on Advocacy

In Jamaica, we have a lot of people with opinions. Having a loud mouth and strong convictions is instruction Number 3 in ‘How to be Jamaican’ (Number 2 is ‘always ask for curry goat gravy’). It’s no surprise then that we have so many organizations arguing publicly for a wide range of causes and policies.

We were practically born and raised to be advocates. Ask any frustrated community who block road and bun tire to protest bad road conditions. Look at any line of people waiting impatiently to access a service – somebody is going to start advocating for more staff and decreased waiting time (albeit in more colourful language).

Even though most Jamaicans advocate from cradle to grave, Advocacy with a capital A is often described in cultured tones, refined and pedestalized into colonial approval, consisting mainly of papers, workshops and civilized protest. Grassroots movements get lopped off at the tip: keep the pretty flower, leave the dirty roots behind.

Because most groups that Advocate are based in the Kingston and St. Andrew area, their Advocacy is limited to scavenging for policy change. But if civil society organizations incorporated grassroots strategies and engaged the wider Jamaican community, their advocacy (with a common a) would have more lasting impact.

Yes, this is another rant on decentralizing our socio-cultural landscape. Buckle up, kids.

Kingston/St. Andrew is home to only 25% of Jamaicans, but they have 100% of the headquarters for civil society organizations. Whether it’s environmental protection, social justice or human rights everyone is based in Kingston. Meetings, workshops and policy discussions happen mostly in Kingston. Organized protests happen in Kingston, letters to the editor are written to the Jamaica Gleaner (you guessed it, a Kingston-based national newspaper), and social media campaigns mainly reach urban demographics.

You might argue that these organizations are concerned with creating policy change and Kingston is where policies are created so that’s where they have to be. Yes, but policy change isn’t the only avenue for activism. And can policy change be sustainable without significant efforts at the local and individual levels?

No, no it can’t.

The problem with top down change is the same problem with trickle down economics. The benefits are rarely if ever felt by the people at the bottom of the ladder. Trickle down social justice might look pretty on paper, because we have all the right policies, but it won’t change the day to day realities of the average Jamaican because our realities are largely a consequence of our mindset.

For example, suppose Parliament actually decides to decriminalize abortion. Does that mean girls in rural communities will no longer face barriers like social stigma and cultural beliefs that encourage early and frequent child-bearing? No, those barriers will remain unless someone inside that community is advocating for a different way of doing things. I already said Jamaicans are born advocates, you just need to wind us up and point us in the right direction.

So it’s all well and good to rock the boat on a national level, but it has to be matched by an equally fervent (and I would argue stronger) campaign to effect behaviour change at the level of individuals and communities.

Too see this in action, look at our politicians. MPs excel at leveraging community advocacy into political power. They don’t campaign on policy (which they probably think flies over the head of their constituents), instead they campaign on personality. Their election hinges on whether or not the people believe in them, not their ideas. All that matters is that their voters believe they’re a man or woman of the people and then they can get into Parliament where they have the power to affect policy.

And if our politicians are out here getting elected in rural Portland because they can drop it low like Pamputtae and step into Gordon House the next day (get you a girl who does both) then our civil society organizations really have to step up their game.

Policy advocacy goes hand in hand with behaviour change advocacy. It’s not either/or. The civil society organizations that are doing the most in Kingston need to start doing the most in other parishes as well. This doesn’t mean new organizations, just a shift in the way things are done. Instead of locking up all that experience and expertise in Kingston, why not share it with the communities they advocate for?

Roll into Clarendon and Westmoreland with some of those lofty ideas. Expand your reach to St. James or St. Mary and get some fresh perspectives. Build momentum across the country with deliberate efforts, not just a symposium every couple of years because funding agencies mandate it.

Sustainable change can’t happen with an approach that’s strictly top down or bottom up. It’s top down and bottom up efforts that meet in the middle. Is it extra work? Will there be some uncomfortable conversations? Does it mean leaving behind the air-conditioned comfort of city life for that extra work and those tough conversations? Yes, yes and yes. But sustainable change is really the only change worth advocating for.

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Further reading: Jamaica Observer Letter of the Day: The Undoing of Civil Society in Jamaica

Book Clubs and Bozos

Rebel Women Lit (Jamaica-based book club) finally has a Mobay chapter and I was all over the first meeting.

There were three of us. And despite the book on the table – Marlon James’s Black Leopard Red Wolf – the meeting was delightful.

