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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: 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: Transforming Spaces 2018

Transforming Spaces — an annual art bus tour in Nassau, Bahamas — was last weekend, and I took too long to purchase a ticket. It sold out quickly and so I was left to either sulk, or make my own way from gallery to gallery to see the work of Bahamian artists.

I buddied up with Charlotte Henay — storyteller and researcher who writes about cultural memory — and we moved from one gallery to the next, starting with The Current at Baha Mar and ending at Doongalik on Village Road.

Though we had both seen photos and social media commentary on the tour, we wondered what themes we would find as we explored the work on our own. We had been talking about the politics of storytelling, necessity of historical understanding, and what it means to be here now. As you would expect, this conversation informed and coloured my experience of the self-guided Transforming Spaces tour.

Baha Mar presented Instinct II: From Darkness to Light — “an investigation of dichotomies of concepts” that heavily references the Old Testament of The Bible with particular emphasis on Genesis 1. It was interesting to be surrounded by the work of women artists.

I was particularly interested in Sue Katz Lightbourn’s two pieces on plaster, shaped like bustiers. Installed next to each other, they immediately brought to mind the idea of leather versus lace. One is black, adorned with industrial material including screws and dark words like “scary,” “horror,” “arrgh,” and “eek”. The white, more bridal piece is covered by flowers, garter-like material, and soft words like “love,” “art,” and “I’m the happiest girl alive”.

There is no artist statement paired with the work to give context, making it even more interesting to consider. At a glance, it appears to be a commentary on womanhood, the balance of hard and soft, and challenging the idea of dichotomy as opposed to layered, complicated lives.

Occupying space at Baha Mar, however, it led me to wonder about what the space represents and how we show ourselves, as a country, to the outsider looking in from afar or dropping by for a brief, controlled visit. How do we define the hard and the soft? Which do we hide behind, and why? How can we complicate the narrative of The Bahamas and the deceptively narrow space between paradise and plantation?

Jessica Colebrooke’s work, one two sides of one wall, hints at answers to these questions. On one side, there are ocean-inspired framed pieces, perfect for the island home with wicker furniture, or the office desk as a memento from vacation days spent with toes dug into golden sand. They are normal for island life. They are simplicity. On the reverse, Entangled I and Entangled II stand out. They are both like a ball of yarn spun with care, but confusing to the unknowing eye.

We, as people and as a nation, can be complicated. We can recognise the surface beauty while acknowledging the complications of our existence and how we came to be. Investigating origin and history may not lead to a simple timeline, and the way we discover truth may not be linear, but there are ways to work from one end to another. Recognising the difficult and the troubling is not a slap in the face to the beauty we deserve to enjoy. We have the skill to do them both, and the outcome depends almost completely on our interest.

Hillside House, in its collaboration with the University of The Bahamas Visual Arts, deliberately looked back while creating a cultural experience through interactive programing that including the visual art exhibition, workshops in printmaking and bookbinding, a music panel, and poetry night among other activities.

The exhibition in the gallery space runs the gamut, from the copper sculptures by Q. Kimetria Pratt placing women on stage as superior, intentional beings to the poetry of Suhayla Hepburn remembering and reminding us of the grandmother we pay may not mind, even after she minded us on the porch we all know so well. Nowé Harris-Smith’s Colonial Subjection is a reminder of the chain around the necks of Bahamian men and women as we navigate or pretend not to notice the persisting, lingering ramifications of a history we cannot undo or escape, but also cannot transcend without conversation and restoration that must include reparations.

The work in this space, from artists of varied backgrounds taking on a wide range of subthemes, calls out the tendency to refrain, ignore, and accept, and call us to occupy, face, and reclaim by standing in our own power.

Doongalik is a place of pure, child-like joy and wonder. Few things bring the energy and excitement or highlight the skill and boundlessness of the Bahamian. It is always a pleasure to be in conversation with Pam Burnside whose love for Bahamian culture and dedication to its preservation is incomparable. She walked us through the space and we talked, at length, about Junkanoo, its “evolution,” and our role in ensuring it outlives us.

Having never visited a Junkanoo shack, the mini-shack by Junkanoo Commandos is a fun place to be. JuJukanoo Arts bring fun and nostalgia to Doongalik’s Junkanoo exhibition with its Junkanoo figures, pasted and fringed, free of feathers. The burst of colour and up cycling of Bahamian soda cans made us feel energised at the end of a long day. We marvelled at the fine work and imagined, together, what is would be like for Junkanoo to take its rightful place in The Bahamas.

