Episcopal Church, Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir, and cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. She went unescorted until the Quire where main guests were seated, accompanied by Prince Charles the rest of the way. Her Cartier earrings were worn for at least the third time on that day. Still, she entered the British royal family. She was baptized and confirmed in a private ceremony, becoming a member of the Church of England. She wore jewels from the queen’s collection. How much will she change, and how much will she be changed?

In her blog post titled “How to Be Both,” Markle explained the bridge between her two worlds — one where she was a successful actress, and another where she did humanitarian work.

“I’ve never wanted to be a lady who lunches – I’ve always wanted to be a woman who works. And this type of work is what feeds my soul, and fuels my purpose. The degree to which I can do that both on and off camera is a direct perk of my job.”

It will be interesting to see how life as a duchess will suit her, or how she will suit it. We will soon see how she balances that new life with existing interests, and whether or not she will find a way to share it with the world, similar to the way she shared her lifestyle on The Tig.

Published in The Tribune on May 23, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Playing Follow the Leader

When we talk about leadership, we usually point to government as an example. The Prime Minister is seen as the ultimate leader. There is no one with more control. No one with greater power. No one with more responsibility. No one in a more important position. No one more unquestionable or beyond reproach. No one more silencing, domineering or undoubtedly correct. The prime minister is synonymous with leadership.

If you have managed not to rip this page to shreds, which of those statements made you uncomfortable? In which parts did you find irony? At which point did you think I could not be serious? What does this tell you about the way you feel about leadership in The Bahamas, and the positions and people we typically view as leaders?

Who’s in charge here?

It is interesting that we view politicians as leaders, even more than we see members of parliament as representatives. When we talk about leadership, it is often in ways that validate and celebrate dictatorial practices. One makes the decision for many. Consultation, if it exists at all, is at a minimum. The attitude is: “you put me here, so let me do my job”. This, however, only seems to work in one direction.

Members of parliament manage to say or demonstrate this to constituents, but ministers can not say this to the prime minister. It seems everyone is a leader until they have a leader, and in the presence of a high-level leader, all other leaders are stripped of the title.

Those who dare to behave like leaders, rather than subjects of the high-level leader, are scolded, belittled and threatened. The firstborn loses all authority when the parents get home from work.

What kind of leadership are we practicing if it is threatened by anyone else – even on our team – asserting themselves, offering criticism and developing solutions?

Leadership of a different kind

Minister of state for legal affairs Elsworth Johnson has been one of the only a few people to dare speak on even mildly controversial issues with any degree of honesty and both personal and professional understanding and obligation. In November 2017, he spoke strongly in support of proposed changes to citizenship law. Without pressing for people to adopt his position, he implored the Bahamian people to “come up to a higher level and accept certain truths as they exist in our society.” He encouraged respectful conversation, even if we disagree.

In March 2018, Johnson spoke to the issue of marital rape, noting people are not property. He encouraged a consultative process, accountability and transparency. He said: “It is accepted international standard that information maintained by the government is vital to civil society. That information when properly dispensed to members of civil society undergirds a democracy to give life to it and it allows people to properly involve themselves in the governance of the country.”

This is what we should expect of a leader. Willingness and ability to state positions on issues. Pushing the government to make information accessible to the public and provide opportunities for engagement.

Encouraging the public to participate in the process, access information and come to informed decisions. Johnson has demonstrated and exercised the ability to think for himself, challenge his colleagues and invite public discourse.

This flies in the face of the unspoken mandate of Bahamian ministers and members of parliament who are to tow the party line. The only opinion is the party’s opinion, the only challenge is to the Opposition, and the only reason to engage the citizenry is for votes.

Compare Johnson’s leadership with that of the “leaders” who refuse to take positions on hot button issues, sit small until their names are called, shy away from any forum giving citizens the opportunity to address them. Which do you prefer and which is most expedient for the head leader in charge?