Well, except for the gatecrasher who wouldn’t stop offering unsolicited opinions on a variety of topics not related to the book at hand. Gems included:

“The Bible is a great book – you should read it”

Also,

“I really think you’d like Cowboy Bebop”

and not to be outdone,

“Don’t you think people are too sensitive about everything these days? It’s like you can’t even make a joke without someone taking offense”

I am not making these up, you guys. They’re actual quotes from an actual stranger who sat down with a group of women discussing a book and felt that was the best moment to go full Kanye West.

And if you guessed that he was a man, you’d be right.

Specifically of the cisgender heteronormative variety. (You know, those people).

When I reflect on the experience I think the universe was just trying to give us the pinnacle of feminist experiences. I mean, he was only the biggest stereotype ever to walk into a cafe. We couldn’t have planned that if we tried.

In the moment though, we were all paralyzed by politeness into exchanging glances that said “Can you believe this guy?” for TWO WHOLE HOURS.

(We could not, in fact, believe him.)

Despite the interloper, we enjoyed ourselves. I have some strong opinions on the book – we agreed it was a polarizing story – even though I didn’t make it past the first twenty pages. Some other time I’ll write about why we all need to stop reading books just because they’re popular (life is too short to read shit that doesn’t spark joy).

For now I’m glad my social calendar is evolving. And if this first meeting is any indication, I may not always be on board with the book picks but I’ll always show up for a bookish conversation.

And coffee. Coffee is non-negotiable.

Women’s Bodies Make the News (again)

Lately I’ve been spending my time taking deep dives into the arena of gender analysis. Holed up in a small classroom for 3 hours a week in a recurring debate on the privileges of the penis may not sound like your idea of fun, but to me it’s absolute heaven. Feminist intellectual stimulation, stinging repartee and a whole bunch of new words to add to my vocabulary. It doesn’t get much better than this.

But the perspective comes with a shadow, cynicism. The niggling fear that the status quo (which is far more pervasive and sinister than I realized) won’t ever change because so many people are invested in keeping it the same. The concern that despite our promises as a country and despite our claims as a society, the day to day culture of Jamaica thrives on the subordination of women and other non-masculine groups.

Close to my heart, the topic of healthcare: reproductive rights and abortions. Recently in the news again thanks to MP Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn (In 2018 I learnt a bunch of useless US politician names, maybe 2019 is the year I learn Jamaican ones) who tabled a bill to decriminalize abortion.

Not a bill to let women kill their children.

Not a bill to give women an excuse to be promiscuous.

Not a bill to hasten the decay in Judeo-Christian morals and values.

(all points that were raised and shot down)

The bill was tabled to allow easier access to safe abortions – because women are literally dying.

As I read the discussions helpfully Tweeted out by groups in attendance (the revolution will not be televised because there is no revolution), the points raised by pro-lifers kept circling back to the idea that women do not own their bodies. Their bodies must be offered up for the greater good ie having babies and if they die in the process well it would have been a worthy sacrifice. The MPs who responded challenged the speakers to provide data to back up their claims (they couldn’t) and questioned the right of the Church to make decisions for a pluralist society.

I happen to follow mostly ‘woke’ people on Twitter: feminists, LGBTQ folks and advocates, pro-choice supporters. So my news feed lulls me into the false sense of feeling like maybe the progressive bunch scored a win.

But then I see pictures of the pro-choice stand/march that happened before the debate started – a handful of lovely women (and men, and I think maybe non-binary persons too) clad in black with shirts and placards bearing slogans like ‘NO WOMB FOR PATRIARCHY” and “MIND YOUR OWN UTERUS”. Catchy slogans, very clever, but not a big crowd.

And then I take note of the Members of Parliament who they Tweeteed about actively participating in the discussion. Again, lovely people, but only three maybe four names are repeated.

And then I realize something. It’s great to feel like a part of a movement. It’s great to have people who agree with your values and outlook on life. It’s nice to be included (I get such a thrill when WE-Change retweets me). But the shadow, cynicism, clouds the warm fuzzy feelings.

Culture, society, Parlimentarians in the majority aren’t ready to allow women full control over their own bodies. We might get ideas. The road to change is long and hard, and it will probably continue long after we’ve passed on the torch. This ‘gender thing’ is a huge obstacle to human rights, social development and nation building. We gotta start looking at these problems fully cognizant of the biases and privileges we bring to the table. We have to stop accepting the status quo and start challenging it.

