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Summer Holidays Are For Reading!

Originally submitted to Western Mirror, June 2015

Come the end of June, thousands of Jamaican children will exit the school gates, return home, pack away their school paraphernalia and begin the much-anticipated Summer Holiday.   For the months of July and August, most will probably do a combination of the following: sit or lay around in boredom, watch lots of television, travel, visit relatives, play with friends, watch more television. Few will pick up and read a book during that entire time. And by book, I don’t mean schoolbooks i.e. the textbooks left over from the previous academic year that parents purchased to fulfill the requirements established by a particular school.  Many children will turn to these, either by force or to alleviate boredom during unending summer days.

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I mean books that children pick up to read for enjoyment. Books that they choose to read, not because there’s nothing else to read, but because they want to read that book. Books written to hook children into reading. Books that cause children to make elaborate plans to acquire, trade, hoard and share with their favorite persons. Books that are detached from tests and competitions. Books for which the only reward comes from having jumped into the book to experience the delight of wading around and feeling the story as it is told, and re-emerging thirsty, breathless, bragging, wanting more. Those books.
It is during the summer months where many children recover from the scholastic approach to books that they have endured over the academic year.   They get to re-discover the pleasures and creativity involved with reading. Free from the strictures of homework and study regimen, children are able to browse, skim, read and re-read books that make them think, wonder, put themselves in someone else’s position, and activate their sense of curiosity. The more ideas and perspectives they are exposed to, the more connections they can make to the world around them, and the better they are able to question and sort out what they think about the ideas they encounter. Allowing children to choose what they read during the Summer holidays, and to read as much as they can, is good family and community practice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA For children who are not fluent or confident readers, Summer is the ideal time for them to become immersed in the worlds that books offer to them without worrying about their literacy skills. Chances are, children who have difficulty reading the textbooks won’t want to read anything else. Reading is frustrating for them. And yet, it’s the other books – the non-school ones – that they are most likely to enjoy, and from which they will derive sufficient confidence and practice, without pressure or shame. No matter what they are reading, they will be practicing what they already know, learning new words and integrating ideas that they encounter. Most important is for adults to read aloud to children. Reading aloud is a critical way of providing support and encouragement that the children need; doing so also offers a stress-free experience for children to become more familiar with language and hear the words that they will eventually read on their own.   Adults can also become better readers by doing so.

Kiwanis Club of Providence Reads (1)

So then, why are there so few resources to support Jamaican children’s access to reading material during the summer months? One answer to that question can be found in the way that reading and books are perceived as expensive tools, a form of privilege, a means to an end, and deeply connected to school-based performance.

But the bigger problem lies in the fact that public policy does not treat access to education as a year-round issue. In truth, the laser-like focus on investment in schools and training institutions, while important to the broader education project, has come at a cost to children. That is, Jamaican policymakers continue to take a lopsided approach to education which makes it unlikely that most schoolchildren go home to communities where there are books waiting for them to dive into.  In the current approach, communities and families are sidelined rather than treated as equally important partners in the work of education. Jamaican children deserve better.

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The cost of ignoring community-level needs for education is most apparent during the summer months.  Recall that the work of education is primarily relegated to schools and teachers, and funded as such.   When schools are closed in the summer and teachers are on break, there are few options for childcare, reduced options for finding meals, let alone educational needs. Many parents, especially those who are employed, are at a loss for what to do with their children. Invariably, children are left unsupervised at home for long stretches of time, thus creating the conditions for a whole new set of problems to emerge. When families and communities are left on their own to figure out individually how and whether to provide learning opportunities for their children, social inequality wins. Those families that have the material means to enhance children’s learning are able to confer a “home advantage” that is reflected in children’s academic achievement later on. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that the paucity of state-supported afterschool programs and community-based initiatives in working-class communities can undermine the changes that are desired inside the schools! The current approach to education is neither just nor sustainable.

What would make a difference in children’s access to books and reading material during the summer months, as well as year-round? Greater public investment in the myriad other institutions that working-class and impoverished families interact with – healthcare, legal system, transit, housing, religion, community government – to make sure that they support and encourage children’s educational needs.
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Improving access to books is a low-stakes way of creating learning opportunities for children growing up in impoverished and working-class environments.


Another way to address the problem of access is to amp up the visibility of public libraries and deepen their engagement with communities.   Currently, publicly funded libraries are not as accessible as they need to be, even with the existence of a mobile library service. Social and economic inequality is carved into the landscape, and still makes a difference in which, how and whether children have the chance to enter the physical building or vehicle to take a book off the shelf. Too often, libraries in Jamaica are treated as extensions of schools, a place where the bright, studious children go to enhance their education and social skills.   The children who need the support and resources available through that institution are probably not going to enter that space on their own.  They need help to get there. Better outreach and support are needed for the young people who are struggling with reading.