Last week, Johnson went too far out of bounds. He dared to call for a chief justice to be appointed. Following the Bahamas Bar Association’s characterisation of no appointed chief justice as an “existential and constitutional crisis”, the former president of the Association spoke up. He said: “the right, transparent and accountable thing to do is for the PM to exercise his constitutional authority and appoint a chief justice”.

If a Minister disagrees and no one hears it, does it make a difference?

This is not disrespect. This is not unreasonable. This is a thought-out and explained position. Johnson said, rightly, that the vacancy should be filled. This is obvious. Without directly referencing the current state of the office – where senior justice Stephen Isaacs now serves as acting chief justice – Johnson challenged the self-loathing we all know exists in The Bahamas, and suggested that a foreign appointee would be properly compensated. Where is the lie?

Better yet, what is the problem? It is not what was said. It is where it was said, and who could hear it.

This must have made Prime Minister Hubert Minnis uncomfortable. Making this appointment was not on his agenda. He is busy balancing people’s-person and man-in-charge. It is not easy.

How can you be seen as a nice guy, but also have the respect of the people – especially those you consider to be beneath you? Having already called for a resignation and fired someone else very recently, we can only imagine the action taken to elicit the apology Johnson issued last week.

An apology for stating publicly what some say should have been a private conversation. A private conversation about a public matter.

We have grown so accustomed to being in the dark, to electing people and walking away, to being told our business is none of our business that anyone who attempts to involve us in the conversation is seen as out of order. We forget that they are employed by us. We, the people.

Who will lead next?

We have had a leadership crisis for some time now, and it continues. There are many new faces in the current administration, but has there been any real change? Can there be any substantive change within the same system that recycles not only people, but form and function?

The Bahamas is being governed using the same tactics we look back on and criticise, believing ourselves much evolved since the ‘70s. The play is the same. Same script, different cast. The actors of today learned from those of yesterday. They study and follow the notes left behind. They have bought into the same values, and have the same single-mindedness we rebuke and swear off with every election season. They are worn down. They join the cult.

Look at the ages of the people in positions of leadership, then look at the ages of the people in tomorrow’s obituary.

Look at the ages of the people locked out of the system or, when let in, are either silenced or brainwashed.

The leadership crisis continues. The crisis of representation continues.

We know public life is not easy, but do not often acknowledge that it is without reward for those determined to participate differently. Those who do not follow script. Those who speak out of turn. Those who do not bind themselves to convention or tradition, and do not feel indebted to the people or systems that brought them in to the point that they must become puppets.

We need to concern ourselves with the development of a new generation of leaders. In 20 years, who do we want to be at the helm, and how will we prepare them?

Watching Bahamian governance and listening to commentary would not encourage many people to be different. To speak up. To object. To demand better. To use positions of power to create change. We make leadership about popularity and longevity; not authenticity in the process of visioning, charting a path and equipping people for the journey.

Until we redefine it, it will be practiced in the same way, and we deserve to see change in more than time and faces.

Published by The Tribune on April 11, 2018.

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Culture Clash: We Need to Disagree Better

Physical violence is an undeniable issue in The Bahamas. Reported events bring shock, fear and disappointment, filling us with questions, self-righteous proclamations and rebuke. In disbelief and grief, we look at the world around us, shaking heads and shrugging shoulders. We see physical violence as separate from us, and completely unrelated to the way we speak with one another. We do not want to make that connection, and that is unfortunate. It exists whether or not we acknowledge or choose to address it.

While it is exciting to finally have platforms — like social media and talk radio — allowing various levels of control, monitoring and contribution, they reveal a societal problem that presents an opportunity. We do not know how to disagree well, and we need to learn.

Disagreement is not inherently bad. It does not need to be rude, unproductive, or life-threatening. It is unreasonable to expect complete consensus on any issue. Even when we agree on the what, we are bound to butt heads on the how. Again, this is not an insurmountable problem. It only requires that we have conversations about points of disagreement and find courses of action to cure the disease we have already diagnosed.

