Archive for the ‘Activism’ Category

Year 4 of Summer Arts Workshop

I really felt more hopeful this year. Even though some of the same obstacles were in place, I felt a bit more familiar with the terrain – the political bullshit, the posturing and petty misuse of power among the educated/jobbed/credentialed ones, the wisdom and the terror involved when things are moving slowly, the helpfulness of ordinary people, the moments of “yes! this is why we do this!” that keep us going.

Jakki and I, we got this.

Major problem — finding a suitable place for the program

The community center was not going to work for this year.
More to the point, staff – instructors, volunteers – refused to return there.  And I can’t say that I blame them.

I wasn’t there for the entire six weeks, but they had a lot of stories to share as we wrapped up last year.  They weren’t pretty.

For me, the complaints about and the subsequent removal of the furniture last year sent one helluva statement about what people think is ok to do to children simply because they are poor and their parents don’t have economic clout (center staff said the chairs and tables were removed unintentionally; GRAP did not press them to return what they didn’t want to share; instead, the children worked on the floor for 4 weeks of the program.  Yes.  I said, the floor.)

Just try to imagine that being done to children in Ironshore, or Coral Gardens, or Mango Walk. Nope.

Requests made to churches have mostly been met by lack of response over the years.

One church flatly refused to even entertain the request: children are going to dirty up the place, one church leader said. In his mind – and what he shared at length – the community’s children are uncontrollable, they are “bad”, little more than sources of blight and blemish, and should be scorned, kept away from the pristine space that is his church.

Ironically, that’s the same sentiment expressed in 2013 by the representative from the Parish Council who also oversees the community center.  When I met with him and the community group to discuss the policies concerning fair use of the center, he talked about the importance of keeping the place “sterile”.  Folks seem to be really hung up on the issue of cleaning: they don’t want to spend time cleaning the space, and when people use it, it gets dirty.  So, to achieve that sterility, children need to be kept outside and away from the very resources that are put there for them.

So here’s another example of how public space is treated like it’s the private domain of those who are in charge.  It’s the same way that many people behave around their private homes: once it is cleaned, children are put outside or told to stay away or in designated places so as not to “dirty up the place”.  Children as contaminants.  There’s a theme here.

Another church leader told me, in a tone of voice that I find it difficult to describe, that I should take my request to the church that I used to attend.  Apparently, the proposal was so preposterous that the only place that was bound to entertain it was one that would be more forgiving of me – kind of like how your mother will put up with your blemishes in a way that nobody else will? I did do as she directed though.

That pastor told me that the church was used for one week in August to hold Vacation Bible School.  To him, that singular event nullified any possibility of the program using the space for the other five.

Another told me, equally bluntly, that the community people don’t know how to behave and treat the property with respect, so they are not allowed to hold any events there.  Apparently, the group did not have a plan in place for cleaning up the garbage and debris after use.

On one hand, yes, I can understand being pissed off when people mistreat your space.

But, on the other hand, the blatant willingness to discriminate against the children and deny them access is something that requires a different response.   There is this presumption that all community people, and thus this program because it serves the community, are incompetent when it comes to managing children, and again, preventing dirt and damage.

There’s definitely something to the laissez-faire and class-specific way that children are supervised in non-school events.  Chaos ensues, and not even the organized form.  Children are ignored, then yelled at, then punished.  It’s almost as if adults don’t know how to deal with children when they are *not* in uniform.  Once they are out of uniform, the adults are afraid of them (I’ve heard people say as much even though I’m being very tentative), or don’t know how to provide the appropriate guidelines for how they need the children to behave in these settings.  I’ve certainly seen this disposition at work in previous years in this program.

So, it seems like GRAP now has to prove that we can manage the community’s children in a way that is satisfactory to those who think they are uncontrollable and hell-bent on destroying everything in their path.

Where else? Sam Sharpe Teachers College rejected the request for two years:  Already hosting a summer program they said.  No space they said.  This year’s strategy: ask someone who’s higher in the social hierarchy to ask them to help find a space.  That didn’t work either.

One of the basic schools in the community.  None were open to the idea, although one did make me write a letter posthaste, but then the letter somehow never made it to the person who would decide.  And yet, the performance around directing us to write a letter was also interesting.  I started to wonder if the contents of the letter were as important as the letter itself.   I”m learning that email is a funny thing among Jamaicans who don’t depend on it for work.   Between intermittent access to internet, and a general nonchalance about using technology, communication is really still person-to-person, very much in Granville, but also in St. James.

The other thing I learned early: don’t ever leave a voicemail message, just keep calling.  Nobody leaves them either.  They also expect you to notice and return “missed calls”.

Fairfield Theatre – ideal setting but too far for the children to get to everyday, especially the younger ones.  Perfect for weekend and occasional programs as well as for a field trip though.

Granville All-Age School.  We were really reluctant about this option for obvious reasons:  if the whole point of doing the summer program is to create new learning spaces in the community, then going to the school reinforces what people already think: only schools should be doing education.   That’s exactly the message that GRAP doesn’t want to send.

But, that’s where the program ended up, after messy and muddled negotiations – calls that were never made, letters never delivered, keys not available, contracts not prepared – that caused the program to be delayed by two days.

To be honest, the condition of the space was in a word, horrible.  In some ways, it was worse than the community center.  We were assigned to what felt like a storage shed  that was dirty, filled with old and decrepit furniture, had a leaking roof and was infested with wasps.

This was the auditorium, the principal said.  The teachers don’t want their classrooms to be used, the principal said.

We did transform the shed into a learning space, but couldn’t keep the water out.  No amount of cleaning, mopping and dressing up the space could hide the cracked floors, termite-eaten desks, broken windows, water stains on the walls.  Then there were the broken toilets and pipes. The staff tried to ignore all of it.  I think they did a valiant job.  Parents noticed the squalid conditions too.  And they commented.  What they saw told them a lot.  The place that is made available to the program says something about the value being placed on the program by others. I agree.

And so, parents, donors, passersby decided that the school was having a summer program.  Not so.  But spending energy to counter that impression wasn’t a priority.  Who knows what could come of that unintended association?  So we let it slide.

I do hope there is an upside to the summer program being held at the school.  It certainly brought a new kind of visibility to the conditions under which the community’s children are being educated.  So maybe one of those groups will return to fix up the place and make it habitable for children?  Not just prettifying by painting and cleaning up the yard.  Replacing the roof, windows and doors, making the place seem like something for human beings, makes more sense.   It also raised the question of why the school has not been providing a summer learning experience for children, and whether it wants to consider doing so.  The entire community benefits in a way that only produces good feelings all around.

We will see how these issues unfold in the months to come.

In the meantime, we are thinking that we are at the end of the road, where spaces in the community are concerned.  The idea that we have to beg people to open up spaces to educate children is a little surreal, but that’s what it has been.   it’s now time to build a learning centre!

All we need to begin:  two shipping containers and a piece of land.   The money will come.


Year 3 of Summer Arts Workshop

July 8, 2013


It’s amazing what a picture can do, what hope it can inspire, and what questions it can provoke.

