Monday, December 27, 2010

Wind chimes for political change

This week marks one year of the assumption of political leadership of the United National Congress by Kamla Persad-Bissessar. It spiraled a chain of activities that saw her becoming Trinidad and Tobago’s first female Prime Minister – a process I mapped in the book Through the Political Glass Ceiling (2010) which was launched the week before the elections. The book boldly pointed to a potential victory by Persad-Bissessar when all other analyses hedged, only stretching their necks out to, at best, suggest a dead-heat election race with no clear winner. Through the Political Glass Ceiling, which has since made its way into key libraries of the world, clearly mapped a process of underlying and oft-ignored social, cultural and political currents of the last 60 years locally and internationally that paved the way and made almost inevitable Persad-Bissessar’s political victory in the May 2010 election.
One of the chapters in Through the Political Glass Ceiling is titled To Be Woman and Leader. For long they were considered mutually exclusive concepts. Women who become leaders are often asked how they balance both, in denial of recognition that women are born leaders, who birth leaders, and shape the hearts and minds of future leaders.
National winds of change found a responsive global chime. The wave of national popularity since May rippled across the globe and saw her voted in internationally among Time Magazine’s top ten female world leaders and among the Independent Newspaper 16 women taking over the world. She strutted down a Glamour Magazine’s runway as one of 18 women leaders of the world who have remained focused on the issues of women’s empowerment. She refocused UN commitments at the World Summit and lectured to Harvard on Leadership and Cooperation among others.
Women as agents of change will be theme of several activities in the year 2011, as nationally and internationally, the world will reflect on how a more balanced positioning can advance equity and fairness to its disadvantaged and dispossessed. Some of the experiences of Persad-Bissessar, detailed in Through the Political Glass Ceiling, would themselves be analysed at various national and international forums and the obvious question is sure to surface - how has she transformed the environment in which she functions? How has she functioned as an agent of change? How has her leadership impacted the UNC, Trinidad and Tobago? The world?
One of the key failures of women leaders have been in trying to enforce-fit into the male – and so far clearly deficient culture and environment (for how could any Government claim success when there is such vast discrepancies in wealth with more than 80 percent of the world’s population living on less than USD 10 per day and more than 40 percent less than USD 2 per day?) Lack of confidence and loss of focus on that simple fact has felled many-a–female leader. It seems easier to fall into patterns of failure, rather than trying to transform one’s sphere into one in which all, including women and children can function on an equal footing – one recalls attempts by former British PM, Margaret Thatcher at deepening her voice so her tones blend into the male-dominated political sphere. Persad-Bissessar will be well-poised to keep the confidence and the focus.
In the frenzy of the first year of governance, there might not have been much time to step back and reflect on how governance might be responding to the call for change but as the year winds down and a new one begins, it is naturally given to reflect on the successes of 2010 and think of repositioning for the challenges of 2011. The symbolic impact seen in the accolades heaped on her leadership in 2010 will be seeking substance in 2011. The platform of people-centred government represented by the People’s Partnership came at a time in 2010 when the world was looking for a new model of governance, as Through the Political Glass Ceiling posits. 2011 will be the acid test of whether a woman, a leader, an agent of change, the centre of this new model, will hold.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Women and Tech Toys

