Last Sunday, I was involved in a panel discussion about how we could increase people involvement. The answer is not an easy one and before we even get Barbadians engaged, we have to reflect on the usefulness of activism and its history in Barbados. I hope my first-person reflection can help deepen the discussion on how we get people to feel empowered enough to get involved.
Activism is perhaps the least sexy activity with which a person can engage. It is usually a very lonely existence and, in a sense, I can understand why a society like Barbados suppresses the birth of activists and by extension, activism. From very early on, Barbadians are taught the premium of falling in line and being quiet.
While there is perceived peace and stability in Barbados, we also lose the value of ingenuity, agitation, and change. These characteristics help a society to keep itself turning and recreating in ways that foster an enhanced civilization and the use of new knowledge to the betterment of human existence.
So generally, the human need to be loved and accepted hinders one’s inclination to take up a fight and to be relentless about it at all times. It is not an easy or natural human endeavour. It becomes even more difficult in a society where we kill off the natural skills in children that would encourage them to go against the grain – to become activists or even just entrepreneurial.
When I was younger, I did not reflect so much on my position in relation to society. I had strong views about issues; I spoke on those issues and tried to position myself to put elbow grease to the cause. As I get older and slower, I have to fight more strategically and thus I am more inclined to understand the society we have created and how activist work can fit into it.
In my younger years, I worked out the relationship between politics and policy change. I sought involvement in politics early as a mechanism to become more closely involved in policy work. What I was perhaps naïve about is the internal structure of party politics in Barbados and the extent to which this structure is itself conducive to activism or not.
Historically, there has been an uncomplicated and seamless relationship between activism and politics in the labour parties formed out of the 1930s worker uprisings. Many of the politicians who are seen as founding fathers of the nations of the Commonwealth Caribbean were also activists. Eric Williams of Trinidad and Cheddi Jagan of Guyana are examples. Perhaps what I overlooked is that the agenda they took up as activists were male-defined and myopic. Those two founding fathers were mainly concerned with political activism. The extent to which their ideas about social justice included issues of equality for women is much more personal and emerged in different ways or not at all from territory to territory.
I have struggled to find a seamless integration of women’s activism in the current political structures, although I will admit that the Barbados Labour Party is further along the spectrum on women’s issues than the Democratic Labour Party. Even so, both have a far way to go! Alas, party politics is a beast disproportionately uglier and deadlier than any other.
This question of political acceptance or alienation of activism is a giant elephant in the room that must be frontally dealt with in discussing people’s involvement in the Barbadian and Caribbean contexts. Any kind of noise, after all, is seen as negative criticism by 21st century politicians – the finicky nature of their auras again leave most activists (so would say the smart ones) unsure as to if noise or tongue biting should be the strategy.
I think due to the double difficulty in maintaining advocacy and activism and the hostility within the political space to activism, we end up with individuals who hop onto and off of a bandwagon. They participate in activism as it is convenient for them to be included and excluded. This focus on self-aggrandizement and protection overtakes the real agenda of activism in the Barbadian space. Most people have worked out a formula for inclusion before they even have to engage in activism.
The result is that the non-governmental community in Barbados is largely timid and weak. It leaves executives of NGOs and activists constantly in a state of trying to figure out who is doing genuine work and who is looking for the quickest way to be included or elevated. If we are serious about people involvement, there will have to be a recalibration of the non-governmental sector in Barbados and a change to the approach of introducing noise, activism and service in school.
We are going to have to start being honest and frank with ourselves first and then with each other. Can an environmental activist be opposed to gender justice? Can LGBT conversations be the only ones we seem willing to have even as heterosexual women in Barbados see completely too few gains in their access to justice and escape from abusive relationships? Our perceived stability comes at the cost of a dirty underside to our proverbial national carpet! Open a window, dust a mat. Is it real change we seek?
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: [email protected])