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Culture Clash: Resistance to Outside Influence

The U.S. has been a major influence on The Bahamas for a long time. Proximity and tourism are not the only reasons. “Foreign is better” has been a dominant idea for decades. Imported apples are redder, U.S.-based network television is more entertaining, and flown-in consultants are more knowledgable. We’ve grown accustomed to looking elsewhere for what we want, whether it’s because of cost, quality, or status, real or perceived. At the same time, we complain about the side effects of these decisions.

Small businesses are suffering, creatives struggle to get financial support, unemployment is high, university graduates accept offers elsewhere, and the country stagnates on various levels. We don’t listen to our own experts, and our governments engage people from all over the world, paying obscene amounts of money to tell us what we — at least some of us — already know. We are outraged when we hear about it, and not just because of the money. Even while we discredit and ignore our own, we are deeply insulted by even the suggestion that someone who does not live here could know or understand anything about our condition or potential better than us. We are compelled to resist “outsiders.”

Who’s Afraid of the UN?

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s visit to The Bahamas and declaration that marital rape is the most pressing gender-based issue in the country drew vitriolic response. Dubravka Šimonović was invited to The Bahamas to make an assessment, particularly in light of our bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. It is her job to objectively look at the country and its laws, engage with civil society, and report on her findings.

Ms. Šimonović’s visit was not to force new legislation or amendments, and her position does not afford her that right. Her comments, however, helped to spark a necessary conversation spanning several topics including rape, rape culture, marriage, and religion. It was a springboard for organizations and individuals, and drew attention to an overlooked issue. No matter how we validate her position or explain her visit, Ms. Šimonović is continually regarded as a UN operative, seeking to control The Bahamas and Bahamians.

Religious beliefs and commitment to the protection of patriarchy certainly influenced the conversation, but so did fear. Are we so opposed to external influence that we willingly refuse to acknowledge — or outright reject — statements of obvious truth and recommendations of merit?  It seems as though nationalism as a principle and pride as a restrictive, selfish value prevent us from participating in the processes necessary for growth and advancement as a country. Fear of being dominated or losing ourselves convinces us to dig our heels deeper into the mire that is our current and persisting state. Are we so weak that we could be controlled by mere conversation and suggestions of non-Bahamians?

Bullied by Big Brother

The President of the United States reportedly referred to African nations, along with others such as Haiti and El Salvador, as “shithole countries.” A xenophobe and a racist, his sentiments were clear before this incident, but it demands a response. Governments, organizations, and individuals have rebuked his statement and made it clear that he is not welcome in their spaces. CARICOM condemned his statement, calling it “unenlightened” and “unacceptable.” Since then, the Caribbean People’s Declaration, with 200 signatories, deemed the U.S. president “persona non grata.” It declared that he is “not welcome in any territory of the Caribbean” and confirms that any visit will be protested by Caribbean people with “demonstrations designed to prevent President Donald Trump’s entry into any portion of the sovereign territory of our Caribbean region.”

The Bahamas has not made such a statement and, based on social media posts and comments, many believe our silence is necessary. What would it mean to be on the bad side of the U.S. and its president?

We need to spend more time thinking about ourselves in relation to our Caribbean counterparts. We have been comfortable with a self-aggrandizing narrative, seeing ourselves as superior to the people of other Caribbean nations. Our GDP inflates our egos. We are proud of our proximity to the U.S., pre-clearance, and ease of access to the tourist market. We argue about whether or not we are a part of the Caribbean, often failing to acknowledge the shared history that binds us. In our minds, there is more that separates us from the rest of the Caribbean than connecting us. Contrary to what many Caribbean people believe and often express, we know we are not American, but in many ways, we aspire to Americanness, and it is often our closeness to American values and ways of life that excites us. We do not want to jeopardize it. That said, when issues of rights and freedoms are raised, opponents are quick to accuse advocates of “bringing American issues here,” so we are only interested in certain parts of Americanness.

This commitment to being U.S.-adjacent — not just geographically — often keeps us silent. While Leader of the Opposition Philip “Brave” Davis criticized the lack of response from the current administration, Minister of Foreign Affairs Darren Henfield would only say The Bahamas is part of CARICOM and “we speak with one voice,” suggesting the CARICOM statement is sufficient. Whether or not we believe cowardice is necessary, this is certainly a shameful silence.