Over the past few days, I have observed activity on a few Facebook threads. I considered the amount of time and energy wasted on arguments that really had nothing to do with the matter raised, and almost seemed to intentionally detract from the valid points being made. This happens every day, multiple times per day, but for what reason? Do people just love to argue? Do we like to make each other feel stupid? Is it a game for some of us, trying to see how quickly and easily we can derail a conversation?

Have you ever witnessed a conversation involving people who are in agreement, but they don’t know it? One person says the sun is hot, and the other says they are hot because of the sun. They make the same point in different terms and somehow come to the conclusion they are on opposing sides. They argue about the importance of vitamin D, while you stand there wondering why this happened. You want to explain to them they are saying the same thing, but it is too far gone now. One of them is google searching alternate sources of vitamin D to prove it may be worthwhile to get sunburn because vitamin tablets are too expensive. You have to walk away.

On Saturday, someone posted about mosquito fogging. What chemicals are they using? Are they harmful to people? Is there a schedule so we can close our windows and plan to be indoors or out of the area? She explained the reasons for her concern and many people agreed. It was not long, of course, before people showed up to suggest we are all either ungrateful or confused.

Here’s a typical example: “I saw at least 20 posts last week complaining about mosquitoes. Now they doing something and there’s complaining about that. Can we ever please Bahamians?”

Some people on the thread figured we all just hate the government, and nothing they do will be right in our eyes. “It’s six of one and half dozen the other. Mosquito-borne illness or chemicals. Can’t win for losing.”

The original poster did not explicitly state she was against fogging. Her post made it quite clear she was not a fan of chemicals, but especially unknown chemicals. How is it that people decided she was completely opposed to fogging? Maybe she would like to be free of mosquitoes and be sure she is not being poisoned at the same time. Too much to ask?

As a person who does not like mosquitoes and would rather not be poisoned, I find her position quite reasonable. As someone who generally keeps the windows open and goes running, I agree a schedule would be helpful and the government should not have to be asked for it. This is not the same as ingratitude.

If no one asks the questions, clearly no individual, department, or ministry of the government will make this information available. They can please this Bahamian — and probably the one who asked the question on Facebook — by doing something about the mosquitoes and telling us what that is and how we will be affected. That is really not something to argue about, but if there is disagreement, it should be about that central point. Someone wants to know what is being used and, subsequently, inhaled by human beings.

In recent weeks, Paul Ratner’s article on Paul Graham’s “How to disagree” essay has been circulating on social media. It includes a pyramid that ranks the ways people engage when in disagreement. At the highest level is refuting the central point. Toward the middle are counterargument and contradiction, and name-calling is at the bottom.

Also included, near the bottom, is tone policing. This is a frequent practice, particularly when a member of a marginalised community speaks on an issue affecting them and their community. Dominant groups are quick to say they are angry or using the wrong approach. Suggesting the central point is of no import or consequence does not even make the cut.

Graham says, though it may feel like it, we are not actually getting angrier. Disagreement just gives us more room to talk and, quite obviously, we all want to be heard. Even if we truly disagree, it is important we do it well. If you have a different point of view, make sure you can refute the central point of the person’s argument.

Unless you have a problem with the government informing citizens of the chemicals used for mosquito fogging and have a counterargument, it does not make sense to post in disagreement. You may not like the tone of the post or the person posting. You may think the topic is silly. You may think something else matter more. None of these are valid arguments.

Sometimes people get into defence mode because they feel attacked, even when their names have not been called. They feel the need to set the record straight.

On Tuesday morning, I read a horrifying story by a woman who was given the run-around on the day she gave birth to her second child at Princess Margaret Hospital. PMH wrongfully forced her to go to the public ward when she told them she had already paid for private. This resulted in her private doctor not being able to deliver her baby, and her husband not being allowed in the room. In addition, she was not given anything for pain, so almost nothing went according to her birthing plan.

