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

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Starting Fires

While I was at home in Montego Bay the Riverton dump in Kingston started burning and continued to burn for more than a week. Social media grabbed the disaster and ran through the streets with it, even as print media dragged their feet on the reporting. Fingers were pointed, no one was punished and the annual nine-day-wonder fire was swept under the carpet along with issues like political corruption and the human rights debate. People don’t stay angry for very long, it seems.

Catching Fire is the second book in Suzanne Collins’s wildly popular YA series, about the start of a revolution and the fire that was starting to rage in hearts across Panem. It was a book about social and political change, and the kind of rebellion that one girl in a really fabulous dress can inspire. The oppressed in fiction get angry and stay angry. (And then they kill people).

Jamaica needs radical change, some kind of blazing revolution that razes everything in its path and leaves the land empty. Not barren, but fertile. Waiting for some clean, new, un-corrupted, pure of heart phoenix to spring from the ashes. But this is an ideal.

Our reality is slogging away at back-breaking jobs for bank-breaking pay all the while cussing this government and that government and hiding our faces in embarrassment at our leaders, and hoping someone else will be the change we want to see.

I’m guilty. There’s no excuse for not standing up and pushing back against the undesirable reality. There are start-up ideas and innovations everywhere, little inspiring stories about changing things one life at a time. People bounce back from tragedy with overwhelming determination; people triumph in big and little ways.

But what to do with the pervasive feeling that if you don’t go big, go home? That my small change won’t make any real difference? How to coalesce all the small changes into some grand overarching movement toward a better Jamaica? How to reach the whole country instead of just one small part?

We would need to have small changes everywhere, instead of concentrating them in our urban centres. The disparity between urban centres and rural communities is discouraging, the lack of resources is debilitating and (personally) my capacity for hope and faith is insufficient to sustain the grassroots efforts that we would need to experience change in a major way.

And there needs to be a deep affinity for the cause you’re getting behind in Jamaica, because it takes everything you have. Fighting battles on the fronts of gender equality, human rights, even education is an exhausting process. Carla Moore after discussing gender issues with two male friends commented that “Doing gender-based interventions as a woman is a form of abuse”.

I want to do something but I’m terrified – of failing, of being targeted, of not having the resources, of not caring enough, of caring too much, of burning out, of becoming bitter. I shy away from advocacy and cheer them on from the sidelines when I know I should do more, do something. But what can I do, what can I do?

Sometimes this question plagues me, chases me down the street and demands money. I falter, dig around in my mind for a response, dig through my chest for a semblance of emotion to spur me forward, to start a fire. But I’m not a fire-starting kind of girl.

When I was at community college, I started a Book Club which I ran for one year as President before graduating. We would meet once a week and talk about whatever short story or poem I had printed out and I like to think I was encouraging an appreciation of literature but truthfully I have no idea why people continued to show up week after week (but I was  grateful that they did).

When I left, the club continued. Only now, they had branched into outreach and were delivering books to basic schools and orphanages. Is this an example of my humble literary efforts catching fire?

From reading flash fiction to sharing the gift of literature – if one little effort can evolve like that, what more can my love of books accomplish? If I can’t start a fire, can I at least fan some flames? I believe the right book can change a life, can rewrite generations of hardwiring, can catalyse personal and national revolution. And that sounds like a cause I can get behind.

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My friend Tricia (Tricia T Allen) and I are planning to start a writer’s club in Montego Bay as soon as I move back home, and we’re looking for dedicated writers to come and join in. If you’re from the Western end of the island and you have a fondness for words, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us! More details will be posted as soon as we hash them out. 

This is what happens when you let me go to a Philosophy lecture

This one is a wall of text, guys. Apologies in advance, unless (like me) you like words. In which case, you’re welcome. 

I was a third year medical student pretending to be a first year Literature major, sitting beside a final year Philosophy major from Germany.

It was the best day of my life. 

Some of my classmates are using the four weeks’ holiday we’ve been granted to rest and reflect. Some have been using to to prepare for the annual third year production, Smoker. Some have been using it to prepare for their upcoming clinical rotation.

Today, I used it to sit in on lectures in the Faculty of Humanities and Education. And it was amazing. My ardent admiration for Literature, notwithstanding (Austen fans, see what I did there?), today I discovered the dearth of possibilities that lay open to most other university students (with the possible exception of students from the Faculty of Law): the almost limitless variety  of classes and courses that can wind up creating a one-of-a-kind bespoke first degree, and not just the one-size-fits-all paper that most students leave university toting.

I am absolutely green with envy at the students in Humanities and the Social Sciences who are restricted in the course decisions only by credit allowances. UWI is an all-you-can-eat buffet, and medical students are on a water-and-lettuce-leaf diet. Everyone else is given a plate and told to fill it as much as possible. So many of them waste so much of their plates, just leaving the space empty, when they could have topped it up with the study of languages, culture, psychology, gender, literature. Or is the lettuce leaf just greener on that side of life?

I want to rail against the university for the vacuum they’ve given us to study in, for how limited our options for real enlightenment are. These foundation courses that are meant to give students the benefit of a multi-faculty education are compulsory, true. But they have a pass mark of 40%. They only require 4/10 of the effort. They only need you to know 4/10 of the concepts and information that are being rigorously dissected by some other student doing some other major in some other faculty.

I am upset that we are allowed, encouraged even, to study one subject exclusively. Is a liberal education the opposite of this? Where can I get one of those?

I think the well-rounded university graduate is a myth. Called into being by some employer who wants a business grad with a working knowledge of computers and human behaviour.

The issue at heart is the cycle of invalidity: the undergrad freshman wants to make money when he/she graduates, the university needs marketable graduates to maintain its credibility, and of course society stigmatizes the liberal arts graduate as un-properly-educated and unqualified.

When will we recognize the relevance of every subject? When will we stop subjugating one discipline for the veneration of some other? (Philosophy-for-Science, I’m looking at you). In short, when will universities, as social institutions, create an environment that is suitable for developing the cornucopia of human minds it professes to cater to, instead of trying to jam every peg – square and otherwise – into one round hole?

Perhaps when philosophers stop teaching philosophy and start leading governments. Perhaps when doctors stop treating bodies and start healing psyches. Perhaps when students stop being simple mind-jugs waiting to be filled and start being critical leaders of social change.

Most likely I’m asking for too much, and much too soon.