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Culture Clash: Our Votes Are Not The Only Way We Can Use Our Voices

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on June 14, 2017

THE past few years in The Bahamas have given us many things to think about. Our dissatisfaction mounting, too many of us found ourselves unable to act.

Members of Parliament did not disclose, and we were outraged. We made the time and effort to vote in the gambling opinion poll — which was framed as a referendum — only to be ignored and disrespected. There was resolve to get rid of the PLP administration and desire for more participatory governance.

There was anger and disappointment. We must figure out how to move beyond it to make progress and demand better of our representatives. It is critical that we activate and assert our citizenship outside of election season, and recognise its power on any given day.

We are underutilising our citizenship. Our conversations about citizenship are often limited to passports and work visas, seldom delving into the properties of citizenship and its direct link to government and governance.

Citizenship, at its best, is not passive. It is not wearing the title “Bahamian” and having a passport declaring our relationship with the country. It is not even at its peak when we cast our ballots every five years to elect representatives and, subsequently, the leader of the country. Citizens have the right to live, receive an education, work, and vote here. Those things come along with citizenship, but they are not the beginning and the end.

What are the responsibilities of a citizen? What are the things we should be doing to both honour and fully exercise our citizenship?

It is our duty to participate in Bahamian democracy, to monitor the work (or lack thereof) of our elected (and paid) officials, to engage one another on issues of national concern, and to agitate for the changes we need.

Regardless of how our representatives would like to posture and feign unmitigated authority, it is our duty to question. We have to challenge the systems that do not work for us, and those that are being abused to such an extent that any supposed benefit is lost on us or pales in comparison to the perks they afford to the privileged. We have to pay attention. We need to be prepared to speak openly about what we see and hear, and to make recommendations for Bahamian citizens as a collective to respond.

What can citizens do, from the ground, to effect change?

Politicians benefit from the popular idea that they are in charge. They have led us to believe that we elect them to lead and make decisions for us. They depend on our laziness and willingness to pass off our duties as citizens, allowing them to do as they wish. In truth, we are their employers, and their job is to represent us. Our issues should be at the front of their minds, and potential solutions should be rolling off their tongues.

Unfortunately, too many of us cast our votes and almost immediately disengage, content that someone else will deal with the running of the country. Some of us are busy, some of us are tired, and some of us are just not interested enough. For those of us who care about our country and its future, it is imperative that we remain alert, communicative, and ready to act.

There is a broad range of actions any citizen can take to protest, change, and create. We know our challenges, and we hold the solutions. In recent years, we have become more willing to share needs, experiences, and ideas. We communicate in a variety of ways, from the sometimes incisive, sometimes enlightening letter to the editor to the hilariously relatable and catchy song. We are creative people, constantly finding new ways to raise issues, share knowledge, and invite people to the conversation.

Talk radio has given us space to think aloud, hear from fellow Bahamians, and form opinions that need not depend solely on our individual experiences. We now have access to the realities of people we do not know, and may not even know of if we did not hear them on the radio, telling their own stories.

We have spent years honing and exercising theses skills, and desperately need to get to the next step. Some of the easiest things we think to do are writing letters to newspaper editors, calling in to radio talk shows, and share our thoughts on social media.

How do we move from conversation to collective action?

Social media — specifically Facebook — has taken us beyond one-way communication. It allows us to organise ourselves into groups and discuss issues relevant to our shared values. What do we do with the perspective we gain from this? How do our positions change based on new information?

One of the road blocks to effective collective action is lack of buy-in. This issue exists for a number of reasons including lack of trust. We ask ourselves about ulterior motives and question the methods of people we do not know. True activism and advocacy require time, energy, and other resources in limited supply, especially for nonprofit initiatives. We ask ourselves why anyone would give freely of these resources, and how long it will take for them to be bought (as we may have seen recently).

Another major roadblock is the divisiveness that inevitably comes from difference in identity or opinion, completely detracting from the shared vision.

Theoretically, many of us want the same things, but are prepared to forgo rights to ensure that someone else does not gain access to those (or other) rights (as we saw in the June 2016 referendum).