Art and art galleries can feel like closed, exclusive places. We do not all feel welcome in these spaces, or even deserving. It can feel like a mysterious world, open only to those who have studied, collected and created works of art. Transforming Spaces has been a vehicle to transport the supposed outsider — the person who cannot afford a gallery entrance fee, much less an original painting, or the person who does not instantly understand a piece and is afraid of feeling lost or confused. It is an entry point, and one we should scale and replicate, not only in the art world, but in every industry.

Things do not exist for themselves, but for the people who can enjoy and benefit from them, whether through experience, direct engagement, or conversation. The Bahamas is no different. It is not here for its own good, nor is it here for the people who pass through once in a lifetime or spend a few months here per year.

Our conversations about who gets to visit, own, and claim The Bahamas are taking place in many different spaces among people of various backgrounds. If you are interested in having it, whether with or without other people, Transforming Spaces may be a good place to start. We could certainly benefit from more people talking about change-making as a practice, and seeing art as one of many ways to reflect on the past as we create our own future.

Published by The Tribune on March 21, 2018.

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Culture Clash: What are the Women in Your Life Worth?

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is Press for Progress. The annual year-long campaign inspires people all over the world to consider the issues women face year-round, think about solutions and bring people together to take action for change.

Last year, the US women’s hockey team adopted the #BeBoldForChange theme, rallied for equal pay and caused a stir when it refused to play in the national finals without a satisfactory deal. They were inspired by the campaign and found a way to use it to their benefit. Throughout the rest of 2018, we are called to press for progress.

We have to do more than think, ask and wait and we certainly cannot settle. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about work — what we do and do not see as work, what we think deserves pay and who we think should do specific kinds of work. Work is political.

As a gender rights activist, I spend at least a part of every day thinking about feminism, gender equality, the current state of affairs and what it will take to create the change we need. Around International Women’s Day, I think more deeply about where we are and what the campaign theme inspires. This time around, admittedly, my thoughts are at least partly guided by social media activity.

As I scrolled Facebook on Monday, I noticed a number of friends had shared an interesting article — “The Invisible Workload of Motherhood is Killing Me” — from the Scary Mommy website. It clearly struck a nerve with many mothers, in The Bahamas and elsewhere, who relate to having a long list of tasks no one else notices unless they go undone. Many of them seem like small things, like remembering birthdays, but when considered cumulatively, we have to admit they can be overwhelming.

We see some of the work mothers do. Meal preparation, laundry, shuttling children to and fro and constant cleaning are in plain sight.

This article, though, was focused on the mental and emotional work undertaken by mothers.

Knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes, remembering which grocery items need to be used before they expire or spoil, keeping track of permission slips and field trips, planning celebrations and making childcare arrangements are all in a day’s work.

How often do we think about these things and recognise them as labour? If someone outside of the household was responsible for this work, would we pay them? If we had to do this work for other people, would we expect to be paid?

I was reminded of the old song, “No Charge.” You’ve probably heard the Shirley Caesar version, especially if you spent any amount of time at your grandparents’ house listening to 1540AM. It’s about a little boy who went to his mother with a bill, itemising and pricing all of the tasks he’d completed. He charged five dollars for mowing the lawn, 50 cents for a trip to the grocery store and even charged five dollars for his own good grades.

It’s cute and funny, imagining a child demanding payment, but interesting that he recognised it all as work.

Seeing it as a teachable moment, the mother listed some work of her own, emphasising that she didn’t charge a dime.

For the nine months I carried you, holding you inside me, no charge

For the nights I sat up with, doctored you, and prayed for you, no charge

For the time and tears and the costs throughout the years

There is no charge

When you add it all up the full cost of my love is no charge

Summing it up in the last verse of the song, Caesar sings about Jesus giving his life for her, paying the price so she had no debt. On one hand, it’s a beautiful, moving comparison. On the other, how costly and how sad is it that mothers are, all at once, our salvation and our source of endless unpaid labour?

Unpaid labour doesn’t begin and end with mothers. It extends to sisters and daughters too. At a recent Women’s Wednesdays event, we heard from a number of women who talked about the burden of unpaid labour in their own homes.

They told stories of expectations and demands, made to do work that wasn’t required of their brothers. Cooking, cleaning and taking care of other siblings are duties generally relegated to girls and the pattern continues into adulthood.