Let me tell you what you are seeing:

** This is the first day of the third year of Summer Arts Workshop, a summer program held in Granville, St. James.
** We are at the Granville Community Centre (later renamed Granville Restorative Justice Centre), located on the border of Granville and Pitfour.
** There are 70-odd children in this room; they signed up when we only had capacity for 45-50 people; Jakki Strong-Rhoden, the coordinator, could not turn them away.
** There are six interns from the National Youth Service’s Summer Programme; two instructors who are students at Sam Sharpe Teachers College; a handful of volunteers
** We are doing introductions, just before we launch into the song “If I had a hammer”

July 21, 2013

What you cannot see:
* The excitement in the faces of the interns as we met at the Youth Information Centre on Humber Avenue, and the range of emotions that they experienced: awe, bemusement, confusion, annoyance, joy, contemplation as they worked with the participants over six weeks and saw the challenges that the program itself faced to merely exist.
* The patience of the instructors mapping out lesson plans, learning new techniques, talking and sitting with participants to keep them from fighting, cheering on the staff when spirits were low
* The sweat washing the body of the father of one of the interns as he pushed his wheelchair-bound son up the rocky path to get to the center, everyday, on time, in the hot sun.
* The frustration as Jakki and/or I repeatedly try to convey to the center’s staff our need to be able to inhabit the space in a way that fosters a sense of safety for the children and respect for the process of learning. “No” to yelling at, insulting and mistreating the children; “Yes” to modeling for the children how we want them to behave and relate to each other;  “Yes” to being able to use the bathroom inside; “No” to chasing the children out of the center facilities
* The worrying about finding enough money to feed the children each day
* The generosity in the gifts from parents, community members, visiting writers and storytellers who came to affirm the importance of the program
* The righteous anger at the disrespect meted out to the program each day by the center’s staff who treated the participants and staff as if they were trespassing on private property
* The disappointment as a child lapses into a violent tirade that we had worked so hard to prevent
* The exhaustion on the part of the Ministry of Youth administrator who packed all the interns into her car and brought them to the center every morning and picked them up every evening.
*The stoicism and wry looks as program staff navigated around the obstacles while providing a rich learning experience for the participants
* The curiosity, gratitude and appreciation on the faces of the parents who came to see their children’s work
*The love, the love, the love that moved every person to come every day, despite many reasons why they could have stayed home: a less than desirable location, transportation issues, children with lots of emotional needs and not enough time to address them, difficult work environment.

August 16, 2013
55 children completed the program; that is, they attended at least 75 percent of the time.
The staff is exhausted.
The children don’t want the program to end.
The parents wanted to know if this happens every year, and why it can’t happen throughout the year.

SAW 2013 happened because we cared enough to make it happen.

Let’s see where our energies take us in the next year.

Why Granville?

This question is always posed when I tell folks about the literacy/arts education project I’m currently working on in Jamaica.

Why not, is my usual response.

But the questions don’t usually end there: well, why didn’t you do it in Kingston?

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Why does everything have to be in Kingston, is what I want to know.

Is there some rule that I don’t know about that says Kingston should be the center of attention?

To say that resources are unfairly and unequally distributed across the country is an understatement.   And the more I get this question, as if St. James is in another country – and in some ways, it is –  the more convinced I am that I made the right decision to begin somewhere else besides Kingston.

In reality, the more that I talked to people in my home district of Granville, St. James, the more apparent it became that I had the perfect location to begin with, with lower startup costs.  For starters, I know Montego Bay and the district sufficiently to find my way around.   My love of reading had also begun and been nurtured there.   Certainly, it has been through regular visits that I first became cognizant of how, under the guise of ‘development’, institutions and resources were being redistributed within the country and western region in a way that imposed more suffering on working class people.

For me, the most palpable reminder of the deepening crisis and the neglect of communities was the closure of the Granville Branch Library in the 1980s.   I had a personal relationship with that place.  Frankly, I still do not understand how someone could allow a library to be closed.  How could one possibly justify this?  Well, I did ask.   The explanation that I got from someone in Kingston – the folks who I spoke to in the St. James Parish Library didn’t even know there had ever been a library in Granville! – was that the building was being sold, and they didn’t have anywhere else to ‘put’ the library.   The woman told me this in the same tone of voice that she might have used to tell me the cost of a photocopy.   I got the sense that this decision wasn’t a really big deal at all, then or now.

The space occupied by the library was taken up by a supermarket; this was supermarket No. 2 on that same small plaza that was occupied by the post office, a snack shop, a variety store that sold clothing, toiletries, etc. and a small grocery store.   The new one called itself a ‘wholesale’ supermarket and was owned by one of the Fisher’s.  They have since sold it to a Chinese family (indeed, all the locally owned supermarkets have since been sold to Chinese families).

How to begin?

After a trip to Granville in December 2010 to float the idea of doing some kind of reading programme at the Granville All-Age School, I participated in some rather intense conversations in a FB group called “Professional Jamaicans for Jamaica” (I’ve since been kicked out of the group for ideological differences with the organiser; no surprise there).  While mulling over the various positions that other participants were talking, it seemed to me that the Jamaican government’s lopsided approach to addressing illiteracy was part of the problem.  That recognition pushed me to commit to doing something more long-term and focused on an issue that I care very deeply about.

To me, it seemed as if the best way to respond to the problem of illiteracy was to go to the root of the problem.   And the problem didn’t begin in schools, although that’s where the majority of effort – money, time, resources, debate – was being spent.   Illiteracy, unlike many other social problems, can actually be addressed using relatively simple, low-tech means.  It just doesn’t make sense to me that a single entity – the Ministry of Education – with its heavy reliance on autocratic styles of leadership and hostile relationship to teachers, parents and children alike – should be allowed to declare the issue as its territory.  Furthermore, none of the policies enacted thus far suggest that the MoE has any clue about how to solve the problem!

Illiteracy, unlike many other social problems, can actually be addressed using relatively simple, low-tech means: a child, a book, consistent individualized attention by an adult.

Where is home & community in the mix?

All the research on literacy, intellectual and cognitive development among children points to the same causal factor: illiteracy begins at home and in community.

One could say that illiteracy is the parents’ fault, but the mechanisms are not so straightforward.   One main problem that I see is the restrictive social structure parents have to navigate, and which determine who has authority over whom, and who gets to decide one’s value.  In this setup, parents are presumed to have nothing else to teach their children but moral values, including the age-old “education is the key to success.”   What parents are being blamed for is not providing the ‘right’ orientation to education that would make children easier to teach, and where children would immediately ‘want to learn’.   As such, there is far less attention and resources given to the role that parents need to play, and which is closer to what the teachers imagine is purely in their purview: that of introducing the child to the written word from birth.   It’s not rocket science: find a way to engage the parents, and you can accomplish a lot more.

It’s been all about the schools, but shouldn’t be…

Instead, well-funded and well-intended projects and initiatives focus in on the schools because that’s where the children are.   But they are also giving more resources and responsibility to teachers who already have shown they don’t have the skills to do literacy work in the first place!  Teachers don’t just need more resources; they also need to be retrained, and that can’t happen in a 3- hour session.   As we like to say, wha’ gawn bad a mawnin’ kyaa cum gud a even’n.

So, the blame game about illiteracy continues, becomes quite intense at and hovers around the Grade 3 and 4 children like a cloud of toxic smoke.  Their parents are accused of never having supervised homework adequately, or at all, and foregoing the purchase of textbooks in favour of the latest hairstyle or fashion accessory.   Apparently, just having the textbooks means that one can actually read what’s in it.  There’s usually a throwaway observation that the parents are probably illiterate too, but not much in the way of policy recommendations for how to fix this.  One would think JFLL would have developed some kind of intervention around parents by now.  That hasn’t happened either.

Even the ones who ought to be able to claim expertise on children’s reading skills  – teachers – haven’t spent any time articulating what parents need to do at home well before the children reach Grade 3!    Count them – there are far more newspaper articles that go on about the stressors that teachers face – chaotic and overcrowded classrooms, few resources, low pay and esteem, lack of professional development – and the depressed conditions that children live in – insufficient love, care and support by parents, including absent fathers (this is a favorite!) are the top ones.   Not once do they point to the most basic issue of all:   The children have not grown up with books!   They encounter the books when they go to school, interact with them as required tools of education and testing.  Once they leave the classroom, the books are no longer relevant, and are certainly not ones they would voluntarily pick up to read.   The problem is and remains the lack of unmediated access to books.

So, with all the chatter and blaming of parents for not paying enough attention to the children’s homework, or having the right values that would make their children easier to handle in the classroom, a key piece of information was still being overlooked.   Where are children going to get the material to read?  They still don’t have access to quality reading material.