Neighborhood Watch

On Friday, January 5, the CARICOM Regional Commission on Marijuana held a town hall meeting to get a sense of the Bahamian public’s opinion on the decriminalization of marijuana. The announcement of this event was like a piercing, loud alarm for those against decriminalization. Without even fully understanding the purpose of the event, furious typing and fast-dialing into radio talk shows ensued. People warned against decriminalization and all manner of impending doom that would result. While there may be valid arguments against decriminalization or, more likely, issues to be considered, accusations against CARICOM were wholly unnecessary and completely inaccurate. Listening to the fearful and the conspiracy theorists among us without seeking accurate information, it would be easy to believe CARICOM is forcing legislative changes on The Bahamas.

That a conversation could scare us is more worrying than being shunned by the U.S., or the decriminalization of marijuana. That we are happy to accept frivolous, seemingly inconsequential imports like clothing and media, and determined to reject expertise or even the facilitation of information sessions is cause for concern. We do not have to accept everything — or anything — being offered. We can demand that Bahamians experts are called first. We can have differing points of view. What we cannot afford is to close ourselves off from the rest of the world, convinced that everyone wants to take something from us or force something upon us. There is nothing wrong with learning from other countries, receiving recommendations from international bodies, or standing in solidarity with sister countries in the face of fascism. These decisions are up to us. Our fight should not be for restricted access to knowledge, perspective, and dialogue, but for seats at the table and participatory governance. We need every engagement opportunity we can get.

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An Aspirational Look to 2018

Coming out of a year of sitting around, watching and questioning, 2018 has to be a year of collective action.

From early on, we will not only pay attention to what is being said by whom, but scrutinise those words and hold them up against behaviour and supposed values.

We will find inconsistencies, wherever they are, and call on relevant organisations and individuals to address them.

In 2018, Bahamians will finally move beyond conversation and not just to participate in political stunts. We will be thoughtful in our contributions to national discussions, cautious in our commitments and unrelenting in our pursuit of the common good.

The people have been duped enough times to now recognise the tell-tale signs of liars, opportunists and manipulators and our experience will be put to the test.

Politicians, wannabe politicians, career criminals and those seeking celebrity will continue to use pressing issues to push their own agendas, tying up Bahamians thirsty for change in their webs of deceit. We will do our best to see these people miles away, ask the hard questions and listen to what they don’t say. We won’t have the time to warm seats or fill streets for anything other than a better Bahamas for all of us – and we know this. We’ll be more discriminating in the causes we take up, who we allow to lead us and how far we go without seeing a long-term plan.

This is the year of the sceptic. Conspiracy theorists will continue to buzz in our ears about other eras, curses and outlandish outcomes unnamed people are working toward. Those aren’t the sceptics, or the people the sceptics question. Most of us will become — if we haven’t already — untrusting. Leaders in all arenas will find it more difficult to gain support because we are determined to avoid all forms of trickery. We won’t be easily convinced and we will refuse to get on board without near-absolute certainty of the outcome.

It’s going to be a tough one. While we want to move from talk to action, there isn’t much we can accomplish alone. Unfortunately, we don’t know who to trust. We may be facing the toughest year yet, for politicians, yes, but it isn’t an election year. It’s going to be most difficult for the activists, advocates and civil society organisations that need buy-in.

So many have disappointed Bahamians over the past year it should not be surprising that we’re made to work much harder to gain trust, mobilise and take the kind of collective action that forces change.

Published by The Tribune on January 2, 2018

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Culture Clash: Time To Ask Ourselves – What Do We Truly Believe In?

At this time of year, before looking forward and making plans for a better, more productive and successful year, it is wise to review the previous 12 months.

This year has been particularly interesting given it was an election year and we saw a record number of independent candidates, several political parties and a landslide victory for the Free National Movement. The May 2017 change of administration filled some with hope while satisfying others that the Progressive Liberal Party was rejected without question and left with four seats in Parliament. Some of us were concerned about what the imbalance in Parliament would mean for the country. Now it seems more are beginning to understand our line of thinking.

It had been said before, but this year’s general election was a clear demonstration and evidence of the inadequacy of the two-party system and our election practices. We are now at a point where we want to be able to choose our Members of Parliament without endorsing the party leader. We want to be able to vote for an independent candidate and still help choose the Prime Minister. We want to be able to participate in advance polls as needed, to vote from abroad when The Bahamas is still our home, know our constituencies and participate in an organised, drama-free process.

We need to know candidate and party positions on critical issues like taxation, immigration, gender equality and the death penalty. We need to know how much political parties are prepared to acquiesce to non-essential entities like the Bahamas Christian Council and whether or not they will extend the same courtesy to other religious groups.