I gotta get off woke Twitter and start changing the world around me.


Just in case anyone was wondering (I was) – the only news article that spoke about this debate was a brief piece in the Gleaner that basically recounted an emotional story from a Catholic nun about overriding women’s choices for the patriarchy. You can read it here.

Rape Culture Thrives in our Churches

On September 23, Dionne Smith and her teenage daughter were brutally murdered in their home by Fabian Lyewsang, Smith’s common-law husband. It was a vicious act, carried out by a man against the women he should have been protecting.

This is the kind of gender based violence that Jamaicans encounter every single day, but we simply pretend it is something less sinister, less insidious. We pretend, as two prominent pastors have argued, that this act of violence and others like it are the result of women. Women choosing the wrong partners, women choosing to stay instead of leave (never mind that they have nowhere to run), women choosing men who murder them in their beds and then drive off a bridge into the Rio Cobre.

In the words of a Parkland shooting survivor, I call BS.

This is victim blaming.

This is the patriarchy.

This is misogyny.

This is rape culture.

This is the church leading the flock astray. Where I would have expected Pastor Glen Samuels (president of the West Jamaica Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (WJC)) and Pastor Joel Haye to lead the charge in holding men accountable for their actions, they have failed us all miserably. And they have failed the women in their congregations worst of all.

When two clergymen can feel comfortable getting behind the pulpit to chastise women for the “bad decisions” that put them in the path of dangerous men we have a problem. When the congregation listens and agrees, when a major news outlet (yes, the Jamaica Gleaner) blasts the story on the front page with the headline “Pastors urge women to choose partners carefully” we have a problem.

And the problem is the systemic, pervasive and frankly disgusting idea that if women would dress right, speak right, act right, choose right then men would not be able to hurt them. The problem is holding women accountable for the behaviour of women AND men, and holding men accountable for nothing. And it has to stop.

Fabian Lyewsang was responsible for his actions, not Dionne Smith. If it had not been Dionne it would have been some other woman. This fact is indisputable. Men alone – not women, not circumstance, not peer pressure, MEN – are responsible for their own behaviour.

When we fail to hold men accountable we fail to notice that 1) our women are in dire need of protection and 2) that our men are suffering from deep emotional and psychological scars. Until we can address these two issues – protect the women while healing the men – our society will stay stuck in this desperate pit of rampant murder/suicides.

When you realize you’re in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Pastor Samuels and Pastor Haye need to stop digging and work with our elected leaders to find a way out that doesn’t involve climbing on the bodies of murdered women.

a word on checkpoints and the assailing of women’s bodies

The State of Emergency is now in its tenth month. Violent crime levels appear unabated. Every issue of the Western Mirror carries a front page headline on some gruesome murder or gunfight.

Twice daily checkpoints are my new normal, since I live and work in two separate parishes. I drive through, waving to the unlucky soldiers assigned to stand in the middle of the road in the grueling summer heat, and smile.

At first I would approach each checkpoint with a sense of trepidation. Would they stop me to search my car? And then annoyance. Would they stop me to try and get my number? My experience was getting harassed by soldiers and police officers alike who appeared to have no other reason to stop me than to chat me up like a man in a bar. It was unprofessional and frustrating.

I used to slow and stop so that the officer or soldier could peer into the car, but these days I slow down just enough to give a brisk wave unless I’m told otherwise. This is just another way one learns to navigate social conventions as a person of the feminine gender.

After a while, when my frustration had faded to good-natured acceptance, I started to notice female soldiers now deployed to man the line. One day while cruising through at my snail pace, I overheard a bus driver call out a raunchy greeting to the lady soldier standing in the road. I cringed, and questioned.

Beyond the sexism that exists among one’s professional colleagues, a sexism that can potentially be challenged and eroded by professional success, is there a deeper and more pervasive sexism in society at large that undermines the execution of professional ‘gender roles’?

Is there a certain level of respect accorded to soldiers and police officers? Do we accord that same respect when the soldier or police officer is a woman? And does the change in tone when addressing a female member of the armed forces imply a lack of respect, or is it simply a neutral cultural phenomenon?

I’m pretty sure that woman was used to getting catcalls in her line of duty, and many women are. Some find it annoying, some find it flattering, and for some it’s just a part of life, neither good nor bad. In my culture there are many things that my liberal ideology struggles to accept, and this is one of them.

