Archive for the ‘critical resistance’ Category

What do we mean by “change”? And who is “we” anyway?

Below,  I reproduce snippets from a recent exchange on FB (April 13 – 15, 2011)

 Will Jamaicans Ever Embrace True Change?
Curtis Campbell 

We feel that the truest change comes about when we simple notice or become aware of change being possible. The awareness that we are change, and are changing and indeed have the ability to effect any kind of change we wish to make occur is the transformation of mind, soul and body we seek.

There are keys though we do well to not miss. Like said before we can only change one’s self and no one else. Others then take note of the shift in behavior and in turn can often become inspired to act on their own shifting. For we all aspire to the better around us – we naturally make the changes hoped for. So the question becomes one of getting the attention of enough people to have a systemic or wholesale shift and many more persons.

Enter the use of photo, video, TV, Tivo and You Tube. The more we help to show examples of the changes we prefer the greater what we seek will become common place to all around us. And like a wild fire it will catch on and expand to places we never before imagined these messages would reach. We’ve got to improve the picturesque reach of our intentions. By having them light the world with hope and desire for more greatness like the Barrack Obama Campaign in 2006-2008 “Change we can believe in”.

It will take time but we can do it for we are JamaiCans!

======================

ME:

Change is a process, and doesn’t require everyone to buy in or to accept the inevitability of such. That’s the cardinal mistake I see in a lot of these discussions i.e. the assumption that all Jamaicans need to get on board. They don’t; you just need enough people with a message that can be amplified and who are willing to do the work of swaying enough others to your side so the balance tips in your favour. Religious missionaries, obnoxious as they can be, have the methodology down pat. Those who want it must become missionaries for the change they want to see.

JC:  I think Nat that your observation rings true IF we are talking about the Change Agents…you really don’t need more than a certain critical mass. I think if you had 100 committed folks we”d be on our way..maybe even less.

But I think the actual change process needs a whole heap more than that. It needs the majority. Not all Jamaicans but it will need a majority or pretty close.

Me:

@ JC – that question can’t really be answered in numbers; it’s probably best answered in terms of resources, strategy (& counter-strategy) and opportunity. 

The question also doesn’t need to be treated a purely theoretical one, or answered only in a speculative sense. Jamaica has undergone significant change over the past two decades even and continues to. Is it the kind of change I would want? No. But it has happened and I, along with many others, have to respond to it, whether resisting its incursion into our lives, creating alternative ways of explaining it, or simply accepting whatever comes as inevitable. When one feels that some forms of change are simply too destructive and is intolerable beyond what one feels that one can live with, one option is to draw brakes and refuse to go on as usual; the other is to negotiate and try to redirect what’s already underway. 

So, ditto Curtis on the importance of cultivating change agents intentionally and deliberately. But first one has to decide who the “enemies” are.

Ironically, the best examples we have of how to engineer change come from folks who are hell bent on relegating entire subsets of Jamaicans to 2nd & 3rd class citizenship. They have been very successful in waging a “war of position” i.e. they have defined the “enemy”, built alternative theories and deployed them through their own channels, created base communities to support their ideas, appropriated power when they could, built various power blocs to deflect criticism and are slowly but surely are reconstructing the society in their image of it. Shirley Richards is the tippy tip of an iceberg that is doing significant damage to democratic process in Jamaica. Silence and absence of a counter-strategy is what makes it possible for her and her folks to win. 

[…]

JC […] I was never convinced that the best idea is to try to change the people in the parliament and find better ones. You might manage a few but the politics that we hate so much at home is all pervading and not limited to Ja.

What makes politics different anywhere is the engagement of citizens who watch over their affairs and effectively communicates through voice and action to the politician that failure to pay attention to their needs will not redound to their political benefit.

I much prefer the plan to educate and galvanize Jamaicans to seize their place in the governance process of their affairs. That is more sustainable and more reliable than looking to find honest people to replace the ones currently sucking us dry. Because in the absence of active citizenry we are back to square one.