There is tremendous value in the conversations we have on a daily basis on radio talk shows, Facebook, and themed panels and fora.

We head-nod, clap, and like each other’s comments, and sometimes dive right into actions like petitions and protests. Collective action must come, but all participating citizens need to understand why we are there, together, despite difference. This requires a shared vision. There must be something we can all agree on, commit to working toward, and recognise as more importance than differences in identity and personality. We must shift the way we engage one another.

Social media can be a tool for organising, but it’s up to us to drive the conversation toward indisputable consensus that can serve as a foundation and driver for citizen-led action.

Let’s keep the conversation going, but more meaningfully and constructively toward action. At some point, we have to put our citizenship to work, and that means doing something — not just voting.

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Culture Clash: A Time To Believe In Our Fellow Bahamians

Published in Culture Clash — a biweekly column in The Tribune — on May 17, 2017

It’s the people’s time. Believe in Bahamians. Forward, upward, onward, together.

According to the Parliamentary Registration Department, 87 per cent of registered voters – not all Bahamians eligible to vote – exercised their right to vote.

Following the general election, the Bahamian people are represented by 35 Free National Movement (FNM) and four Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) MPs. Few could have predicted the composition of our new government. Many celebrate it, seeing it as a victory not only for the FNM, but for the people who wanted, more than anything else, to vote the PLP out and unseat former Prime Minister Perry Christie.

Some of us are concerned, recognising that the opposition is small and its strength unknown. Yes, our voices were heard and the FNM was rewarded with a landslide victory, whether earned or not. We now have a different party in control of Parliament, but that was the case in 2012 too. Our attention should be on the role we, as citizens, play in our own governance, and how we can – and must – hold our representatives accountable. It would be remiss of us to ignore the obvious flaws in the government we now have.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the FNM’s composition and campaign was the dearth of women candidates and this is now glaringly obvious given its overwhelming win. Is it possible to laugh at the absurdity of four seats going to the PLP while ignoring the fact that women hold the same number of seats on the FNM’s side? Glenys Hanna Martin brings the final count of women in the lower chamber to five. This is a slight decrease in representation from the 2012-2017 term.

It’s rather troubling that the FNM claims to champion women’s rights but did not give attention to women’s representation on its slate. In appointing Cabinet Ministers, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis gave no attention to this issue, appointing only one woman – Lanisha Rolle – and assigning her to the soft portfolio of Social Services and Urban Development. As a result, we are saddled with a government that does not come close to representing our population in terms of gender.

Additionally, the FNM manifesto – like the PLP Charter and Democratic National Alliance’s Vision – does not speak specifically to issues of gender, nor does it intentionally include gender in other sections like education, healthcare, or crime. This is a clear indication that the road ahead will be no easier for women and girls, or for the people who advocate for them. Issues like this are not yet being discussed, but we have no time to wait.

Most will agree that this election and the aftermath feels markedly different from those before it. The nation is enjoying a deep sense of satisfaction. We disagreed on ways to move forward, but largely agreed that the PLP was not to be victorious. For many Bahamians, it felt necessary to bite the bullet and vote for the non-PLP party most likely to win, even if they would have liked to support a different candidate and/or party.

This is the sacrifice of voting within the confines of our electoral system and its rules. While some wistfulness may remain, there is a general sense of ease and content across the country. We may not love our new leader, or think the manifesto is good enough, or be happy with the gender split, or have any idea who half the MPs are, or feel inspired by the flip-flopping between two major parties, but we voted the PLP out. It feels good. It feels like a win. It feels like we can breathe again.

What will happen when the dump starts burning again? How will we respond if the murder rate continues to rise? What will we do if all the talk about anti-corruption doesn’t move beyond conversation? What is the acceptable grace period for new governments?

I’ve been less than ecstatic about the results of the election. I’ve been indifferent about the outcome in terms of the party in leadership, convinced that no one party is better than the others, hence my role in Out Da Box. I remain concerned about our electoral system and dedicated to working toward the reform we desperately need.