Where’s the Jamaica Library Service in the race to literacy, you ask?  Certainly, not where it ought to be, which is taking leadership on the issue.  What other institution ought to know best about getting books into the hands of children? And yet, that’s not what obtains.   Indeed, the majority of the buzz about libraries is coming from folks who are stepping into the gap and creating independent libraries and reading rooms!

Over the last year, whenever I visited Granville, I performed my Labour of Love routine there too, walking the streets, handing out puzzles and reading material to adults, who devoured them.  I also gave books to and read with children, as well as explained to adults that they need to read with their kids for 20 minutes a day.   Mostly, I got a lot of “yes ma’ams” to shut me up; I don’t think they realised that I would be coming back.   Walking the streets  made me pay much closer attention to what was going on.

The reading gap is very evident in Granville.   We already know there’s no library.  At the school level, the children’s test scores on reading and comprehension are abysmal.   Once they leave the school compound, there is practically nothing to read in the community.   Even the number of newspaper vendors have been drastically reduced, compared to when I lived there as a child and adolescent.

I rarely, if ever, saw someone reading as much as a flyer.  Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who, ironically, are the only source of free reading material in low-income communities where I’ve been, were sitting in the shade of an abandoned shop, far enough away from any foot traffic that would have allowed someone to quickly grab a magazine or two.

There weren’t even the usual plethora of painted or printed advertisements for upcoming dances (I notice that vehicles are being used as billboards now).   The place was a desert, when it came to the printed word.

Nobody I talked to could remember the last time the book mobile from the St. James Parish Library came by.  It turns out that it doesn’t come to Granville.  The librarian I talked to told me she didn’t know but then acted like she did:  “the library that used to be there was closed which shows it wasn’t being used it doesn’t make sense for the mobile unit to go there/the book mobile only goes to rural areas/Granville is in ‘town’ so it’s close (but Tucker is not?)”   Look here.

She did tell me that I could write a letter requesting that the mobile unit go to Granville; I think I will do just that.

To me, if children aren’t reading in school, it’s because they aren’t reading at home either.  And if they aren’t reading at home, that’s because adults around them aren’t reading at home, and they don’t have ready access to books.  No library in the community sure doesn’t help that situation.

The solution seemed simple:  turn communities into literacy centers.

Create a reading room and a community-based program that is open and available to children who live in the district.

Give books to babies and young children in the clinics.  Create free summer programs so the children can attend.

Create newsletters, public art projects, book kiosks, etc. that are freely accessible and always available.

Basically, make it impossible for children to go through reading withdrawal once they leave the school grounds, wherever it is they go to school.

Make it difficult for adults to spend most of their time sitting down and staring into space with nothing to do.   If you notice, there’s a lot of this “doing nothing” activity in Granville, as in other places in Jamaica.  In fact, the overwhelming feeling in the towns is of adults – mostly men it seems – sitting around and waiting for something to happen to them.   I figure something worse than reading could happen, so why not offer them the choice to read?

None of these ideas are new.  I certainly didn’t come up with them; they exist in some material form everywhere that people care about literacy.

But, demonstrating an intentional approach to creating alternative institutions that supplement the [failing] school-based approach?  Way bigger and harder and more challenging to pull off.   Of course.  Why wouldn’t it be? The love is in the labour.

And so, I went at it.  Hours and hours and hours of research and writing as I tried to craft an outline of this programme that captured my vision and philosophy of education, taking account of how parents and families can be integrated into and transformed by this community-based process.  A whole lot of work.  I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard on anything else – not even my dissertation – as I have on bringing this idea to fruition, in its most basic state.   Along the way of course, it hit me.   I think this is IT!  This project contains and offers possibilities of engendering the kind of social transformation that I only dared to dream about in graduate seminars on social theory and social change.   Haven’t I been saying and teaching university students that interdisciplinarity is at the heart of every movement for liberation?  All the research and anecdotal evidence points towards arts education as a critical and necessary tool for addressing the deficits in literacy and critical thinking that mar public education.

So, why not try this in Jamaica? What does anybody, including me, have to lose?  And what is this opportunity except the perfect moment to meld everything I’ve ever learned and experienced about education as a praxis of freedom?

And that is how the Granville Reading & Art Programme came to be.

Lesson Plans from History

I have been a student of social movements for as long as I can remember.  It was not because I set out to do so.  It was that world events took place, and they quickly filtered into the everyday verandah talk and exchanges that emerged around me.  “Unnu nuh ‘ear seh…?” was a signal to stop and listen, even if it meant sitting by the doorway and out of sight while ‘big people’ argued with each other.

"The Verandah"

Then, as now, the Middle East was a hot topic: Israel; Palestine which was not allowed to call itself that; Lebanon; Algeria; Libya; Iran and Iraq.  But Pakistan, Nicaragua, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, FRELIMO of Mozambique and Angola were also part of the mix.

Names like Somoza, Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, Julius Nyeriere, Anwar Sadat, Golda Meir, the Shah of Iran, Patrice Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Pierre Trudeau, Mengistu of Ethiopia, Maurice Bishop, Ali Bhutto, Muammar Khadaffi, Margaret Thatcher, Peter Botha, and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, Jonas Savimbi seemed to ring often, and with much feeling, as if someone had met or seen them recently, and was reporting on the quality of that encounter.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my best friend through infant, primary and high school was named after a Palestinian freedom fighter.  I still cannot think of any other reason why I shouldn’t consider her a soul-mate.  When my grandmother directed a stranger to hoist me onto his shoulders so I could see – and hopefully touch – Fidel Castro as he was passing through the crowd gathered at St. James Parade (now Sam Sharpe Square), it was clear to her that this experience was part of my education.  School hadn’t ended yet; that I was still in my school uniform seemed to cement that notion.

Grandma Mida in her spot. Besides me, nobody else was allowed to sit in that chair. And you had to be really special to be able to perch on the ledge.

I didn’t grow up around educated people; most barely finished grade school and certainly didn’t have a chance to attend high school.  I was part of the generation of promise, where all these opportunities were being opened to me, and they insisted that I be ready to take them on.

Everything that family members, friends and neighbors knew came from what they had read in the newspapers, in books they acquired, and heard on the radio stations they picked up on AM and FM bands, as well as in conversations with white tourists.  Gossip flowed, and with it, everything that was worth knowing at the time. I never believed that I didn’t have access to information.  It was always a matter of asking. Memories were there to tap into, even in the form of newspaper clippings pasted to the walls of their homes.

The old LS & A Building on State Street; UM - Ann Arbor

Those memories – along with lots of unanswered questions – certainly stayed with me when I was doing graduate studies.  When I read dense scholarly articles about the very social movements that occurred during my childhood, it was a very personal experience. That early political literacy which was shaped by mass media as well as constant exposure to the ideas that were circulating at the time, made it possible to connect to these disparate histories of places I had never visited.   It certainly helped me to connect to fellow students who were coming from a variety of backgrounds, and who sought to study topics that made complete sense to me:


Women soldiers in the Nicaraguan civil war;

Religion, Popular Education and Democracy in Haiti;

Palestinian Women’s organizations before and after the Intifada;

The role of Songs & Storytelling of Algerian and Greek women in the resistance movements;

Antillean Women in the Negritude Movement;

Caribbean women’s involvement in labor and socialist movements.

Long-lasting friendships emerged because we were connected across differences by a history much bigger than us, and we saw the parallels and intersections clearly.  But most importantly, we came to see that our childhoods and adolescent years were closely intertwined; each of us is a chapter in another person’s biography.  We were also committed to the same ideals: justice and the freedom to help shape the world in the way they imagine. Together, we can all testify about how the world came to as it is, at this moment.  And we believe that we can still change it.