At the height of the shopping frenzy that characterizes yuletide and year end, we try to allow ourselves to be entertained by what advertisers seem to think are their clever insights into gender roles – old mops, mopping on being replaced by new tech savvy cleaners; speedier, hi-tech chore-achieving equipment to entice lazy men out of sofas to take up their share of household responsibilities; men inveigling their children’s support in one scheme or the other to outwit their nagging moms.
In their oblivious reinforcement of gender stereotypes, the advertisers seem to be missing the obvious – that many of the new hi-powered equipment meant to make household work easier (and to encourage men to participate) are better meeting the needs of the expanding numbers of single, female headed households. Some avid sociologist might want to take up this observation as further evidence of male marginalization - the new catchphrase in ongoing gender-based analyses. Meanwhile, clearly unknown to the advertisers, women are relinquishing the nagging, and are taking up newly invented high-powered easy-to-use equipment, and just doing it themselves.
A friend of mine was engaged by a UK company some years ago to do market research on how women use technology. The growing purchasing power of women’s pocket books were making females more attractive subjects of scientific research and development as corporations did not want to miss out on the opportunity to bite into some of those hard-earned bucks. Cell phones and computers, for instance, were beginning to be turned out in pinks and reds and pastels – to cater for the possible interest by women in these gadgets, of course, until someone thought that women’s interest in these tech toys might go beyond skin deep – and they might actually be interested in the applications and functions of these new age devices. This research project has since evolved in the UK, into a television series called Lady Geek that ranges through the bewildering maze of new apps, particularly on smart phones, to help women understand which may be best suited to their needs.
I have spent the last several years searching the shelves of technology for a basic household, uhh accessory. (Not quite an appliance, nor a tool, I have to call it a household cleaning accessory). Older generations would call it a mop. I have explored local and international household department stores. I have seen a world of mops, steamers and vacuum cleaners capable of handling various kinds of floors, hard or carpeted, but have not found one that can suit my needs, and that, very simply is a mop – one with scrubbing and vacuum functions that, dries as it wet-cleans, can cover 10,000 square feet of ground space in one cleaning without leaving its bristles or frayed fibres or microfibers in its wake because they cannot live up to the size of the task.
Sometimes, frustrated in my quest, I may drift into tech stores, hoping against hope that some genius might have invented my dream mop as this year’s gadget of choice. To defray the inevitable disappointment, I may allow myself to be lured into the fascinating world of the newest smartphones, computers and their apps that have now been transported from our palms to the galaxy. Now there I can find almost everything I need from such a device, having evolved from wanting a phone that can be tucked into my bra where my mother tucked her wallet (let’s face it, where do you put it when you’re decked for an evening out!) to a device that serves most of my general on-the-go phoning, computing, surfing, reading, music, photographic and video needs with all the required applications – and that can fit, if not into my bra, certainly in a neat purse without the danger of neck and back damage, slim-line, and of a colour of choice. So for those who were about to ask, if I can’t have a mop for Christmas, certainly a galaxy fits the tech tab.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Go Barefoot for Human Rights

‘Barefoot and pregnant’ is an image that has been associated with disempowered women, dependent and entangled in a cycle of poverty, frustration and self-negation from limited life chances resulting from unplanned, unaffordable pregnancies. Similarly, aspects of the feminist movement have also frowned on lengthening and thinning heels on women’s shoes as similar representations of internalised repressions. In fact, shoes and rising heels have been associated with improved standards of living,and lifestyles that allow persons to afford shoes to potect themselves from dreaded poverty-associated diseases, and the roughness of the ground.
Now leading women in the civil society movement have adopted the metaphor – at least half of it, ‘barefoot’ – and extended it, to remind the world of the violations of human rights around the world. Go barefoot – lose your shoes is the rallying call to the world to remind ourselves of these violations. Led by CIVICUS - a world alliance of civil society interests, based in South Africa and headed by Ingrid Srinath – men and boys, women and girls shed their shoes and trekked barefooted through most of the CIVICUS World Assembly activities in Montreal recently, to signal their commitment to defending the rights of persons around the world.
On Human Rights Day, December, 10 – mark the date - the CIVICUS led campaign - Every Human Has Rights – will rally people to focus, even for a few moments, to think about other people whose rights have been violated in the hope of building understanding and to begin to make the fight for human rights part of everyone’s lives. This year’s rally around the sloan Go Barefoot – Lose Your Shoes, will zero in on people living in poverty – people who don’t have food to put on their table, let alone shoes to put on their feet.
In particular, we may want to think of the women and children in the some 20 percent of the population of Trinidad and Tobago whose existence hover around the ‘poverty line’.
I have found that more horrifying than what is conjured by the metaphor of ‘barefoot and pregnant’, is the statistic – of 20 percent of our population being barely able to afford life’s basics , given that T&T’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per head is said to be some USD 20,000. In lay terms, that means, that if this country’s wealth was more equitably distributed, every individual will be earning some TTD 120,000 a year.
Human Rights day was introduced to keep focus on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the anniversary of this Declaration with its 30 Articles of the rights of men and women. In printed form, the 9 cm by 12 cm booklet of 15 pages defines human rights as right to life, liberty, security, property, education, equality before law, freedom of thought, religion, opinion, peaceful assembly, political participation, equal pay for equal work, right to join trade unions, right to a standard of living adequate for health and well being.
Other less known, are ‘right to nationality’, family, equal access to the public service, free development of personality and right to protection of moral and material interests from any scientific, literary or artistic production.
Trinbagonians, with the endemic liming culture would be pleased to know it also includes the right to participate in cultural life, enjoy the arts, share in scientific achievement as well as – note this –“rights to the freedom to rest and leisure and periodic holidays with pay.”
It is clear that many of these rights still point to the unequal status of women in many parts of the world where women still do not enjoy right to property, freedom of thought, equal pay for equal work, and right to enjoy adequate standard of living for health and well being and access to social and public services and utilities, and many have no prospect of experiencing “rights to the freedom to rest and leisure and periodic holidays with pay.”
Go Barefoot, lose your shoes, is based on the belief that the world would be a better place if every person walked a mile in another person’s. Wouldn’t it? Try it and at noon on December 10, take off your shoes, step out onto the street and walk around the to reognise that Every Human Have Rights. Some details in the box on what you can do.