In her post, she pointed out the issues with PMH administrative practices and encounters with rude, uncaring nurses. While most people sympathised and encouraged her to take further action, a number of nurses felt the need to defend themselves and their profession. They said all nurses are not like that, most nurses are kind and caring but that a few bad nurses make everyone look bad. That may be the case, but is that what the original poster needed to read in response to her story? No. Could it completely derail the important conversation? Yes.

Everything does not have to be an argument. We do not always have to disagree, but when we do, let’s do it well. Let your argument stand on its own. Do not disrespect other participants in the conversation, or distract them from the central point. Focus on that central point, and take it down with supporting material. Communication does not have to be a problem, and disagreement does not have to end in violence. We have to argue better.

Published by The Tribune on April 4, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Marriage Isn’t a Good Idea for Women in The Bahamas

It is rare for a news items to bring concerned pause. Our positions are usually clear; we care or we don’t care, and then we choose a side. On issues of social or political concern, we generally have an opinion on what is and is not right. Something was different about the way we saw and responded to last week’s news story on the Bahamas Christian Council’s proposed Sanctity of Marriage bill. I saw scores of people share the article, but none of them added a caption. Some of them used emoticons, but no one made a clear statement about the Bahamas Christian Council’s drafting and submission of a Sanctity of Marriage bill.

The draft is meant to serve three purposes. It is to provide for the reinforcement of the sanctity of marriage, a marital duty of care, and strengthen the institution of marriage by ensuring “informed participation.” It also focuses on tax reduction for married people to enhance the value and serve as incentive for the maintenance of marriage.

It seems the Bahamas Christian Council and the loud voices we have come to know as “the church” are obsessed with marriage. They simultaneously promote it as a necessity for everyone and an exclusive good reserved for its community. We are clear on the church’s position on who should and should not have access to marriage. It was amplified by the 2016 referendum and its statements on the fourth proposed constitutional amendment bill which sought to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination. Its opposition was rooted in homophobia which was framed as a “protection” of marriage, as though the legalization of same-sex marriage would be the destruction of marriage.

For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will say only that the fourth bill was not about same-sex marriage, its passage would not have automatically led to the legalization of same-sex marriage, and this issue is far for the top of the list of concerns of the LGBT+ community.

It was made clear that the church believes — or wishes to make the public believe — it has a monopoly on marriage, and it is only a religious institution. This is not the case. It falls to citizens to remind the state of this fact, and respond strongly to the church’s attempts to control public goods and services and the private lives of citizens on the basis of its doctrine which we are free, constitutionally, to recognize or not.

The Sanctity of Marriage Bill as drafted by the Bahamas Christian Council raises many questions. There is very little we can point to and identify as right or wrong, but none of it is necessary, and most of it seems to be linked to a larger plan we cannot see. The group of religious leaders has submitted its own recommendations for amendments to the Sexual Offenses Act. Has the admission that rape is rape, regardless of the relationship between people, led the Bahamas Christian Council to worry about the state of marriage? Is the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill a strategy to influence engaged and married couples on issues including sexual assault? How does it intend to lead the proposed Marriage and Family Advisory Council in educating the public on marriage, and what do they know that we have yet to learn? If this is another strategy to control the legal contract of marriage, it is beyond time for us to pay attention.

The marital rape conversation has not been much different than the one about the referendum. Religious leaders came forward to quickly and loudly express their displeasure at the very existence of the conversation. Victim-blaming has been normalized in many ways and, sadly, it is what we have come to expect from many men of the cloth.

Why would a woman choose not to have sex with her husband? What’s a man to do?

These religious leaders reframe the conversation, taking our attention away from abuse and power. They distract us with the concept of submission as the primary duty and characteristic of a good, Christian wife. They erase married women who do not identify as Christian, some of whom did not even marry in the church. A broad brush is used, and the attitude seems to be if we choose to marry, we commit ourselves to the standards and obligations meted out by the church. Is this what the Sanctity of Marriage draft bill would enforce?