Who is usually responsible for the care of elderly relatives? It was even pointed out that we understand the need to pay non-relatives when they cook, clean and care for us, but do not put the same value to work by our family members. Many of us don’t even think to offer our help.

In another Women’s Wednesdays conversation, this time about money, panelists agreed women should consider getting paid help in the home.

This led to two other points — every woman can’t afford to pay for help in the home and the women who are paid to help in others’ homes are generally underpaid. The conversation was a reminder and perfect example of how layered these issues are and how much work is left to be done.

We can agree it’s great to have help in the home, but what about the people who can’t afford it? How can we better at sharing the workload? It’s great to find affordable help, but what is the cost to all of us when they don’t get a living wage?

This International Women’s Day, I am imagining new ways of thinking and going about our work. I’m thinking about the women who have ten jobs, but only get paid for one. The people who get home from work to work even harder than they did at their full-time jobs are on my mind. I’m putting myself in the shoes of the people who are so desperate for help they don’t think about the long-term effects of underpaying the people they hire to help.

I wonder what I can do, you can do, we can do to see work — no matter where it’s done or who does it — as work, and figure out appropriate compensation, or how to share the burden.

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Culture Clash: Time to Face the Reality of Mental Health

Last weekend, I spent several hours at a book club meeting. We chose Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman as our February read, and it gave us more to think and talk about than we expected. Half of us did not even expect to like the book, but quickly realised it was a reflection of some of our own experiences, far-fetched as it seemed at first glance. Mental health was a dominant theme and it was easy to talk, at length, about the stigmatisation of mental health issues and the urgent need to address the inadequacies of health services, family support and often debilitating stigma.

What is mental health?

Mental health is the level of emotional, psychological and social well-being and our ability to manage stress. Like physical health, it can change over time, and conditions can be transient or chronic. They are sometimes biological, but can also be triggered by life experiences or trauma.

Two conditions resulting from life experience or trauma are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and postpartum depression. Many people heavily and personally impacted by recent hurricanes now deal with PTSD, some of them triggered by the sounds of rain or wind. Experiences of postpartum depression are not often shared, but in recent years, celebrities have shared their experiences to help women going through it and to sensitise family members and community members to the experiences of new mothers who must also contend with a condition they cannot control on their own.

Crazy talk

We are quick to call people “crazy,” and make assumptions about their lives, particularly when their mental health conditions do not allow them to fully function, or they are homeless or under-housed. Maybe worse, some of us use neuroatypical people as a source of entertainment, recording videos of them and sharing them on social media.

People’s everyday lives become a joke, and we ignore their humanity. We forget they are people with histories, families and daily challenges to overcome. To us, they are just “crazy” and we assume their situations are their own fault.

In our careless commentary and self-serving entertainment, we can unknowingly alienate and offend people who may be high-functioning while dealing with mental health challenges. Even worse, when made aware of the offensive nature of our language — and interpretation of what have become common words and phrases — our reaction, far too often, is to become defensive, or reject the idea that we could ever unintentionally harm someone.

It’s difficult to change the way we speak, but becomes easier when we work on one thing at a time. With a few years of practice, I’ve taken “crazy” out of my vocabulary. It was not easy, but it was important to me, especially as a human rights supporter, a family member and friend of people with mental health challenges and a person who is not vaccinated against mental health challenges.

Support loved ones

Videos have been circulating of a man named Jeremy. Members of his family have said his life changed as a result of a laced joint. He walks the streets and, every now and then, they are able to get him to return home, but never for a long time. He has tried to get professional help, but like many patients, he does not like the way the medication makes him feel.

Medication for mental health conditions alter the chemistry of the brain. It can sometimes cause people to feel numb, or like they are losing parts of themselves. It is rare for a person to be prescribed the best possible medication the first time around. It can take a few tries to find the medication that helps a person to function without making them feel less than human, or even making their condition worse.

There is little support available for people facing mental health challenges, especially if they do not have the money to pay for care. Imagine having a health challenge, saving enough money to see a doctor, then saving enough money to purchase medication only to find that it is not the right one for you. You have to go back to the doctor, pay for the visit and purchase another medication. It is already not easy to get well. Think about how much harder is it to navigate all of this without support, or while seeing and hearing discriminatory remarks that aren’t even meant to hurt you, but they do anyway.