For this reason, Egypt has had a special place in my heart.  But, as I watched the unfolding of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the People’s Revolution in Egypt, I thought about how these events would inform the political literacy of Jamaican youth.  How many were even aware of what was happening?  Did they realize that they were living in and witnessing another major turning point in world history? Did they understand that these heady moments – captured so eloquently in the tweets, status updates, music videos, pictures, blogs and livestream reporting via social media – are really the spectacular culmination of many other moments before?  Were they feeling the same sense of anticipation, hope, sadness, confusion and promise that I did when I was a child, and still do now as an adult?  Do they know that it is always young people, and especially students, who have pushed their societies to become better, more just, more democratic, more open? Who will explain these things to them?

Whether they knew it or not, Jamaican youth had an unprecedented opportunity to watch a revolution in the making.  No college course at UWI, UTech or NCU could replicate or even rival the experience of sitting in front of the television and computer between January 11 – February 11, 2011 and watching young people change the course of history – again. And yet, I suspect that many youth did miss this opportunity in expanding their knowledge about what leadership looks like, and getting a deeper understanding of how to claim their own place in history.  What did they have to compare this to, exactly? What conversations did these happenings provoke? there it was right in your face: the good, bad and ugly of a revolution.

The moments of transcendence, sheer terror and hope, all rolled into one.

The bloodshed, tears, shouting, laughter, songs.

Valiant bodies preventing looting, picking up trash, using non-violent tactics to move past the military blockades preventing them from join their fellow protesters.

The women facing down the stoic battle-ready military officers

with signs,

their bodies

speaking eloquently and passionately to reporters.

The heroically- borne corpses and wounded stemming bloodflow and still fighting back with words.  The massive numbers of bodies standing shoulder to should taking up public and political space.

There it was: the messiness and openness of democracy at work and on international display.

None of the millions of people around the world who were watching was left untouched by what those youth managed to do.  We basked in the energies that they have helped to unleash and direct towards a particular end.  This is what it means to be young. To be fearless.  As my dear friend Frances put it:

“We (and I mean all people in the world) really, really needed this. This is the opening of the new century that we wanted, but instead we got hell. We had to wait 11 years and go through a whole lot of fear, pain and loss. There will be more of that, but it’s wonderful to be reminded of the beautiful possibilities. To get our thinking caps back on, to lose the cynicism, to be hopeful, but not in the superficial Obama way, to connect across difference. I mean how cool is that!”

I couldn’t agree more.

There are so many lessons for Jamaican youth to learn from Egypt and Tunisia.  One is this: you are not experiencing anything new, and that nobody else has dealt with at some point in time.  This is a profoundly humbling but empowering view to take.  Too many Jamaican youth don’t even have a sense of their place in history.  The Egyptian and Tunisian youth believed that they ought to the only ones to define that place.  And, if they used their existing knowledge to step out of the silo that their societies had become, they could see more clearly, get more perspective, and see that there was something to learn from their own, as well as others’ history.   After all, revolutions are not that infrequent.  They happen in quiet ways and they happen in noisy, dramatic ways. And nothing makes cutting a hole in that repressive silo more possible than access to the internet.

I hear people say that social media through popular applications such as Facebook, Skype, Google, and Twitter made this revolution happen.  To me, that claim is a profound insult to the thoughtful, informed, systematic, no-holds barred approach that the April 13th Movement in Egypt in particular, took to mobilizing their society.  It is also an insult to Egypt’s formidable history of protest.

For me, it was truly stupendous to behold: it was as if the small group of persons who were the core committee of organizers in the movement had carefully read and reviewed the entire history of social movement scholarship from the past fifty years.  I imagined that they must have used white boards, PowerPoint, network analysis, and pen and paper to create an exhaustive list of language, terms, strategies, tactics, failures, missteps, images, etc. used over time.  More likely though, is that they created a script based on what they had learned from their parents and their education about the long history of struggle for justice and democracy in Arab countries.  If anything, this group of self-proclaimed change agents turned social media into the tools of revolution.  Gil Scott-Heron was a product of his time. He certainly could not have anticipated that the revolution would be televised, tweeted, reported, forwarded, and used as backdrop to music videos.

One thing for sure, constantly being inundated with information made everybody into an Egyptian for a while.

Social media certainly helped to make the core aspect of mobilization – getting the word out – easier and faster to do.  The technologies also freed up people’s energy and time to do other things, and made it possible for Egyptian youth of all stripes – no matter where they were located, how much money or property their parents had, or how much education they had – to contribute something to the movement.  This tech-savvy generation used the tools available to them to create perhaps the best digital archive and most widely accessible documentation of a revolution, ever.  Taken together, all the bits of information that came through the computers and cellphones form an amazing textbook of how to create a movement.

They also had a critical ally: Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television station that has remained steadfast in its commitment to reporting everything that happens in the Middle East, despite being periodically lambasted by American anti-Arab groups as pro-Islam and anti-West.  Al-Jazeera continued its high standard and fearless mode of reporting by taking what the youth were doing seriously, even when the other media houses were faithfully carrying the government’s message.

Al Jazeera also produced the news segment below called “People Power: Seeds of Change.”   It’s a must-see:

But the youth had to have something to say, and they had to have an idea of who they needed to hear it, and how to get various people to hear them.   They wanted justice, opportunities for mobility and to express themselves, and they saw that the political process had a lot to do with the absence of such.  In other words, they offered a cogent analysis of what was wrong, why things were the way they were, and what could be done about it. They wanted to have a say in the future of their country and they were determined to do so.

They also made use of what they had a lot of: time.  You see, when millions of youth are unemployed – whether or not they are educated – that’s a lot of free time just waiting to be put to use.  Obviously, they did, and beyond what one could imagine.

That’s another key thing: they had imagination.  In a moment of anger and frustration, someone posed the question: what if…?  And then they went about answering their own question. They acted as if their question was worth considering, and that they knew what that answer ought to include.

They also had a vision.  That vision was simple:  translate the disaffection that their generation was experiencing into a movement for positive social change.  They articulated a shared vision, one that was echoed by many, many Egyptians of their generation and beyond.  They understood that it would take work to realize their vision. But their idea of who could participate was inclusive:  they moved beyond those with friends in high places to include young men and women who brought nothing more than their bodies and their willingness to do whatever it would take.

There is no obstacle that they didn’t try to get around.  This is what distinguishes and unites youth everywhere:  there is no rule, no social norm, no set of expectations that youth don’t try to skirt at some point in time.  Except, this time, it was for a collective good.

One of my favorite videos of the Egyptian protests is made by a young Muslim woman wearing a hijab.  It was made a week before the protests began, probably using her cellphone.  She clearly anticipated what detractor of her age would say about the January 25th ‘Day of Rage’ protests.  But she was ready for them.  She declared that, well, if you [young men] say that women shouldn’t be in public protests because they will be harassed and get hurt, well, you need to be a man and come and protect me, because I am going.  And if you don’t come and protect me, you are a coward and traitor to your country!

I laughed so hard when I heard this.  I don’t know if she realized it but she was certainly channeling women of her grandmother’s age who had also been quite vehement about why they refused to wear the hijab, as well as Palestinian and Algerian women who fight daily against the humiliations they suffered under Israeli occupation and dictatorship.  Her adolescent self was steeped in that history, and she was willing to take her place in this latest chapter.

The youth movement and leadership that emerged more than five years ago in Egypt also knew that it was not only them, this educated, jobless and technologically-savvy generation that was feeling the limitations and being walled into poverty, denied the right to speak their views, and being forcibly spoon-fed political propaganda from morning till night.  They saw and felt their parents running into the same walls, over and over again.  And they saw that their parents felt humiliated, powerless and embarrassed at not being able to prevent this from happening to their children.  They felt for them, and wanted to restore their dignity.  Empathy.

These youth had significant differences with their parents, and they fought about the things that all young people argue with their parents about – what kind of career to study for, who to have sex with, when was the right time to be married, how soon could a child move out of their parents’ homes, how often to go to religious services, and whether they wanted to share their parents’ religion.  But the youth came to see that their own inability to break through and become what they dreamed – independent, employed, autonomous from their parents, living a meaningful life – was limited by the same forces that had put their parents in a box.  And they understood that they had – by benefit of the repressive regime that they lived under – the gift of time to figure out what to do.  What did they have to lose?