We need evidence of their willingness to enter discussions with advocacy groups and organisations representing underserved communities. We need to know their plans for governance; not just a bulleted to-do list, but comprehensive plans that speak to execution, necessary partnerships and requisite processes, policy changes, legislation and constitutional amendments to meet their goals.

We may now have less party loyalty than ever before. We also have four years to make this clear to current Members of Parliament and prospective candidates in the 2022 general election. The FNM is still on its high horse, the PLP is still licking its wounds, the DNA has disappeared along with all other parties and independent candidates are, for the most part, back to their regularly scheduled programmes.

Who is still doing the work they claimed was of the utmost importance to them? Who has kept the promises they made a few months ago? How are they living their mandates and how are they not? Who have we allowed to use us for our numbers and power, all for their own gain?

This is the time to assess parties and candidates — outside of the election season. This is also the time to get clear and be clear about what we need as a country. Starting now would give us a significant advantage. We could spend the next few years holding the FNM accountable and making demands of the administration and calling on the Opposition to stand with us while creating our own agenda for 2022.

We often think of ourselves as a nation in its infancy, but we have significant talent, skill, intelligence and expertise in The Bahamas and the diaspora to bring collective vision to fruition. It requires an exercise of national reflection, visioning and community-driven action. We know we have the numbers; we need to understand how that translates to power and use it with vigour and certainty.

Before we can mobilise ourselves, get buy-in from other community members and carry out our own agenda, we need to be honest with ourselves. What do we truly believe in, without reservation? How do we identify, as individuals and how do we see ourselves fitting into the whole? In what areas are we likely to discriminate, or excuse discrimination by others?

If you believe women should have the right to vote, but not to say no to sex within marriage, you need to ask yourself some questions about the way you view women and their rights.

If you believe murder is wrong, but the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, you need to ask yourself some questions about your views on the value of human life, rights versus wrong, and, if relevant, which segments of religious text are more important, relevant, or correct than others.

We talk about thin lines all the time, and we need to know where ours are, and why. Only then can we ask the most critical questions of current and prospective representatives and determine whether or not they deserve our support and will appropriate reflect our views on the national, regional, and international stages.

In holding government administrations to account, we sometimes forget or wilfully shirk our personal responsibilities as citizens of The Bahamas. It is not good enough to realise there is poor representation of women in Parliament after the election results when the winning party only put forward four women — the least of the major parties.

It is not good enough to rebuke the Minister of Social Services and Urban Development’s stance on marital rape while tithing in a church whose leadership does not believe married women have bodily autonomy.

It is not good enough to use hashtags and link to articles about Jean Rony when you pay migrant workers below minimum wage and complain about their children attending the same school as yours. Are you all in, or not in at all?

As 2017 comes to a close and we stare down the start of 2018, perhaps we should take some time to study the Bahamas Christian Council. What other group has been able to penetrate successive government administrations? Who has been able to pause, halt, or force more than the BCC? This group infringes on the rights of Bahamian people, but because of its name and membership, it is able to scare political parties and leadership into acting in its interests which are seldom the interests of its membership.

The BCC has recognised its power, and it is not afraid to use it. It is not worried about offending anyone outside of its constituency. It is single-minded in its approach and action. It is unmoved by our calls for it to respond to issues like incest, child abuse and domestic violence, continuing on its path to preserve what it deems to be Christian institutions like marriage.

Perhaps what is needed is for the rest of us to be as dogged, unrelenting and consistent in our advocacy. We need to refuse to be moved or silenced. We need to be unapologetic in our exercise of full citizenship and in the fight for the expansion of the rights of all human beings living, visiting, studying and working here.

Maybe we can figure out how to do it before the first day of a new year. Again, we have four years to make our voices heard and presence felt, marching together to a common loftier goal (not to be confused with individual goals on one march).

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 27, 2017

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Culture Clash: Time We Talked To A Wider Audience

As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence continues, most people working in the fields of gender and violence prevention are attending events ranging from special assemblies at high schools to conferences. At these events, we see and engage, for the most part, the same people. We sit through presentations on the same material, listen to the same comments and have the same sidebars with the people we talk to every time we meet in these spaces.

There are many things we can do to make these meetings more beneficial to participants and impactful for the communities they serve. One often ignored and overlooked area we need to strengthen is multi-sector partnerships. Beyond holding events during traditional work hours on weekdays and bringing the same participants together, we forget to invite organisations and individuals working in different fields, but with direct access to the communities we need to reach.

