This has been my second year attending the Girlfriends Expo. Last year, I was there as the Entrepreneurship ambassador for my beloved Alexandra School. This year, I was helping with a recruitment drive for the National Organization of Women (NOW).
Last year, I was struck by the type of exhibits the show had but I opted to hold on to my opinion. This year, I heard many more women voice the same sentiment so I think it is perhaps now a good time to share my impression of the Girlfriends Expo as a whole.
I know that my Barbadian sisters are way more than make-up, cupcakes and hair extensions. My fear, though, is that the people who do not know this could be easily left believing that there is nothing beyond the superficial to the Barbadian woman. In my view, this is two years now that the Girlfriends Expo has missed a fundamental education opportunity for Barbadian women.
Barbadian women are battling cancer, are going through divorces, are dealing with depression and other mental health issues. Some are single parents sending children through college and need to manage diminishing and diminished financial resources. Many are learning do-it-yourself plumbing and carpentry on Youtube. So any girlfriend moving through the exhibit could easily ask where were those stalls.
I understand that the organizers offer spaces and businesses then uptake the space according to how they see it merging with marketing and sales plans. This discussion is by no means set to chastise the organizers of the show. If hardware stores, financial planners and the Barbados Bar Association did not see Girlfriends Expo as a place to come and engage Barbadian women, then it is not the organizers of the show that have a challenge. Indeed, we as Barbadian women have to question the image that is floating around about the Barbadian woman and what she is.
Notwithstanding, the National Organization of Women did conduct an outreach exercise at the Expo. I am very heartened at the response we got. Barbadian women are still heading and active in church organizations and community clubs which are seeking to build and strengthen the Barbadian society. We met many such women and the National Organization of Women intends to revitalize its presence and support of such clubs.
We also met a significant number of women across Barbados who were interested in offering their skills and expertise to volunteer efforts but did not know how to or had not been successful in contacting non-governmental organizations. I believe that as we start to rethink and reconceptualize Barbados, this has to change instantaneously. Community service and being a part of a community service organization should begin at school. I do not believe that being involved in community service should mandatory.
We had mooted the idea of the National Youth Service a few years ago but this became as forgotten as the other nine day muses. Perhaps we do not need a paramilitary National Youth Service. Perhaps we would benefit more from creating a National Culture of Service using our schools as the starting point. From the age of ten, every child should be given various choices of activities which introduce them to volunteerism.
Instead of creating elaborate structures, we may have enough space within existing organizations to ensure that children are placed. The system would benefit from integration and flexibility. Let us say that a child is actively engaged in sport at the club or competitive level. That child could be exempt from his hours of community service. A young child who takes care of elderly grand or great grandparents on the weekend could be awarded points for doing this type of activity instead of taking them away from it.
Although the activities that can count as volunteerism are heterogeneous, what we would be doing is inculcating an attitude to service and ensuring that it becomes a normal part of life for our citizens. By adulthood, people would still have linkages in the volunteer community and it would be easy for them to find clubs and causes to work with. Volunteer work is critical to being an active citizen. People who engage in volunteer work have a better grasp of national and world issues. They become conscious consumers and conscious voters.
Since we started by talking about NOW and women involvement, enlightened mothers raise enlightened children and, in this way, we create generations of enlightened people. There are obvious benefits to having more enlightened citizens, one of the most obvious is the political change we are so badly looking for. These things are processes which take time and energy to engineer and one is invariably interconnected with the next.
Apart from the social benefits to fostering a culture of volunteerism, there are also other important considerations. Most overseas universities now are requiring applicants to show a record of volunteerism or community work as a part of their portfolio for entry. Exposing students to volunteerism form early, hence assists in building their resumes.
There are many hard and complex changes that the Barbadian society has to navigate its way through. However, building a spirit of volunteerism is one of the needed changes that is simple. We should not waste time with long talk and position papers in this instance.
The National Organization of Women is the umbrella body for all organizations in Barbados concerned with issues of equality and gender rights for women and girls. If you are a part of a group that you think is forwarding and supporting the cause of Barbadian women, we want to forge linkages with you. Please contact me by the email posted below. Stronger in volunteerism and sisterhood.
(Marsha Hinds Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies. Email: [email protected])