They read the newspapers, they watched the television stations, they listened to the radio, they checked with each other to find out what others were thinking. Yes, they talked to each other – a lot. They met on the walks to and from class, church, mosque, social events, coffee shops, outside their apartment buildings, in the squares within the tenements and the public spaces. They created a dialogue among youth, and learned from each other.  They listened, they learned, they planned, they reassessed, and they planned some more.  They organized themselves and spread the word at every possible moment.

Whenever those youth who were already politically conscious and organized saw an opportunity to mobilize others, they took it. They have been doing that for years on college campuses, in high schools, in the streets.  Being vocal is a part of the political tradition in Egypt; were that not so, there would be nothing for the Mubarak regime to repress.   Marwan Bishara of Al Jazeera offers a really insightful look at the people who built the revolution up from the ground here.

They built on the work that came before them. They also developed an incisive analysis of power, and the ways that even the most ordinary person could feed into the cycle of repression. They had seen how power based on money, family, and political networks had been wielded against the Egyptian people for many years and they wanted it to end.  They openly questioned their detractors’ sense of honor and commitment to country.  They made it clear that those who did not stand with the protest movement – whether because they were unsure or confused – were, in fact, taking a side with the extension of the status quo, i.e. traitors.

The youth groups saw national celebrations – similar to our Labor Day, Emancipation Day, National Heroes’ Day – as opportunities to speak up, to gather more youth, and to make themselves heard by more people. They took charge of their message and they never stopped speaking.  The text message was the method of choice, but word of mouth, along with fliers cheaply produced in the thousands by hand – those same idle, unemployed hands – as well as photocopied and distributed everywhere.  A square of space on an empty wall, a garbage bin, a block of sidewalk, a utility pole, a door, a basket: if it could be seen, it was asked to bear a message.

The execution of the movement was simply breathtaking.  Indeed, it is fair to say that nothing that happened during the eighteen day period was unplanned or unanticipated.  They didn’t need an office in a government-owned building complete with a fax & photocopy machine, letterhead stationery, a desk, a landline with several extensions, and a name plaque on the door.  Instead, they created a mobile nerve center of the movement, one that could be taken apart, where branches of it could be moved easily and undetected, and where each person was responsible for keeping their branch alive.  The organizers understood that effective protest required creating an alternative community, and all the elements were in place for those who occupied Tahrir Square.

They foresaw and mobilized effectively to make sure that every need was addressed: hospital and first-aid stations, food and water, communication hubs, childcare, garbage, sleeping facilities, public relations, sanitation, musicians, poets, someone tallying the dead.

This revolution was filled with much dancing, singing and laughter.

Hopefully, young Jamaicans got a glimpse into how Egyptian youth used whatever was available to them – including hip-hop and reggae – to create a vibrant protest culture.

Protesters choreographed dance moves and created bawdy, unsentimental and highly critical tunes, all of it politically potent and directly aimed at validating the people’s voices and destabilizing the regime.

To see the young people’s strategy to counter the tactics used to put down protests made me both smile and cry in awe.

There they were, in one moment, forming a wall with their bodies so as to non-violently and yet physically hold the line against the military trying to close them in. Both protesters and military fallen on their knees in prayer in the next moment, and then, the protesters immediately thereafter getting up and taking advantage of the situation by stepping over and around the military officers still shifting from prayer to battle mode.  They stayed true to their commitment to non-violent protest.

Teargas? Vinegar-soaked tissue & masks, and back onto the streets. Water hoses? Heads down, wall of bodies, no retreat.  Rubber bullets? Drop and roll, dodge and stand. Machetes and stones? Shields of corrugated zinc. One leader’s house is burned? They moved to another place.  Cut off internet? We’ll ask someone to donate a television, take up a collection and make a satellite.  Military and police vehicles parked for the evening?  Sleep around them so these vehicles can’t be moved the next day.

Leader refuses to step down? People refuse to go home.  As one organizer on his way back to Tahrir put it: “I have 3 PhD’s in stubbornness, and 2 PhD’s in “stay in Tahrir until [Mubarak] leaves.” Somehow, I have a feeling that he was a really willful child who always gave his parents a headache.  Seeing him put that personality trait to use in this way must have made them proud.

When American media was busy proclaiming the Egyptian protests as a “leaderless revolution”, and then sought to remedy the situation by naming someone who would be instantly recognizable to us in the West as ‘important’, the youth leaders shrugged and kept going.  They had anticipated this:  they knew that reporters would try to creating a leader for their viewers to identify with as well as to blame for whatever problems that emerged.  But they also understood the weight of the work they had taken on: that authentic leadership required that each person put the movement first and made it as successful as possible.  They knew, and wanted to the reporters to have no choice but to agree: the people in the streets day and night spoke more profoundly about the demands and desires of this movement than any single person could try to do.  Leadership for them was about honor, keeping their people safe and unharmed, while also negotiating for the outcomes that the people wanted.  It was not about seeking out and hogging the spotlight. The spotlight belonged on the people in Tahrir Square, Alexandria, the ports, etc. The dreams and aspirations of these young people were the same as the protesters, and that was evident to anyone who wanted to look.  Leaders of this movement emerged and acted as conduits for collective outrage and demands; they were not created or anointed by anyone.  The very existence of this protest illustrated the damage that this strategy had done to Egyptian society.

The youth leaders took their people’s concerns seriously, and crafted a campaign based on real knowledge of and respect for their country, history and the people.  They were able to distinguish between what they government wanted and what the people wanted.  And they had to understand how the existing government worked, and what was not conducive to a fair, just and democratic society.

The revolution is not over. Hosni Mubarak has been deposed but there’s much left to do.  The youth leaders clearly understand that and they are ready, probably more ready than the rest of the world is.   What we have witnessed was like a dance – a well-orchestrated, high–stakes, and dangerous one, where young people were determined to change the tune forever.  Scratching the record or the DVD was one way to do that, until they could put on the song of the people’s choice.  Their work so far shows that they have a good sense of what that is.  They brought along many people with them to witness, support and do what they could not do by themselves: properly represent Egyptian people’s heartfelt desires for collective self-determination.

Already, young people around the world are watching, listening and hoping.  They are asking the same questions my generation and the one before did: What is my responsibility as a citizen? How can we take control of our destiny? How can we leave our mark on history? Is a new world possible?  Over and over, young people are answering those questions on their terms.  Egyptian youth did it in their way, for the whole world to see.

And yet, the frustrations being expressed by Jamaican youth in the wake of these events are tempered with enormous self-doubt as well as a tendency to retreat to justification of the very status quo that disempowers them.  Always, there is the sense that someone else will eventually step in and rescue them.  Sadly, history shows that no such thing will happen, nor will the answers to their questions be found in their textbooks, on television shows or in the music videos they watch on their Blackberry cellphones.

Instead, those answers will come when they take it up on themselves to begin reflecting on what role they wish to play in their country’s history, and how do they want to engage in a serious and committed fashion about their visions and desires for the society.  Only then will they be able to define a place from which they can contribute to the collective good.

There’s no shortcut through this process: they have to be willing to be students again, and to embark on a different kind of education, where they can fashion a response to the only question that really matters: what have I done to help make the society and the world in more just place for my and future generations?  What they decide is entirely up to them.

NOTE: All the images documenting the Egyptian Revolution are linked back to the sites where I found them. No credit was given to the photographer in those places, so if you find out who took them, let me know.

Where Is The Love?

unabridged version

Whether we realize it or not, making illiteracy a thing of the past will require far more than big speeches and grand declarations about the importance of knowing how to read.  It will take work.  The question is: are we ready to do what is necessary?