One of the most dangerously powerful entities in The Bahamas is the church. It has tremendous influence on its congregants and, by extension, elected and appointed representatives of the people who sit in Parliament and the Senate. The Christian church has shown itself to have the power to make its vote the vote of the people through its interpretation of biblical text, access to resources and at least weekly opportunities to push its agenda.

Many Bahamian people are more inclined to listen to a religious leader than a politician, academic, or advocate. Church masses and meetings are seen as mandatory while conference and information sessions tend to be seen as distractions, poor uses of time, or generally superfluous.

When we take all of this into consideration, it becomes clear we need to partner with the church to reach the people. This doesn’t mean promoting conferences in the bulletin or newsletter, or asking to use church halls to hold meetings. It means having ongoing conversations with leadership about current events, draft legislation, programme development and community-building.

This is not to be confused with the usual quest for the church’s approval. It is a completely separate process which would allow us to properly communicate with the church about national issues and its role in addressing them and engaging its congregation in the conversation and the collective action required to make positive change.

Many politicians, civil society leaders and activists would agree The Bahamas Christian Council tends to make a nuisance of itself. It has historically been selective in the issues it speaks to and frequently, as in its most recent statement, suggests prayer is a reasonable and impactful action on its own.

The Bahamas Christian Council announced it will focus on men as they are in need of immediate attention. While he mentioned the plan to hold panel discussions and meetings, Bishop Fernander spoke about using teaching, preaching and prayer to reach young men.

While the church, as Bishop Fernander said, “can’t be anything else than what the church is,” it is important we recognise its role in developing and influencing people. It is easy to criticise the church and its methods, but it is not going anywhere, and Bahamian people continue to fund it and look to it for direction.

How can we make better use of the platform and space the church holds in Bahamian society? Are we inviting religious leaders to panel discussions, conferences and reporting sessions? While there will always be those who teach and preach on what they do not fully understand, it is important we make it possible for them to gain access to information, challenge it in forums where there can be immediate response and debate and take material for colleagues and congregants.

The Pan American Development Foundation in partnership with the US Embassy has delivered Resistant and Prevention Programme training to police officers, civil servants and members of civil society for the past few years.

While the programme focuses on crime prevention and community policing, opening it to more than just police officers is critical to its success. It was through this programme that I gained appreciation for Urban Renewal and I can now challenge people who say it is useless. My participation in the course revealed harsh truths about the police force, the state of families and communities around us and the resources available to assist those in need.

I do not imagine I would have gained the same insight from speeches, essays, or one-off events. I still have strong opinions about law enforcement, from the system to the personnel, but the course was integral to deepening my understanding of our state and building relationships for collaboration. Opening a police-focused course to others allowed for honest yet difficult conversations and helped participants to see the value in the work we are all doing.

Yesterday, the Pan American Development Foundation held a conference on its Women’s Initiative for Non-Violence and Development (WIND) programme and, again, there were many police officers present.

In addition, there were representatives from various government departments including Education and members of civil society organisations. For many of us, the information presented was not new, but the value was in the discussion toward the end of the day.

We were able to hear about the work being done and some of the barriers to that work, or to expanding it. Interestingly, every time a participant raised an issue or made mention of a roadblock to developing, funding, or expanding a program, someone volunteered helpful information or offered their own resources or influence to give the person access. This is the power of working across sectors.

While we are not likely to agree on every issue, there are many areas of consensus. For example, there are many responses to domestic violence. There are thousands of stories of women being turned away from police stations because they had been there before and officers were tired of helping them. There are just as many stories of religious leaders encouraging women to stay with abusive husbands because the “family” is paramount.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations work to assist survivors, providing them with counseling and economic support, prioritizing the life of the women and their children. There is clearly no consensus there, but all entities can agree that violence — based on the texts, whether religious or legal, they use as guides — is wrong. Let’s start there. Make it a part of the message in sermons and teachings. Make it a part of summer camps run by the RBPF. Make it a part of the conversation when training volunteers. Find ways to work together on programming that can reach all of the communities these organisations touch. Include each other in the work being done.