[…]

VM: Do you mean citizens should vote ,participate more in pressuire groups etc ?What is being an active citizen in your opinion break it down please.

[…]

ME:

@ Jeneen – Being an active citizen means knowing that government cannot do its job **unless** you do yours as a citizen. That means you have an **obligation and responsibility** to complain, ask questions and insist on getting answers; find the people responsible, engage them directly and holding them accountable for what they do or fail to do; choose a strategy that will work to produce the results necessary on a given issue. Most of all, one needs to see oneself as a *member* of a collective or a group, be willing to work with that collective to make decisions about what to do, and be willing to speaking as such, whether it is as mothers, teachers, residents of xyz, poor people, family of prisoners, whatever i.e. “As a parent, I believe…”. When gov’t fails to act, the first place to look is not at which politician is in charge, but at the people who are directly affected by the lack of action. What they are doing (or not) will give you a clue about what allowed the politician to have made the decision that s/he did. Gov’t and citizens have distinct roles to play. If one falls down on the job, you can bet the whole system will be in disarray.

@ JC – when I gave away that free book last month, I had some amazing as well as depressing conversations with folks about this active citizenship thing. I think I’m going to expand it into a “street corner class”. That Jeneen asked this question makes me realize that it’s a conversation that needs to be had over and over and over again, in as many ways and using as many vehicles as possible. 

Advertisements

Ah wha’ Seaga mean by “the society”?

Today, Annie Paul updated her status as such: “The society continues blatantly to provide privileges for the rich and penalties for the poor. Mr. Seaga. SALISES 50/50 PM Reflections series.”

My response below:

‎”The society”?

The last time I checked “the society” that he is referring to was composed of people (old, young, women, men etc.) who live together in an unequal structure that assigns worth to each person based on attributes like say, whether they speak English or patwa, their skin color and family name, who they are married to, which part of jamaica they live, how much education they claim to have, who they are friends with, etc.

institutions (like a dysfunctional & corrupt gov’t; bureaucratized, mismanaged & unequal education system run by people who get their jobs for reasons other than expertise in education; ditto economy, and which is designed to funnel resources towards kingston and upward to business & corporations with particularly cosy relationships with gov’t, and situates poor people as simultaneously the detritus and their “last chance”; religion where women are still 2nd class citizens, and where poor people are systematically taught to look to death and heaven – not themselves as a group – as a solution to their problems, where blackness is a form of suffering and punishment, etc….)…

practices (maybe like nepotism, class politics/warfare, masculine & autocratic styles of leadership, ill-thought and idiosyncratic policies that create more problems than they appear to be solving; benign and salutary neglect of issues and environs that [primarily] affect poor people; class biases built into mainstream media that the elite consistently uses to represent itself as innocent bystanders and accidental beneficiaries rather than as part of the problem, etc. etc.)….

and norms (like the assumption that what any brown or elite person, especially men, have to say on a topic, is intrinsically of value, even if the topic is one they know nothing about; when any member of the elite speaks – whether at a party, in a newspaper column, at an event designed to feature their opinions and accomplishments, etc. – you ought to listen attentively, nod, smile and acquiesce; if you do otherwise, you can expect to be called ungrateful, red-yeye, ignorant and that most damning “out of order” and firmly put in your place; when poor people speak, it is a form of assault, must be treated as a form of crude entertainment and trenchant critique, even if they are speaking from a position of knowledge about their own lives; if one has any credentials, they must be spelled out letter by letter at every available opportunity to inform everyone how said person ought to be treated – no letters, you’re not smaddy, therefore, no phone calls returned, no access to a bathroom, no appointments possible, etc. )…

So, which part of what was he talking about? KMT

[…]

mi jus tiyad a it. I am truly sick and tiyad of people flingin jargon about and pretending that they are actually engaging in any serious discussion.  Even if what hes saying seems legitimate, it cannot stand once you stop ignoring HIS complicity and posturing as a politician, a member of the elite, and someone who has enormous amounts of informal/symbolic power.  Seh supm new, meaningful or move one side an mek smaddy else taak.


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.