In August of this year, I created a project called “Labour of Love” in Kingston and Montego Bay.  Part street performance and part activism, I wanted to see what would happen if love – not charity, shame, punishment, guilt, obligation – was the driving force for engaging in intentional, and hopefully, transformative social action in Jamaica’s public spaces.  In ten days, I did a variety of activities: made sidewalk art, crafted wills, distributed reading material, gave away vegetable seeds, and did bra fittings.  And for half of that time, I worked with school-aged children on the sidewalks of downtown Kingston.  Armed with rubberstamps, crayons, pencils, markers, word and math games, and a plethora of worksheets, I tried to tailor each child’s activities to their abilities and interests.  Age was not a useful predictor of any ability, as I discovered.  A ‘class’ of 5 children quickly grew to a ‘school’ of over 20 children by the end of the week.

“School” as the children called our meetings, lasted from late morning or early afternoon until just before nightfall.  The sessions were unstructured, driven primarily by what the children wanted to explore.  Beginning with a reading activity – using children’s classics like Are You My Mother? By P.D. Eastman or the enormously popular I Spy Book of Picture Riddles – we would discuss the children’s responses to the material, and then moved on to another activity informed by the discussion.  Reading about a baby bird who went in search of its mother led me to ask the children to select three characters from the rubberstamps, and to create their own stories based on the relationship between the characters.  They created an art gallery by putting their pictures on the wall, and took turns telling their stories to each other.  Children passing by listened in and even chose to participate as well. Not even the background noise of police converging on the area to remove vendors was enough to distract them.  We typically ended with Word Bingo, where everyone had the chance to win pencils, sharpeners, and erasers.  Punctuated by the children’s declarations of who was “sweating”, i.e. on the verge of winning that round, the games went on until I was exhausted; they never seemed to get enough of it. The older children took on more active roles, such as volunteering to call the words, keeping track of the game, and gathering and distributing the supplies as needed.  I rewarded them with pencils for being helpers.

In those five days, these children were just like every other child in every other place.  When they found something that they enjoyed, they wanted more and more of it.  At the end of the day, the disappointment on their faces only evaporated when I answered “yes” to the question of “Yuh comin’ back tomorrow, miss? Seh yes!”

Our final session was held in Tastee Patties, one of several patty shops in the area which function as ad hoc daycare centers for the children of sidewalk vendors.  The patience and generosity of the store manager was outstanding.  He chose not to tell me that the store had closed until over an hour later; he said he really didn’t want to disturb us.  Just before I left, I prepared a packet of materials for one of the employees; she would never have let me out the door otherwise.

The response of the public was overwhelmingly positive.  One woman tapped me on the shoulder to get my full attention.  She said that she felt compelled to cross the road and come to speak with me after having stood and watched, in admiration, how focused the children were and how much fun they seemed to be having, in the middle of all this, as she gestured to the hubbub of commercial activities around us. Parents inquired about the cost of participating, how often the class met, whether I was a teacher, and if I was taking any new students. Sometimes they left their children with the group, or went to fetch the children so they could participate.  One parent was rather forthright: why, she asked, hadn’t I been doing this all summer or planned to continue, given how much the children were enjoying themselves? I invited her to pick up where I left off.

Many persons made the experience possible for the children.  The vendors were delighted at the children’s involvement in a learning activity, helped find seating, and actively encouraged them to “pay attention” or even to return to “class” when some wandered off.  One woman –a vendor and a parent – secured prime sidewalk space for us; others relieved their children of selling duties and sent them to participate; still others sent refreshments for me.  Passers-by offered words of support, welcome, and approval, and the police didn’t try to relocate us.  The children acted and felt like they were part of something special.

I also talked with many of the parents about their individual child’s needs. For me, it was important to affirm, and encourage their belief in their children’s abilities.  They already understood the importance of their support and attentiveness to the children’s development; getting people to listen and to help them access the appropriate resources was the challenge they faced.  As I packed up for the last time, one parent pulled me aside to tell me that she had decided to change her daughter’s diet, particularly to remove the sugary drinks, and encourage her to drink water and milk instead.  Television was now out of the question, she added, because that took time away from reading.  Neither of these issues had come up in earlier conversations.  I just smiled and nodded.  Sometimes I cried on my way home in the evenings, out of exhaustion and happiness.  Although brief, I got a glimpse of what happens when one makes an effort to remove the material and ideological obstacles to literacy and replace them with love, no strings attached.

It is this recent experience that frames how I hear the concerns being expressed about the growing problem of illiteracy in Jamaica, especially among youth.  It seems pertinent to ask: When was illiteracy not a social issue in Jamaica?  This is not something new.  If one believes that full – not partial – literacy of the population is the ultimate goal, then an 86 percent literacy rate was never good enough.  Forget that such a figure, first estimated in 2006, varies up and down depending on who is calculating it. The most recent figure being cited is 80 percent literacy, which means 20 percent of all adults in Jamaica are illiterate.  Also forget that the last actual survey of literacy in Jamaica was done in 1999.  What we have is a profound problem in perspective: which side of the literacy equation do we choose to look at?

Since the late 1980s, successive Jamaican governments, along with nongovernmental and charity organizations, have chosen to accept that illiteracy in any part of the population did not constitute an urgent issue to be resolved, as long as the number seemed high enough.  Apparently, they did not realize that a 14 (and now 20) percent illiteracy rate among adults (measured as 15 years and older) means that we have a whole lot more illiterate children.  And those most of children will grow up to become illiterate adults, unless there is systematic intervention to address this.  And that the same processes that created those illiterate children and adults are still hard at work.  Social problems don’t usually dry up and blow away; they typically multiply in intensity and complexity.  Ignoring them, and better yet, doing precious little to minimize them is not doing anybody a favor.

Still, as social problems go, illiteracy is a relatively simple one to fix.  But the solutions proposed thus far, when they are not aiming to shame and punish parents, are directed towards bureaucratic functions such as ‘systems failure’, ‘quality control’, ‘institutional management’ and so on.  To talk about literacy as an ‘output’ of schools may make perfect sense to those who accepted the 14 percent illiteracy rate as negligible in the first place, and divorced from the lives of real men and women.  That perspective seems a bit unreal to persons who see literacy as being about cultivating the love of books and of reading.  So where is the love – of self, of fellow Jamaicans, of reading – in this debate?  I certainly haven’t seen or heard much lately.

The scarcity of love is evident in the deep-seated anti-literate sensibility in contemporary Jamaican society. This was not always so, of course.  But at the moment, we need to confront how we consistently work against the very “outputs” we say are most desirable, and be willing to change.

The children I worked with were incredibly enthusiastic about the books they read and took home with them.  And yet most of them were unable to read unassisted regardless of their age, precisely because they have very little contact with books.  How does that happen?  I probably first witnessed the effects of this sensibility when I was a teenager in Granville, St. James.  The library branch located in my community was closed rather suddenly in the early-1980s.  What was an oasis for many was immediately replaced by a grocery store.  Years later, I learned that the Jamaica Public Library was asked to vacate the property; why they didn’t build or find another facility has never been answered.  Ironically, the closing occurred just as the community’s population started to swell, eventually doubling in size from when I lived there.

To date, no equivalent public facilities have replaced the library; the only public space is the street.  The working population lives amidst high unemployment, gun-related violence, poverty and all kinds of hustling characterize the life of people of all age groups there.  Not a book in sight.  At least two generations have now grown up there not knowing that there was ever a library nearby, some never even having visited the one in downtown Montego Bay.  I’m sure other communities have suffered the same fate. Several of the vendor-parents from the Jones Town area noted that the mobile library unit had not shown up for months now.  And that seems to be just fine with our politicians, policymakers, and business leaders. You can’t miss what you really never had – is that the logic?  Love made scarce over and over again.