Unfortunately, the public libraries in Jamaica can also be exclusionary rather than inviting spaces, limiting access to the very citizens who they might otherwise want to engage. One of the purposes of a public library is to entice and encourage children to step into the world of books, and to help them develop a long-term relationship with reading.  What children or adults wear to the library is irrelevant to how and whether they will engage with the book. Indeed, attaching books and reading to respectability is exactly what the library should not do, not if it wants to pull in as many parents and families as possible.  Everyone, including children, should feel like they belong and are welcome to the library, no matter what their situation.  Whether they eventually migrate to electronic books or stick with the physical paper version, or go back and forth, children need access to the worlds of ideas and knowledge in them right now.   Finding ways to expand access to the library will do a world of good for everyone.

Adults also need to read more.  Children learn from adults about how to value and relate to books.  The idea that reading a book is relevant only for school has become rooted over many generations.  Inevitably then, some pareGRAP 028nts are just as likely as children to want to avoid books over the Summer holidays. The logic goes like this: books equal studying; ummer is not for studying, Summer is for rest and fun. Ergo, Summer is not for books.  Except, that’s exactly the logic that also turns children off reading for pleasure and discourages healthy intellectual development.  When adults present reading as taxing on the brain, as a means to a specific end, and only relevant to those who are in school, they introduce and reinforce anxieties that stifle children’s interest in reading. I can’t imagine that such attitudes are helpful to children, whether in the short and long-term.  Certainly, many adults do need to evaluate how they talk about and relate to books, especially around children. But changing mindsets also requires a shift in public policy that encourages citizens to move beyond an instrumental approach to books and reading.  Such policy might encourage every public institution, including the public libraries, to find ways to promote reading and literacy among families.

Finding creative ways to strengthen the system of distribution of books to and for children will make a tremendous difference in the lives of Jamaican children, families and communities. Doing so will require taking a much broader approach to education than currently obtains. It means spreading out the work and grap 2014 wed 30th 025getting more people to become invested in educating and advocating for children’s needs. Whether that means teachers working with bookstores to encourage summer reading, or churches get retired teachers to organize reading programs for new parents, or sports clubs do fundraisers to create a bookshelf in every shop in their community, or service clubs do book drives to support the school libraries in the community, or teachers are hired by community centers to develop educational programs, there is no limit to what ordinary citizens can do to invest in the wellbeing of all children and families. Making books available to children in working-class and impoverished communities during the Summer holidays is one small way to signal that investment. It is simply the just thing to do.

All images courtesy of Granville Reading & Art Programme, 2012-2014.  Do not copy or post images elsewhere without permission.


All studies are equal….

All studies are equal…

…but some are more equal than others.  At least, this is what the Jamaican public is being asked to believe.  The recent decision of Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites to table the report of a preliminary study of inmates in Jamaica, as well as defend his actions raises critical questions about the way that information is used to inform social policy.

Whenever I read articles in Jamaican newspapers about this or that study and its egregious claims about controversial issues – education, women’s sexuality and crime are often the foci – I admit that usually choose not to respond.  I tell myself that the effort that it will take to do so just seems to give more credibility to whatever was said, even as I worry about the damage that such misinformation is likely to do to a society that is increasingly self-referential and where asking questions is treated as an invitation for a put-down rather than respectful engagement.

This time, however, not only did the newspapers scream “Non-traditional high schools breeding criminals, police say” (Jamaica Observer) and “Prison Schools – Gov’t Study Says Poor-Performing Institutions Produce Most Inmates” (Jamaica Gleaner).  Minister Thwaites chose to throw the full weight of his authority and office behind the claims made by the study by presenting it to the House of Parliament as if it were legitimate, reliable and credible knowledge.  This cannot be happening, I thought.  But it was.