We all know people with mental health challenges. We may not know it, or know exactly what those challenges are, but they exist. The stigma around mental illness is more than inconvenient or sad. It can keep us from seeking the help we know and feel we need.

Because it so difficult for people to admit to struggles with mental health, seeking professional help and asking for support from family members and friends, it is important for us to pay attention to our loved ones. We often notice changes in people or the way they interact with us, but find easy answers to our own questions. “She got problems,” or “He got a bad attitude,” become our diagnoses. “Something wrong with them.” Unfortunately, we don’t see it as a health issue, but assume people have made conscious decisions to behave differently.

Seeing the signs

We need to learn to see the signs of mental health challenges and how to address them. Pay attention to changes in eating and sleeping patterns, energy levels and interest in hobbies. Listen to the ways loved ones describe how they are feeling. If they feel numb, hopeless, helpless, like nothing matters, or think about harming themselves or others, do not ignore or conclude that they are being dramatic. It’s time to listen. It’s time to find the necessary resources to help your loved one to get well.

Seeing a general practitioner is a good start as they are able to make referrals and, if you have a relationship with your GP, they may have a better idea of your personality and which psychologists and psychiatrists would be able to work best with you.

Mental hygiene

Mental health, like physical health, is not static. It does not stay the same over the course of your life. Just as important as recognising and addressing mental health challenges is practicing good mental hygiene. Take time to take care of yourself. Conduct regular mental scans. How are you feeling? Are you tired? Unmotivated? Wanting to be alone more than usual? Diving into work to avoid thinking or feeling? Pay attention to your coping mechanisms.

A lot of us find ways to take care of our mental health, whether through unscheduled days off, exercise, or regular practices like yoga or meditation. Some of us, however, need help with maintaining our mental health – and it does not mean we are “crazy.” It means we are self-aware and willing to commit to improving our lives.

Whether weekly therapy sessions or medication, there are options available to us, but mostly to those who can afford it. If you’re interested in group therapy, reach out to The Family – People Helping People which offers free sessions in communities all over New Providence. While we work to combat the stigma around mental health challenges, we also need to raise our voices to ensure it is included in national health initiatives. The mind is no less important than the body, and it needs care too.

Published by The Tribune on February 27, 2018.

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Culture Clash: Black Lives Matter in The Bahamas Too

It’s open season, but don’t worry. They’ll only kill the people they recognize, and only if they’re afraid. The Royal Bahamas Police Force is on a mission, and no one cares to intervene.

Many in The Bahamas have looked on and formed strong opinions of the Black Lives Matter movement and the actions it has taken in response to state-sanctioned killings by police officers. We often feel far-removed from events in the U.S., especially where issues of race are concerned. Black Lives Matter is necessary because black people were — and continue to be — specifically targeted by police.

Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th gave context to the issues of race, policing, and prisons experienced today, linking them to the historical oppression of black people from slavery to the prison industrial complex. Again, we have mentally distanced ourselves from what we read as a U.S.-issue. For most of us, the majority of the people we encounter on a daily basis are black. Our police officers are black. Surely that means we cannot experience racism. That has to mean black people will be treated fairly, and we are free of the oppression African-Americans suffer. Right?

If you hold those opinions, you are definitely wrong. There are two things we need to be aware of — internalized racism and institutional racism.

Internalized racism is learned. As we experience racism, we begin to develop ideas and behaviors that uphold racism. It is systemic, structural, and cross-cultural, so it can pit members of oppressed communities against each other. Think, for example, of how women can internalize misogyny, and begin to support the idea that we would all be better off if we dress and behave in particular ways, finding it easy to look down on a woman of different socioeconomic status, age, or marital status. Internalized racism functions in a similar way. He wouldn’t be pulled over if he would just cut his hair. Stop driving that Honda. Move with less people in his crew. Stay out of that area. We find excuses for people to be violated by those who hold power.

Institutional racism is enforced. It is a pattern of treating a group of people poorly because of their race. Examples include students being sent home from school because their natural hair does not meet the Eurocentric beauty standards. As in this example, the action seems to fit a rule or standard of the institution; not because it is valid, but because the institution was built for the benefit and service of white people. We don’t have to know it is happening to participate in it. Just two years ago, I heard police officers brag about chasing young black men out of the downtown area, sending them “back Ova Da Hill.” Hearing this, I asked them who The Bahamas is for, and why they think they can restrict people’s movement based on race, age, and gender. They could not respond, and were forced to acknowledge, among other issues, institutional bias coupled with internalized racism.