Dr Kris Rampersad is a media, cultural and literary consultant, and author of Through the Political Glass Ceiling – Race to Prime Ministership by Trinidad and Tobago’s First Female. Email kriscivica@ yahoo.com



What you can do:
1. Raising profile of rights
Lose your shoes and walk around your office, church, school etc, barefooted. Take pictures and videos to upload onto the Lose Your Shoes website.
2. Raise awareness
Stories and case studies online and used in digital promotions will help demonstrate that violations of human rights are one of the biggest obstacles to eradicating poverty and people action to uphold Universal rights.
3. 12 steps for human rights
Take the pledge to take the12 STEPS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS by starting with actions on the day and then throughout the year – one each month, simple actions from signing a petition, to attending an event or watching a video and sharing with friends.
For more actions, see http://loseyourshoes.org/

Monday, October 18, 2010

‘Multikulti is dead!' 'Long live multiculturalism’

Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean are trying to develop cultural and multicultural policies on mandates handed down to by the developed world where such policies are themselves failing ... so in whose images are we trying to develop them?

‘Multikulti is dead! Long live multiculturalism’

Can T&T bring sanity to the global multicultural hype?

While we reel at the emphatic denouncement of multiculturalism directions in Germany owing to the German’s Chancellors’ pronouncement this weekend that ‘Multikulti is dead’ in Germany, the local Ministry of Multiculturalism hosted a conference ‘Towards A Multiculturalism Policy for Trinidad and Tobago’. Its keynote lead speakers were foreign academics and technocrats from the developed world, Canada and the United Kingdom, who admitted that they had no answers for us on our efforts towards a multiculturalism policy.
It is time we take charge and bring some sanity to this debate that is largely reactionary, surrounded by hype, misconceptions, and preconceived notions. Our losing our heads, ignoring our vast experiences – some of them excruciatingly painful, yes - in building our multicultural environment, by trying to borrow and bow to pressures from societies whose realities are far removed from us, can only be to detrimental effect.
Apart from the few, unresourced and sporadic voices of civil society from the Caribbean and those of us in the culture sector involved in multiculturalism and cultural policy research and actions, trying to represent what this region can bring to the debate and actions, Caribbean Governments and States have been largely inaudible, invisible and relatively inactive in the international discussions.
Compared to our societies, which are already multicultural, the multicultural conversation in the international arena of ‘Northern’/developed societies has largely been in reaction to ‘globalisation’ and directed at immigrants, who are seen to be potentially disruptive of the ‘mainstream’ social and cultural existence, and hence those policies are attempts to ‘integrate’ them into ‘mainstream’ (Canadian/British/French/German) societies in efforts at what they call social cohesion. In the case of Canada, it has also been motivated by the State’s larger politically sensitive relationships with Quebec.
Beyond that, the developed world's outlook assumes that its one size fits all – a warning that has also been sounded by Mario Vargas Llanos, the recently crested 2010 Nobel Laureate for literature; assumptions that ‘policy’ and even ‘systems’ as they are defined by the West/Developed/Northern countries whose societies have evolved systems of law, education, politics very different from our multicultural amalgam, and very different from our attitudes and practice of policy - will work for us.