Marriage, in The Bahamas, does not seem to be a good idea for women. Sure, it can bring financial security, confidence in commitments made, and a reduction in judgment, especially for couples choosing to live together and have children. Unfortunately, it can result in a loss of physical security and legal protection. It is a challenge to get police to respond to domestic disturbances. I know because I have made the calls and driven to police stations to make reports. I’ve heard, “Them two again?” I’ve been told, “Miss, we don’t have time for that.” It is, as we have seen in recent weeks, difficult to convince people that married women are still human beings and have human rights. Why should women get married? Perhaps the Sanctity of Marriage draft is the Bahamas Christian Council’s way of preempting the inevitable — the refusal of Bahamian women to get married, giving in to the the societal and religious norms that continue to be reinforced by the law of the land. Maybe it sees the need to incentivize marriage while locking us in additional obligations through its guide.

I had the unfortunate experience of listening to men talk about marital rape in a barber shop a few days ago. I chose not to argue, but to listen to everything they said, and observe the responses of other people in the room. Someone in the room, well aware of my work, expressed surprise at my silence. I continued to hold it. They talked about how ridiculous it would be to make marital rape illegal. They shared strategies for “taking it” from their wives. These ranged from waiting for her to sleep to slipping something into her favorite drink. They argued about whether or not it would be fun without her participation. They laughed about how confused she would be when she woke up aching, or realized he hadn’t “asked for some” in a while.

These men commented on the views of the religious leaders who have been outspoken about the issue, and talked openly about raping their wives, completely without fear or the slightest reservation. It didn’t matter that there were people in the room whose positions they could not know. It didn’t matter that there was a woman in the room. It wasn’t until a religious leader entered that they ceased to share their marital rape strategies. Before, all that mattered was their hypermasculinity and the need to express it and assure one another that they would get what they wanted, whatever the cost. After all, raping their wives is not illegal, and some of the most revered and respect men in the country are fighting to keep it that way. Just not the one who last entered, and his position was respected.

This is the danger of the reckless influencer. They have the power and the platform to present, repeat, and sometimes enforce their points of view, frequently without challenge. I sometimes think about the churches full of women who practically empty their purses into collection plates, but led by men who do not regard women — especially married women — as human beings. How do women sit in those churches, listen to those sermons, fund those activities, and not think about the ways they and so many others are affected by the dangerous rhetoric spewed week after week in what they perceive to be a holy place? I have to remind myself that they have been conditioned for years to believe that they are less than men, and that religious leaders are a trustworthy authority. I saw for myself that religious power silences, scares, and controls people of all genders. It’s up to us to prevent it from disempowering us — not as citizens, nor as a nation.

Published by The Tribune on March 14, 2018. Picked up by AFROPUNK on Facebook.

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Culture Clash: Justice for All – It Takes Work

Social justice is, at the moment, an imagined future where wealth and opportunities are justly distributed. It is a world free of oppression and barriers due to gender, race, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, or all other identity markers.

Social justice recognises the equal worth of all individuals and the right to have basic needs met. It is a move toward better, more inclusive systems that leads to gender equality, poverty eradication, fair employment, environmental health, access to education and numerous other improved conditions.

Social justice as a field, study and practice is sometimes divided into three parts: legal justice, commutative justice and distributive justice. This comes from the idea that we owe society, we owe each other and society owes us. A great deal of focus tends to be on the latter because we need to have systems and institutions structured in ways that protect, affirm and promote our human rights and give us equal opportunity to participate in political and social life. Social justice cannot be achieved without challenging political and societal norms, deconstructing privilege, and having uncomfortable conversations about history and its widespread effects. Maybe even more importantly, it won’t be realised until we learn to engage people who are not in our communities, schools of thought or organisations.

More awareness, more connection

Social justice movements are increasing in number, inclusion, reach and impact. This is not necessarily because we are facing more issues now than we did ten, 20, or 50 years ago. For various reasons, including the advancement of technology and its impact on ease and speed of communication, we have become more aware of national, regional and global concerns. Some would say we are hyperaware and, for some of us, sensitivity is heightened. We know we have to respond.