Is it inappropriate and unacceptable for a man to calls out ‘Psst, babes‘ when a woman walks by? Is it only inappropriate when he does it to certain Women, or in certain Spaces? Does the acceptability depend on the man’s intention: to objectify and assault, or to compliment and affirm? If the action is allowed, is there an expected response? Is it rude to ignore them? It certainly seems that way.

And is it really such a big deal?

In some spaces it can be. As a general rule I ignore the leaking air and the catcalls, but on certain streets I make damn sure to respond with a polite greeting. At issue here is the concept of danger. On main roads I feel safe enough to ignore the calls; on side streets I am too aware of my vulnerability to invite an uncertain threat. I fear, so I conform. But does this make me complicit in a social norm I desperately wish would change?

I don’t have the answers, but I think it’s important that we start talking somewhere. A catcall on a lonely avenue isn’t the same as being sexually assaulted, but the threads of gender-based violence run deep. Until we can pick up the ends, wherever they are scattered, we will never begin to untangle that knot.

Lessons in Womanhood

As a black girl child uncertainty was bred into my bones. I was taught to doubt my every thought and decision. Taught to believe someone else’s version of the truth. Taught that my feelings were irrelevant to the task at hand, which was to pave the way for someone else’s vague notions of success. It isn’t that my family deliberately set out to rob me of self-confidence, but these were the lessons I imbibed as a child who was sensitive to the ways of the world.

As an educated black woman I marvel at how much these lessons continue to affect me, particularly in my academic and professional spheres. I note with envy how easily my male colleagues assume roles of leadership. How confidently they navigate their realms, without second guessing, without deferring to another person’s judgment.

I’m acutely aware of the influence that social class must necessarily have on these gendered upbringings. The poor have always been subjugated and have coped with that subjugation by adopting a deferential attitude. This is as much a survival tactic as anything else – the poor frequently have no options for economic mobility other than servitude. And a good servant is docile.

But I don’t want to be a good servant.

I want to be a strong black woman. Strong black women (history says) are rarely ever liked, but they are respected.

If there is one truth I must give the daughter I may never have, it is that her self-worth should never be called into question. That she does not have to shrink to make way for others to grow. That she must go out and make her mark on this wretched, wonderful Earth without fear or hesitation. That she must do this with as much poise and compassion as she can muster because the world will not be kind (though kindness is needed).

This is the lesson I hope society will one day teach: that our black girls are not pawns, no. They have been Queens all along.

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Credit for the image (as well as my blog avatar) to Zigbone.

From Preatoria to Hopefield

Some thoughts on “The Problem with Black Hair”

Jamaican girls with unmixed African hair – that super coiled, cry when it combing out, deceptively short until you tug on a strand hair – have mostly always relaxed their hair. Which, like most major life decisions, is totally okay when it’s a choice. Not so okay when  mothers relax their 5 year old’s hair because they just can’t bother to comb it.

Recently there’s been a movement toward “embracing your curls” – which some of my more cynical and curlier friends have decried as a purely “mixed girl hair” movement. African hair doesn’t bounce around your ears in curly waves, they complain, no matter how much product you put in it. Fair point, but short accessorized afros are steadily gaining pace among trendy hairstyles of the 21st century. And I am so happy when I see people not giving up on their natural hair for the sake of having it easy.

If you know me, you would know that statement is more than a little hypocritical, because my sole purpose in locking my hair was to have a low maintenance hairstyle. I hate combing my hair, bitterly, but I didn’t want to relax it because chemicals are terrifying. Locs were the compromise.

It helped my decision that locs are still relatively uncommon in this part of the island – the Kingston liberal arts and hipster scene is awash with dreads both real and temporary but in Montego Bay I’ve found locs are largely restricted to the working class. And I like to make minor stirs when I can, upset people’s predisposed notions.

The radically opposing points of view on black hair simply cannot find middle ground. There is the “natural camp” and the “neat camp” and for some reason they have decided that never the twain shall meet. Obviously one can be natural and neat, if one only adjusts and compromises the meanings behind those adjectives.

The afro is going to face the same uphill battle that locks did, because of its historic associations. Once upon a time, the only people with locs or afros were people who couldn’t afford to straighten their hair (read: poor people) or people who were rebelling against society (read: criminals). This antipathy toward hair that isn’t long and straight with no strand out of place is as entrenched as our antipathy toward melanin, toward the spectrum of sexuality, toward difference on a whole.

But the world is moving forward, tentatively. Acceptance is in.