When I saw the results, my first thought was, “We have no opposition.” I recalled the last five years and the lackluster performance of the FNM opposition twice the size of the PLP opposition we now have. Other people noted and raised this issue, much to the chagrin of indignant voters who thought it much too soon for anyone to dare offer any critique.

I’ve seen scores of Facebook posts by dedicated FNMs and swing voters who voted FNM, all sending a disturbing message. They say we should give it a rest. We should give Minnis and the FNM some time. We should wait and see what they do. They say if the FNM doesn’t perform, we’ll vote them out in 2022 – quite a long wait. They want us to be quiet, and let them enjoy their win. They also say we, the people, are the opposition now. It reminded me of a statement made my Out Da Box co-organiser Dr Nicolette Bethel.

“I do not need to be a candidate to be a part of the government. I already am the government. Democracy is government of the people by the people, and in our system it is effected by representation.”

We are the government, and we have elected people to represent us. The government includes the opposition. For this reason, I wonder if the Bahamian people are now realising that we have a role to play in our governance, and that we have not elected leaders, but representatives. Whatever the ratio of FNM to PLP Members of Parliament, it is their job to represent us, and to do that, they need to hear our voices.

Less than 160,000 votes were cast last week. Approximately 24,000 registered voters were disenfranchised or chose not to vote, and thousands of people didn’t even register to vote. Our system is flawed, and this has been proven over the past six months. Fortunately, exercising the right to vote in free and fair elections is only one part of democracy and citizenship. Whether we vote or not, we all have a voice – and many ways to use it.

If we believe we are the government, or that we are (or can be) the opposition, we have work to do. If we are to move forward, upward, onward, together, we must be able to find our shared vision, disagree respectfully and find ways to action the goals we agree on. We are at a time in our democracy where it is imperative that we not only believe in ourselves, but in each other. I challenge you to do what it seems the PLP could not, or did not. Believe in fellow Bahamians.

Let us focus more on the things we have in common and commit to active participation in governance. We have, in one day, withdrawn consent from a party and its candidates because we did not deem them worthy. Know that we do not have to wait five years to do the same if the representatives we have today refuse to hear our collective voice. It is, indeed, the people’s time. They said it and, now, we must own it.

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A Case for the Spoiled Ballot, Part III

As noted in Parts I and II, I am not inclined to support any candidate or political party with my vote in the 2017 general election in The Bahamas. As a community organizer, I have committed myself to #OutDaBox242 — a series of sustained citizen-led actions to co-create a political system that works for the people of The Bahamas. Our first action is one of civil disobedience with the general election as the staging ground. We are expected to choose from the preselected options on the ballot, but I find the options and the electoral system inadequate and undeserving of my endorsement, so I will withhold it. I know that others take a similar position for a variety of reasons, and have decided not to participate. I will explore that more fully at another time and focus, for now, on my decision to participate in an unconventional way.

Opting out of the general election exercise is not an option for me. I have the right to vote, and as a woman who continues to fight for the rights of women and girls, I fully intend to exercise that right. As I cast my ballot, I will whisper my thanks to Dame Dr. Doris Johnson, Mary Ingraham, Eugenia Lockhart, Sylvia Laramore-Crawford, and all of the women of the Women’s Suffrage Movement who worked tirelessly for this — not so that people in 2017 could shame others into exercising the right, or exercising it in a prescribed fashion, but so that we may have the right, and do with it what we will, just as we do with the right to work, to worship, and to move through public space.

If I thought I had to either vote for the lesser of the evils or refrain from participating, I would have likely voted for the lesser (in my opinion) of the evils. Fortunately, I know that those are not my only options. I know that I can spoil my ballot. More than that, I know that I can send a strong message with my spoiled ballot, especially if it is in the company of thousands of other spoiled ballots. I acknowledge the urgency many Bahamians feel to vote out the current administration. It is akin to the urgency I feel to cause for the electoral system to be changed in the favor of the Bahamian people, redistributing decision-making power and inspiring citizens to lead the charge. We need to change the way our representation is chosen, demand candidates we can vote for, and not by default. We deserve to be well-aware of their backgrounds, platforms, and visions for The Bahamas before we are called to choose.