We won’t make change by continuing to talk to ourselves. If we continue to only see the same faces every time we meet, we’re doing it wrong. Our challenge — perhaps the greatest and most pressing — is to expand our reach, step out of our comfort zones and engage the people we perceive to be our opponents. Even they have something to offer, if only their audience and the influence they maintain over it.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 6, 2017

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Culture Clash: The Flexibility of Activism

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on June 28, 2017

As social justice issues become more mainstream, the number of activists, advocates, and allies is steadily increasing. People are more involved in conversations about gender, race, class, migration, and a variety of other issues with social media as a go-to resource for a broad range of news and commentary.

Access to information, opinions, and public action is at our fingertips; we can immediately respond to and participate in them. By becoming vocal, visible, and active, people feel more connected to existing movements, and see themselves as activists. Recently, there has been debate about who can call themselves an activist, and how the title is earned. Activism is more than social media posts and profile picture ribbons, but is it productive to discount the efforts of people trying to make a difference in whatever ways, however small, they can?

The work of activists is not trite, easy, or passive. Risks are assumed, positions are clear, and actions are taken. We all know activists are often demonised and ostracised because of their methods of participation and the challenge we bring to old ways of thinking and being. We are often painted as extremists — dangerous and unreasonable people.

In recent years, we’ve seen changes in this dynamic with people taking centre stage, refusing to be sidelined. In many cases, activists have created the agenda and an environment where the option to ignore or refuse to participate does not exist. Leading dialogues and taking control of both narratives and outcomes have always been critical, and the possibilities have increased along with appreciation for the work, and more people want to be a part of it.

Measuring and Validating Activism

While some take offence when others use “activist” to describe themselves, having a narrow view of what it means to embody the term, activism today takes many different shapes, and can be performed in a variety of ways. As people of marginalised communities fighting against oppression and actively disputing ideas of the monolith, it is unreasonable to expect activists to fit a mold. It is also far from productive to alienate, rebuke, or silence people who are, at the very least, allies.

There is no official list of qualifiers to determine whether or not a person is an activist. Even if creating one, it is important that our own values and abilities are not imposed on entire communities, expecting them to measure up to attain activism status. In fact, dictionary definitions of activism prioritise political causes, giving social issues a backseat. Clearly, activism has grown beyond the definition, and as we continue to be creative and provocative in our work, activism will continue to be dynamic, ever-changing.

Before taking action, most people assess their qualifications, skills, and living situation. Do they have the knowledge to write an informative article? Do they have the charisma to deliver a speech? Can they afford to leave work to protest? With such varied points of assessment, no one can use their own activities and choices to define activism for all. It is as diverse as the people who practice it and, perhaps more importantly, the people it is meant to reach.

Traditional and Social Media Activism

In years gone by, activists were known by their public deeds, from impassioned speeches to protests and petitioning. Today, it is difficult to differentiate activists from non-activists when they claim the term in thought, word, and deed. Do all activists protest? How many times does one have to protest before becoming an activist? How can a participant in (or beneficiary of) an oppressive system be an activist?

How can we give room to people who may not protest, but are active on social media, and have conversations in groups others among us may not be able to access? Their efforts may not be public-facing, but they can answer questions in our stead. We have to be able to value work that may not look like our own, but helps to lessen the burden we carry, saving us from the emotional burnout that can come from engaging both peers and the general public.

What is the value of people on social media sharing articles, giving different perspectives, posting pictures from public events, and directing people to more information? An active social media presence is not always as easy as it may seem. Online harassment continues to be a deterrent from using platforms like Facebook. It is often the less visible and less politicised figures who are able to engage in heated debates and escape relatively unscathed. How do account for the danger activists face just by the nature of the work, and avoid discounting their efforts because of the precautions they must take?

Diversity of Movements

Movement membership and participation are important, regardless of the shape they take. Some people march while others write think pieces. Some people start petitions while others send the link to their friends lists. Some are talk show guests while others wrestle with detractors on Facebook. In movements — large and small — fighting to end injustice and restore peace, there is room for everyone. A variety of personalities, skill sets, qualifications, knowledge, and experience make for a more robust, multifaceted movement.

To reach people in other spaces, movements need people with different experiences, and members of the dominant culture are needed as allies. While people on the frontlines take the brunt of the criticism and abuse, supporters need to be ready to defend fellow activists, dispel myths, and drive conversations forward, using more traditional actions as a springboard. The truth is there is always room for more in social and political movements, the need for people power and passion never diminishing. The differences in audience and approach are strengths, only increasing reach and impact. Recognising the value in our varied approaches will enable us to better work across disciplines and areas of focus, propelling us toward the version of The Bahamas we are all working to build.