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When Activists Shut Conversations Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When a question is really a quest for knowledge

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

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

  2. What would be the requirements and restrictions?

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

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

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

Some interruptions are fissures, meant to disconnect

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

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

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

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

Some interruptions are bridges, meant to (re)connect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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