The rhetoric around police killing civilians is ludicrous. People would more readily excuse homicide than interrogate the practices of police officers on the street. The assumption is always that the person must have done something wrong for the police to be engaged, and if they have done something wrong — whatever it is — they deserve death. The entire justice system goes out of the window because we find it more expedient for the police to operate like vigilantes. We do not believe people are innocent until proven guilty. Location, appearance, association, and proximity to a weapon are all valid reasons to meet your demise. Did we believe that Trayvon Martin should have been shot for walking through a neighborhood with a bag of Skittles?

The Royal Bahamas Police Force’s press team has learned to use “in fear for their lives” to convince us that there was a good reason to shoot and kill a citizen. There is a popular opinion that fear is a reasonable excuse for firing a weapon to kill another person. In a social media post, Erin Greene said, “the constant response of ‘in fear’ suggests an emotional response, and not a determination made with critical reasoning skills.” This should terrify rather than assuage us. Are police officers not taught to think critically and consider all options? Even if the decision is to shoot, why shoot to kill rather than incapacitate?

Sure, police officers need to make quick decisions. It is also a reasonable expectation that they are sufficiently trained and able to police themselves. Police officers are not the judge or the jury. They should not be the executioner, especially given the ruling of the Privy Council on the death penalty. Wait.

Perhaps this is the RBPF’s way of carrying out the death penalty. It is entirely possibly that they, as has been rumored, are fed up with the justice system. They are tired of making arrests, putting their lives in danger, and waiting for verdicts. Maybe they are tired of seeing the people they arrested out on bail for extended periods of time, or being found innocent. Is this an informal strategy?

Do not be tricked into believing in a false dichotomy. A commenter on social media said, “We are at a junction in our development where we have to decide on whose side we are on; the police or the heartless criminal.” We must first understand that every person police officers encounter is not a criminal. Even if they are suspects, they have the right to a fair trial. Fighting on the side of criminals is not the same as demanding due process for all. It is not the same as acknowledging the value of a life. A text message to a radio talk show read (in part), “police have to get royal,” meaning they need to take extreme action to send a clear message. This is how the people around us are thinking.

There have been five killings by police in 2018, and 10 since November 2017. Minister of National Security Marvin Dames said, “the focus on counts shouldn’t be the issue.” Just last month, he reminded the PLP that there were 33 homicides in the first two months of 2017, and in September 2017, he noted that crime was down 19 per cent along with other statistics. Numbers are obviously important, and we need to pay attention to trends.

Dames, less than one year into the job, is shirking responsibility. He said of police officers, “[if] he or she feels threatened, I can’t make that decision for them. They have to make that for themselves.” So much for accountability. Zero tolerance only applies to civilians, and police officers can do as they please, so long as they feel fearful or threatened. What a license to have. Is any one else scared out there?

Dames would also have us believe it is excusable that most people killed by police this year were “known to police.” We all know people in this category, for various reasons, who do not have a criminal record. They may wear their pants low or have dreadlocks, and may have spent nights in the police station, but they are not criminals. That’s just too bad. They are known to the police, and it’s open season. What number must we reach, who must be killed, or which scripture do we need to read and understand to intervene in state violence and affirm the humanity of the black Bahamian people we know, do not know, and are “known” to the police?

Published by The Tribune on February 14, 2018.

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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: Let’s Admit It – Jean-Charles’ Problem Is We See Him As Just Another Haitian

The story of Jean Rony Jean-Charles has been flooding social media, raising questions, highlighting glaring issues and exposing the flawed value systems of many among us over the past week.

Trying to get accurate information on what transpired with Jean-Charles is like trying to catch a chickcharnee. Who should we expect to have information on his whereabouts when the Detention Centre and Department of Immigration are both incapable of providing proof of their actions and the Haitian Embassy has no record of his supposed deportation? Further, how do we justify repatriation when a person is not sent to the country of their birth?

Jean-Charles was born in The Bahamas to Haitian parents and is said to have never travelled outside of the country. He was detained for three months and is now effectively missing. We do not know where he is and his family is concerned. Really, we should all be concerned. When people are taken into custody and disappear without a trace, there is a serious problem. This should be obvious. It isn’t. Why not? Because, to far too many Bahamians, Jean-Charles is not a human being. He is not deserving of dignity and respect and full access to human rights. He is not a person with a family. He is a Haitian.