That anti-literate sensibility shows up in our libraries, which feel more like mausoleums complete with silent attendants – perceptibly bored librarians sending text messages, reading the newspaper and their Bibles, and who seem discomfited by a genuine question about the holdings.  It is in the dress code set by the libraries, which requires that a potential patron – especially if one is a girl or woman –don the appropriate outfit prior to entering the building.  A spontaneous trip to the library could quickly become very complicated. Apparently, access to reading material must be planned and carefully monitored.  But even some plans do go awry; several vendors noted that the mobile library unit that covers Jones Town has not show up for several months!  Love has been shelved for a future date.

Our bookstores are also complicit.  For one thing, they often feel like extensions of the school. This is not hard to miss.  Once you enter them, you can’t help but associate reading with school on account that one is far more likely to find textbooks and materials oriented towards classroom learning than any other kind of reading material. Forget that school is often a rather unpleasant place for many children, and where reading has nothing to do with pleasure.

Thanks to bookstores and schools, reading material exists in two discreet categories in the public consciousness: “textbooks” and “reading books”, respectively. I gave away many books, and the same question came at me repeatedly, from parent, children and onlookers alike: “Is that a reading book?”  “No,” I said, “it is simply a book for you to enjoy, discover something new.  All books are for reading.”  For some reason, saying this felt heretical. They had definitely gotten the message though: Books are tools for formal education, rather than an entrée to new worlds, experiences and ideas.  Access requires a booklist, an authority figure, directions, and a test.  Enjoying what you read or even the act of reading is entirely secondary.

Ask a teacher when last they read a book for pleasure and shared that experience with their students.  Indeed, ask a teacher when last they read a book, period.  Chances are, reading in school is onerous, boring, full of corrections and anxiety, as students memorize words for the spelling test and barely get a chance to say what they think.  That students actively smuggle and exchange ‘contraband’ like Harlequin, Mills & Boons and True Lives romance novels in schools and under threat of detention tells you what they will endure for the sake of reading something interesting.  It takes love to transform these experiences into something affirming.

This instrumentalist approach to reading is reinforced at home as well: interacting with books is often treated as a secondary to far more important duties like agreeing with popular opinion, running errands, doing chores, or making room for other household members to watch the latest TV show.  Books are often treated as something private to be protected, preferably by minimizing use of them. “Putting it up” is how I hear working-class people talk about books at home; locked away out of the sight and reach of everyone, to be admired or referenced occasionally, but without a designated place in the everyday life of a household.  Books are a reward if she is not giving trouble, a way to keep him out of trouble.  But they must always be returned to their place, out of sight. Books take up precious space, it seems, and thus are kept under the bed, tucked away in a drawer in the wardrobe, locked behind the doors of the bottom compartment of the whatnot.

So, if reading only goes with school, what goes with work and the rest of one’s life?

Thankfully, at least one [non-religious] bookstore now exists that promotes reading rather than schooling. The typewriter man who sells used books of all kinds on Barry Street in downtown Kingston is also on to something.  We need more of each.

Some booksellers are quite daring in their anti-literate stance.  You can’t miss it: the sign conspicuously located in the periodicals and fiction section of the bookstores and pharmacies that says “Do Not Read” in bold black letters.

photo by Ingrid Riley

"Do Not Read" sign often seen in supermarkets, pharmacies and bookstores in Jamaica (photo by Ingrid Riley)

The meaning is clear: buy or leave.  I used to remove the signs; I no longer patronize places that have these signs. If I can’t read, I won’t buy.  The logic employed by these booksellers openly contradicts the personal and intellectual freedom that comes from reading.  They also reinforce the notion that only those who can afford to purchase the books, should be allowed to interact with them in a loving, even pleasurable way.  Reading is pleasure.  A significant majority of the Jamaican population lives by its wits and hands, and exchanges its labor for wages.  Those persons not only guard, but also clean and maintain the spaces where books are sold, and where readings, book launches and literary events take place. Surely they too would enjoy reading or listening to a good story on the way to, from, or even during, work without having to budget for it?

That there is only one national literacy organization certainly helps to fuel this resistance to literacy.  When Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL) became Jamaica Foundation for Lifelong Learning (JFLL) in 2006, the organization’s core identity – adult literacy – was subsumed under a rather nebulous textbook-sounding concept of “lifelong learning”.  I don’t know if the term “literacy” bore a stigma that prevented the organization from doing its work.  I do know that it can’t be helpful to refer to literacy education as something other than what it is, or to frame the costs of illiteracy purely in economic (and instrumental) terms.

The absence of dozens of NGO’s springing up to fill in the significant gaps not covered by JFLL is also indicative of our ambivalence about literacy.  Instead, community-based initiatives that promote literacy are mostly spearheaded by non-Jamaicans and Jamaicans abroad.  They come and go as they struggle to remain open.  Acquiring the ability to read, write and reason is not so easy after all.  One is not guaranteed to develop these abilities as a child in school, and it is even more effort to acquire them as an adult.  Neither love nor literacy is available just so, it seems.

Our political culture is a hotbed of anti-literacy.  For example, politicians gladly tell voters that the only book they read (and love!) is the Bible.  Not surprisingly, they are more likely to offer personal opinions buttressed by oft-memorized scripture quotes over citing actual scholarship, research and policy reports in any given debate.  There are still no organizations that do voter education or distribute basic information so that people can vote intelligently.  Forget getting a diversity of perspectives on any issue through the existing print media.  It’s not exactly fair to blame people for voting against their interests when nobody bothers to use basic tools – a flyer, a brochure, a periodical – to provide knowledge that can counter that ignorance.

At its most dangerous, anti-literacy tendencies are at the foundation for excluding or withholding materials – and thus knowledge – from public consumption.  Recent objections to the translation of Bible into Patwa included the argument that it would be both pointless and unacceptable to allow Jamaicans to be able to read the language that most people speak, since writing it down would further legitimize its status as a language.  Even the Ministry of Education takes on this censoring role, by monitoring what points of view and subject matter students are exposed to, and withdrawing information that is not perceived as worth knowing.  Our students have little chance of experiencing the love of reading through entering unfamiliar worlds or experiences not already endorsed by adults in positions of authority.

These anti-literacy tendencies make it rare – and thus surprising – to see people reading at all.  Waiting rooms/busloads/sidewalks full, and yet not a book, newspaper, pamphlet, or leaflet in sight.  Yes, the occasional reader does show up: women with novels and the Bible; men with [often dated] newspapers and betting sheets, but they are far outnumbered by the non-readers around them.  And not all of those non-readers want to remain that way.  When I handed out several hundred sheets containing word search puzzles to adults in and around downtown areas, people constantly wanted more than the three sheets per person I had initially budgeted.  “That’s all? I need a whole book of these!” said one man. “A person needs to keep their brain active,” another man said.  “I like this; I can learn some new words,” said another.  “This is a nice thing you are doing,” she said. “Come back again, yuh hear?”

All it takes to erase this anti-literate sensibility is persistence, imagination and a lot of love.   Leave the tunnel vision behind and just think for a moment.

What would it mean for our many athletes to champion reading and to become literacy spokespersons themselves?

For one-tenth of all the monies spent by telecommunications companies to promote the latest technological gimmicks to be directed towards a multi-year national literacy campaign that aims to put a book in the hands of every newborn child and for every subsequent birthday until that child graduates from high school?

For high school principals to be paired with their primary school counterpart to build tutoring relationships between the schools?

For the libraries to develop year-round reading programs and competitions, promote family literacy, and devise ways for children to interact with writers, artists and illustrators?

For students to be encouraged to make and write books of their own, as well as to publish, compete and distribute them among their peers?

For NGOs to emerge whose sole focus is on nurturing a reading public?

For art galleries to develop public programs along with their exhibitions, which encourage children to read, write and think bout art?

For churches to offer to host family learning centers in every community?

For private sector companies to sponsor reading programs that are staffed by employees who volunteer?

For every politician to regularly visit the classrooms in order to read to the children, and to give priority to creating libraries and reading rooms in their constituencies?

For each of us to spend one hour per week reading with one child or adult?

That’s not all we could do, but doing those things would mean that we decided to show some love – of our fellow citizens, of ourselves and of the written word. Finally.