The international processes also place primary responsibility for multiculturalism in the hands of the State. This creates a dangerous situation of institutionalising political partisanship in ‘managing’ cultural diversity, when from all available evidence such involvements by States in culture have resulted in heightened tensions between and among groups. Germany is but one example. Chancellor Merkel has been one of the leaders in the multicultural conversation at international negotiating tables - that Germany’s attempt to forge a multicultural society has failed, as she denounced elements of the society’s migrants and pronounced that immigrants must adopt German and Christian values. We have seen in recent times, similar soundings and measures by the French and Australian Governments. These are the outlooks that have also been shaping the directions and defining the international instruments, as the UNESCO Conventions, that we have just signed as well, and unless we understand what we are getting into and the implications for our societies, our cultures and our culture sectors, we are likely to be sounding the same bugle – ‘Multikulti is dead’ - as Germany et al pretty soon.
One need not be a prophetess to see, or a rocket scientist to forecast, what those policy directions are doing/likely to do to their societies. Even in the cases in T&T where attempts by the State have actually been to the detriment of the culture sector.
There is a danger that we are on the road to disrupt the delicate socio cultural balances we have succeeded in building. Are we following blindly the shortsightedness of the international trends that are yet to clearly define the differences and the relationship between culture, cultural products and multiculturalism and diversity, and often use them interchangeably and see them as one and the same thing?
It is clear that much of what is driving the international directions are from the experiences of the metropoles of the developed world and very little of that applies to Trinidad and Tobago, in particular, or the Caribbean, in general. We have largely evolved a unique brand of multiculturalism from many migration streams - an asset that we often overlook in pursuing our general tendencies to force-feed the experiences of alien societies and their systems on ourselves. For this, we run the danger of replicating the severe shortcomings and social disruptions they are experiencing and have experienced in theirs.
That can only be detrimental to the social balance we have evolved – not painlessly – here; one that we take for granted but one that we must recognise as fragile and can be easily be shattered if we allow ourselves to be absorbed into the international hysteria about multiculturalism. Instead, what are we doing to try to enlighten that conversation with the experiences, knowledge and practices that we have evolved, and leverage that international environment to the benefit of our populations?
Confidence in our assets, especially cultural ones, has not been one of our strong points, and we continue to drift in a sea of defining ourselves in images handed down by those claiming to be better developed. That is the bridge that must be crossed before we take the precarious step ‘Towards a Multicultural Policy for Trinidad and Tobago.’
The answers may not be as elusive to us as it is to those in the developed world who are now coming to grips with the challenges of multiculturalism. We may just have to tap into our own knowledge-base to switch on the light to our experiences and strengths to determine if and how we can reshape and or impact the international conversation and directions mapped out by the instruments; whether we can make them more relevant to apply to us.
It means that we must reassess our approach hitherto in this conversation, reposition ourselves to take charge of it and impact on it in ways that can be meaningful not just to the region but to the world.
If we look closer home, in the region, there is ready evidence - in how Jamaica is already reeling from having jumped to the international drum without looking inward first, and Grenada is quickly following suit. We have seen what has happened in the EPA-CARIFORUM negotiations which leaves the culture sector no wiser or richer in regard to trade issues.
It is time for more enlightened leadership on the global debate on multiculturalism, and that can only come from the Caribbean. So which of our leaders are going to step up to the challenge?

Dr Kris Rampersad is a media cultural and literary consultant, author and researcher on comparative global trends policies and actions on multiculturalism. See connectcp.org/KrisRampersad

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