“Not as bad as the worst” isn’t good enough. A vote for a candidate that forces me to endorse the candidate’s party leader is not the best version of democracy. Voting in support of a candidate or party whose funding remains a secret — in a country rife with backdoor deals, insta-rich politicians, and Members of Parliament who refuse to comply with the Public Disclosure Act — is unwise at best, and reckless at worst.

I do not support any of the existing political parties. I do not support any of the candidates I had no hand in selecting and have yet to hear from in a public forum on their values or platforms. Public debates and town hall meetings should be a part of the process. Public vetting should be a part of the process. Fifty years after the achievement of majority rule, we should know that it isn’t just about election day. Parties decide who will run where and who will lead the squad, all without our input. Then, they each give us one person to support. From that limited sample, we are expected to choose the one we think best, and be convinced that we, the majority, rule.

Is that really the case?

My spoiled ballot will be a statement. I reject the political parties that have plagued this nation for decades. I reject the new political parties that claim to bring something new, but function in the same old ways. I reject the candidates that have selected themselves to represent us, never asking us if we consider them fit for the job. Aren’t we the employers? Don’t we have to pay them? Why don’t we see the resumes, conduct the interviews, and compare them to the other applicants? I reject the electoral system that forces me to support a party leader when I support a party’s candidate. I reject the party system that locks the majority out of its processes for selecting candidates and leaders.

I believe we can do better as a country. We do not have to continue to perpetuate the dysfunction that this system imposes on us. We can use our power, as citizens of this country, to demand better. Demand more. Demand change. Silence does not build anything but barriers. We have to break it. On election day, we need to leave our homes and places of work to go to our polling stations and join our voices in the call to move this country forward, upward, and onward. Together.

If you support a political party or candidate, by all means, vote for them. If you do not, and cannot bring yourself to vote for one of them, don’t let it keep you from showing up. Register, go to your polling station, and spoil your ballot. Whether it’s an X across the entire sheet, a love note to the leader you deserve, or a line drawing of the Bahamian flag, any way you spoil your ballot is the right way. It is a way for you to register your interest in the development of this nation, dissatisfaction with the existing system, and commitment to being an active participant in our democracy, working toward citizen-led change.

Please do not opt out.

If there is no party or candidate you can enthusiastically support, let it be known. When the numbers are out and we can see how many people showed up, just to say “no” to every offer on the table, people will want to talk. From government leaders and media to political analysts and researchers, there will be questions, spaces to discuss, and five years to plan and stage our next moves. No matter what they tell you today, if 10,000 spoil their ballots on election day, there will be a reaction.

We’ve been playing the short game for far too long. We’ll have five years of whichever government we get in 2017. #OutDaBox242 proposes that the difference between possible administrations is negligible; hence the focus on citizen-led action that is and will be necessary, regardless of the results.

Will you join the movement to hold them accountable? To co-create a system that works for the people? To encourage independent candidates to offer themselves? To reimagine democracy in The Bahamas? To expand the rights of the Bahamian people to participate in our own democracy? We need not wait for a political party to offer or follow through on the changes on we want to see. We are the people. We are the power. When we activate, no party can withstand our strength. We need only push past the age-old idea that switching between political parties will bring us the change we need. No one is coming to save us. We are the heroes we seek.

My ballot will not tell the current administration that it deserves another term. It will not tell any opposition party that its performance over the past five years has engendered trust. It will not endorse lackluster leaders. It will say I am a Bahamian voter who refuses to opt out of this democratic exercise and refuses to be forced into the boxes drawn on it. It will say I am prepared to take an unpopular position. It will say I am going to, for the next five years and beyond, work for the political reform we need, knowing it will not be given by the people who benefit from it. It will come from the people. Who register. Who vote. Who show up. Who ACT.

Many say our vote is our voice. What will yours say?

Join the movement. #OutDaBox242 is on Facebook and Twitter.