While seemingly working on disparate issues, social justice movements are growing more interconnected and interdependent. The 2015 adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly has played in role in bridging the gap between communities.

The SDGs cover a range of social and economic issues including education, health and wellness, gender equality, climate action and economic empowerment. Each goal has specific targets. When all 169 targets are reviewed, interdependence of the goals and relevant issues is confirmed. For example, gender equality is dependent on target 4.5 to “eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable”. None of the goals — a distillation of global issues — can be met without working to meet other goals. Collaboration is key.

How we do the work

There are many different approaches to social justice work. For some, direct action is the way to go. Some use it for everything at all times while others see it as necessary in specific circumstances.

One of the best known forms of activism is protest. People flood the streets with placards, demanding action from bureaucratic bodies. Sometimes they are silent, and sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are peaceful, and sometimes they are not. They are never both the beginning and end of a successful movement. The protest seemed to have died in The Bahamas until recent years. Even being revived, they only seem to draw a few dozen people for any number of reasons. The issues seem too niche, people are generally unbothered, or the action is too inconvenient. Most Bahamians seem to be interested only if the issue personally affects them, and if they can join the protest without consequence. Our protests do very little to disrupt systems and institutions. We protest politely. We give notice, get permission and pack it in after a few hours. No one is unduly bothered, but protests usually make the news.

The petition is another popular action. It is easy on time, effort, and commitment. We can easily create and share petitions, collect signatures, and notify appropriate offices of our demands and the number of people in agreement with us. A petition, however, doesn’t do much to inconvenience the people we need to take action. They can block our emails and ignore the digital masses. They know it’s much more challenging to get the same people who signed to show up and take another action.

Two of the most popular, widely-used forms of direct action are fairly easy and ineffective. This is not to discount the usefulness of these methods, but to highlight the need to take more than one action, and more than one type of action. More than raging against the machine, social justice work requires that we raise awareness, build community, centre the people most affected, open dialogue with relevant bodies, learn, understand and use the law and international commitments to frame and support demands. No one action can get the job done and it’s time to be more creative about what we do, how we do it, and who we invite to join us.

Solidarity

A frequently overlooked component of effective social justice work is solidarity-building. Few communities are large enough to affect change for themselves on their own. Support from unaffected people is critical to building mass, spreading the workload, and resourcing movements. In most cases, for the plight of a group of people to be seen, people outside of that group have to be seen to care. When students were being sent home for having natural hair, non-students and people with chemically processed hair had to stand with them. Numbers are important, and so is empathy in action.

Publicity depends on people, and word of mouth and media are both powerful. International attention to national issues is known to impact the way they are addressed. In banding together, however, we need to be careful. It’s important to be mindful others’ intentions and the ways we all influence outcomes, especially when we are on the outside.

For example, when monitoring events in other countries — especially if the cause is close to us — it can be tempting to jump into action. Even with the best intentions, this can be a careless, dangerous response. There is usually someone on the ground, already working and strategising, and outside voices or initiatives can steal their thunder, confuse community members, and potentially sabotage the developing action plan. It is not only courteous, but responsible and professional to do research and reach out to people who are already doing the work. If you don’t see anyone doing it, you’re probably not very good at research. Get some help.

The role of civil society

Civil society is critical to a fully functioning democracy. We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are more powerful than the people we elect. We need to collaborate, and create opportunities for knowledge-building and skill-sharing. Social media has made it easier for us to raise our voices, but also to preach to the choir, and facilitate laziness. We need to reach people who disagree, and people who are undecided. We need more conversations than sermons. We need to find new, accessible ways to engage. If we fail to engage and onboard new people — those who do not look or think like we do — we won’t get to that world we imagine. Empathy and creativity need to be in the social justice toolkit. They are critical to building a community prepared to help drive us into a better future.

Published by The Tribune on February 21, 2018.