We, Bahamians, think we are special. We see Bahamian citizenship as an exclusive good. We are happy to access and give our children access to other nationalities and nations, but believe Bahamian citizenship and The Bahamas must be kept for ourselves. We want it all. We want to take what we are not willing to give. We even pride ourselves on this attitude, leaning on the law to support our narrow points of view. We belabour the definition of Bahamian and how citizenship can be gained according to the The Constitution of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas and the Bahamas Nationality Act. This is what makes us better than the other — the non-Bahamian.

We have a complicated relationship with the foreigner. We strive to be as good as the European and the North American foreigner and we look down on the Caribbean foreigner.

We have bought into the myth that Gross Domestic Product is an appropriately comprehensive measurement of value and stability.

We are proud of the extent to which we have been Americanised and constantly try to divorce ourselves from the history and continued struggle we share with Caribbean countries.

We set ourselves apart, calling everyone else “other”, failing to see we are the other.

We are caught up in our false Christianity as a nation, refusing to be our brothers’ keepers in favour of amassing wealth that cannot possibly be the loftier goal we are meant to march toward.

We do not see that in leaving our brothers and sisters behind, we betray our ancestors, spit on history that should guide our steps and contribute to a negative narrative of nationhood that will not help us when we become climate refugees.

Yes, our time will come. By then, our borders may be too tight and death and disappearance toll too high to engender empathy or kindness from any nation that might otherwise be inclined to offer assistance.

The Bahamas has the right to protect its borders. Few people would disagree. It does not, however, have the right to endanger or cause harm to people of any country. It cannot be excused for violating human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is clear in its 30 articles that state and protect the rights and freedoms of all human beings. It includes the right to a nationality, to seek asylum in another country, recognition as a person under the law, a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing and protection from arbitrary arrest or detention.

The Bahamas has signed the declaration and must abide by international law. Unfortunately, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not govern individuals. It is not part of our curriculum, so many are unaware of it, or do not understand the commitment.

That aside, we are not doing enough to sensitise the Bahamian people to the plight of migrants from Haiti or other countries, or the obligation we have as signatories and, let’s not forget, a Christian nation.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world and the world is well aware of its political and economic instability, economic inequality and vulnerability to natural disasters. According to the World Bank, 59 percent of Haitians live below the poverty line of $2.41 per day. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew damages were almost one-third of GDP.

The Bahamas, in comparison, is the land of plenty. To hear many Bahamians tell it, this country is populated by Christian people who love their neighbours as themselves and find ways to share five loaves and two fish with thousands. Sadly, we do not live up to this reputation. We, on the contrary, fail to see certain foreigners as people. If they do not come by plane with credit cards and US dollars to gamble in casinos, get their hair braided and buy mass-produced non-Bahamian souvenirs, they are of no use to us.

If they are looking for a better life and intend to work, we see them as thieves, coming for what is ours, even if we are not willing to do the same work to access it. We had probably convinced ourselves that we only have the problem with Haitians because of their large numbers and illegal entry, but the national response to the government’s assistance to Dominica proved otherwise. We have a problem with helping. We are willing to put our hands out, but not interested in giving a hand up.

We, who go to Florida to give birth so our children can have American citizenship, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who think ourselves too good to weed, cut the grass, shape hedges and wash windows, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who raise and educate our children to live a better life in a better place, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who were stolen and loaded on to boats, dropped off and made slaves across a chain of islands, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who don’t know where we are really from because we left many decades, generations, languages and plantations ago, have a problem with migrant people.

We, who pride ourselves on the bit of colour or soft hair or whatever other sign of mixed identity we can find, have a problem with migrant people.

We forget that we are migrant people. We forget that the Haitian Revolution was the beginning of our freedom, or maybe we just don’t know. Maybe we don’t know about Saint-Domingue in the late 1700s. Maybe we don’t know we might not actually belong here either, or that everyone deserves to be treated like human beings, or that no human being is illegal and there is a difference between a person and their actions, or that we are going to need somewhere to go before the end of this century.

Maybe we don’t understand English. We may need to get the message in French.

Published in Culture Clash — a weekly column in The Tribune — on December 13, 2017

Photo: Attorney Fred Smith with Clotilde Jean-Charles, sister of Jeanrony Jean-Charles, who is said to be missing from the Detention Centre. Photo: Shawn Hanna/Tribune Staff

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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