Methodology of Love: Highlights

Day 0:  Picked up the 50′ bag of flour from Roots & Culture Contemporary Arts Center in Chicago.  Sarah Kavage gave it to me as part of her latest project. We were both excited to see what would happen when I tried to take it to Jamaica.  I was ready to try.

I could already see myself distributing it; I had plans to sprout some wheatgrass, create a poster and literature showing how wheat goes from grain in the U.S. to the granaries of the Jamaica Flour Mills, and how the price of hardough bread, patties and christmas cake were determined from far away, and what people could do about it.  Perfect.

I dashed to Target to purchase an 18 -allon bin – Kai’s favorite color, green, the least I could do since I dragged him with me – and packed up the supplies: pencils, pens, paper, workbooks, crayons, markers, pastels, chalk, rubberstamps, inkpads, erasers, tape measure, templates of wills, books, flashcards.  Fitted some clothes in;  lightest I have ever packed.  Wondered about weight issues; hoped for the best and an especially pleasant customer service person at the airline’s desk.

Day 1:  Arrive at O’Hare airport an hour before I was scheduled to board. Managed to fit the two suitcases and the bin on the cart; backpack and hand luggage (pushing the limits here…) and wheeled myself in.  Feeling very proficient at this travel thing.  Of course, I was sent to the wrong line where I wasted 15 precious minutes.  Wheeled myself and my unwieldy bags over the right line, and complained to the new service person about what happened, thinking this would definitely get me onto the plane.  Aurelia is her name.  Instead, she responded “Well, you do have the choice of other airlines…” (voice trails off).  I take this as my first test, and I have decided to pass it.  I said nothing, just smiled sweetly at her.

She tells me I will not be able to make my flight.  I smile again.  She proceeds to book me on another flight and extracted a charge from me (Note to self: file a complaint).

She encounters the bin and says in her most sympathetic voice, “unfortunately, we won’t be able to check that since Jamaica has an embargo on those kinds of containers.” I say, really? I was up at 3 am reading the fine print of American Airlines’ baggage rules, and it didn’t say any such thing. Apparently, I didn’t read the fine print of the fine print.

I have to rearrange the contents of the bags – one’s too heavy, the other has room for more stuff – check them, collected my passport and belongings, and then saw myself standing in the airport as others might have seen me: looking disheveled and sweating with a bulging well-traveled backpack and wheeling a bright green 18′ gallon bin containing flour that I was not allowed to take onto the plane as hand luggage.  I had 45 minutes to come up with a solution that did not require me to leave the airport. This was O’Hare, after all.

What’s the hurry you wonder? Well, I needed to get to Kingston by evening; I had promised Hubert Neal that I would be at the opening of his show “The Dudus Chronicles”, and I really wanted to be there.  The event was at 7 PM. I was scheduled to arrive in Kingston at 4:35 PM. There wasn’t room for more delays. And more delays meant more money. Nope.

I glanced towards the sliding doors, and before I could register the thought that had just flitted through my mind, I found myself wheeling the bin right back outside onto the sidewalk area.

I walked up to one taxi-driver who had just dispatched his passengers and told him my story: the flour was made by an artist and was intended to be given away. I tried to take it to Jamaica but I was not allowed to do so.  Would he like some flour?   About one dozen taxi-drivers later, I had dispensed most the flour into 1 and 2lb paper bags, gave the remainder along with the bin, the scoop and the bags to one of them, dusted my hands off, and went to join the line to go through security.  I can’t remember the last time I felt such genuine glee.  I smiled to myself, the security guy smiled back at me, almost in surprise.

Love is the method.  Love is the answer.

Labor of Love

Love as Labor.  Labor for Love.  Labor of Love.

I can’t always say where ideas come from, but when some of them take hold, it’s only a matter of time before I have to give in.   I suspect that I was provoked by bell hooks’ writings on love and politics which I encountered many years ago, and which still sits with me.  She talks about love as a methodology for engaging and interrupting our own complicity with the misuses of power, and for reclaiming our humanity so that we can build a better world.  Love as social action. Love as revolutionary even.   I can get with that.

But this project also came about because I have a streak of rebelliousness in me.  I claim it, yes.  The project really started to germinate in 2008 when I began to see – more clearly than ever – that some of the very conditions that many Jamaican people, no matter how well-meaning and liberal even, have wanted to wish away also present an opportunity for asserting a very different sense of what is possible.

Through all the patriotic speak of the past several months, I still hear that children living in poverty are not entitled to competent and patient teachers or the support of loving parents; they are simply unfortunate for not having such until they can be ‘rescued’ and made into something that we can recognize.

I still hear that people who earn their bread by working on the streets, which are the very spaces that the well-meaning ones scorn, somehow don’t deserve to have clean, beautiful environment that the office dwellers take for granted; in fact, they are part of the garbage strewn about, and need to be “cleaned up” and stored out of sight.  Where is the love, I ask?

I have not been able or willing to abandon my deep skepticism about nationalism and its cousin patriotism, both of which I find to be deceptive and remarkably dangerous: those who claim and cling dearly to these lifeboats in order to give themselves value are never required to examine their deep mistrust and prejudice about their own countrymen and women who they gladly Other and avert their eyes while the detritus of the ongoing social experiments called “freedom” and “democracy”are disappeared.

But at the same time, echoing in my head are the words of Colin, a dear friend: you have to love the place before you can change it.

Change takes work.  Work that is playful, serious, risk-taking, intentional, reflexive, contingent, thoughtful.   Change requires love.

What does that love look like? How does it feel? What does it take to make that love visible? Palpable? Viable? Ripe and ready to burst forth despite the hostile ground from which it springs? What does it take for love to be able to spread itself at the first gust of wind?

If I were to describe my love of this country, I would say this: it is constantly straining, rebellious, questioning, unsettled, looking for resolution, to negotiate better terms, a place of safety, stable ground, for home.  Steady but not stagnant.

I know that we don’t all love the same way.  But we can find ways to love so that we are able to embrace as much of ourselves and others as possible.

Love.  Work. Change.

I decided to begin with public space in Jamaica, and some of the images that have stayed with me for a long time, troubling me in a way that seemed beyond words:

* The vision of women walking miles in day within the commercial corridors hawking brassieres hanging all over their bodies, ready to make a sale.  The work of the body.

* The children sleeping on cardboard, roaming the sidewalks or using patty shops as daycare centers while their caregivers tried to earn today’s meal and bus fare, with one eye looking out for the police.  The streets as home, school, church, playground.

* The stark contrasts between the pristine sidewalks that emerge around the tony shopping malls, the grassy strips that emerge outside of the carefully constructed brick walls, and the ankle-twisting mishmosh of dirt, sewage and cracked concrete that pedestrians encounter everyday.  The ground that we walk on is neither level nor equal, a tool to get from here to there.  What is that journey like?

* The expanses of land interspersed among the broken and degraded buildings, marking borders between neighborhoods where some residents cry, or become angry and despondent from hunger, while others [declare that they will] commit unspeakable crimes to “eat a food”.   Feeding others is an act of love.  And yet, many are denied the ability to act in loving ways.

* The way that the work of life so consumes us so that we forget to plan for when we are no longer alive to have our say.  It is as if the screenplay for the production called “Dead Lef'” was already written and roles cast, each of us merely stepping into the part we would play until it was our time to die.  The play needs to be rewritten.

This labor of love that takes place over 12 days, is one part performance, one part activism, one part education.

The props:  art supplies, books, a 50′ bag of flour, seeds (sunflower, beets, zinnias), and templates of wills (as in “the last will and testament of…)

The sites: central business areas of Kingston and Montego Bay

Is jus’ me one an mi backpack inna di sun…

The love is in the work.  The work conveys the love.  And even for a moment, or a few days, somebody will be reminded that love hasn’t left them. Maybe they will take a piece of it and carry with them; maybe they will pass it on.

With Love,