The study in question was conducted by the Research, Planning and Legal Services Branch of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.  The members of the research team have not been publicized.  The study consisted of administering questionnaires via 5-minute interviews with 851 men and 43 women who are currently incarcerated in Jamaica’s prisons.  The interviews focused on the inmates’ education, family and criminal history.  At best, that’s exactly what this study is: exploratory, useful only for generating questions and identifying areas that need to be investigated in a more thorough way.  The rush on the part of the legislators to turn a single, poorly designed, preliminary study into public policy is both hasty and uninformed.  I am wondering if the standard for the quality of usable information is so low that anything that presents itself as “research” and with quantitative figures – tables, percentages, standard of error – meets the bar.  Otherwise, what could make this study so different and compelling that Ministers Thwaites and Bunting, both legislators and policymakers, are actively defending the findings of the study as if it offered fool-proof and incontrovertible evidence about a direct and causal connection between criminality and which schools one attends in Jamaica?  That no such relationship emerged from, or was indicated in the data presented in the report seems beside the point.  That the report itself also acknowledges serious limitations of the information gathered also seems to be irrelevant to their cause.

Among other things, the study set out to produce a list of schools that inmates attended prior to being incarcerated. And that it did. Now what?  What the study did not and cannot offer, based on its limited design and non-existent analytic framework, is how one variable (school attended) is related to the other (involvement in criminal activity and subsequent incarceration).  And yet, this is exactly the analytic chasm that legislators, pundits and the public have leapt into, echoing reckless claims about schools being “breeding grounds” for criminality, and indicting the teachers, administrators and students who are associated with those schools, all in search of the quick fix.  So, I am left to wonder: is research only useful to policymakers when the findings confirm what we already [want to] believe? Is this really the way that we want to approach making policy about youth, or any other group?

Let me take a step back.  If research is to be taken as the cornerstone of public policy regarding schools and communities, and I certainly champion such approach, then legislators and citizens need to ensure that the best possible quality of data is being used to inform the decision-making.  But it must be good research, solid evidence that was gathered with the intention of producing the best knowledge possible.  By research, I mean the systematic process whereby one identifies an issue, develops a question that can be answered, devises a method for gathering information that can be used to answer the question, identifies patterns in the data, and comes up with a variety of credible explanations for those patterns. To have good quality data – whether in the form of numbers or words – the research must be designed in a way that ensures that the information that you receive is unbiased and free from “noise” i.e. interesting bits but unrelated to the question you are asking. Especially important to research is the collective process of creating knowledge.  For the work to be credible and reliable – and this is what distinguishes ‘good’ research from ‘bad’ research – it must seek to provide unbiased explanations of the data, rather than use the data to support pre-existing assumptions.  The work being undertaken must also recognize, and be evaluated on, its limitations.  To the extent that the limitations of the research are so significant that the data cannot be used to answer any question, or the data is so specific to the study that it is meaningless beyond the instance in which it was done, there is nothing to do with all that work except throw it away and start over.

Far from what the Gleaner editorial (January 26, 2014) disparages as “peevish whingeing”, there are many legitimate questions to be raised about both the prison study and the way in which the information is being put to use. The conditions under which the study was conducted violate basic ethical guidelines of research.  Yes, there are guidelines that experienced researchers do follow if they want the data they collected to be treated with any seriousness.  Participation was not really voluntary; the report claims that the inmates gave oral consent, but there’s no way to verify that.  The fact of having police interviewing prisoners in lock-up means that the prisoners actually have very little choice about whether they can participate; the possibility of retaliation is real.  The report notes that all information is self-reported and that there was no verification of information given by the inmates.  If the data is to be treated as reliable and valid, it must be verifiable.  The researchers did not take this critical step.  There is no way to know how accurate any of the information is. As such, the veracity of the information is suspect.

The study’s design reinforces the existing male-centered view of prisons and crime in public discourse and little does help us to understanding how and why young women end up in jail. Information about the total number of men and women in the prisons is not disclosed. The design does not adjust for the fact that the majority of the prison facilities in Jamaica is built to, and, house men.  As such, a simple random sample cannot produce enough information on women inmates that would make the study’s findings representative or meaningful.  And so, when the vast majority of the prisoners in the study are men (19 men to every 1 woman), and the data is lumped together to find an ‘average’ prisoner, it’s a no-brainer what the result would be.  The study essentially treats women inmates as if they don’t exist and don’t matter, making them invisible in the study as well as the subsequent report and its recommendations.  This is particularly problematic given the growing number of women and girls who are getting caught up in correctional system (the Armadale tragedy brought this into full view), and the hotly debated issue around housing youth in the adult prisons.

It does not seem as if much research went into the making of the study. Only one unpublished working paper (dated 2001!) was cited, when a basic google search would have shown that the paper was later published in 2003.  There’s also no data in the report to compare the education or family profiles of the inmates to the general population.  For a report that is purportedly intended to influence policy, the researchers don’t seem to think it relevant to provide context for understanding what they found.  Even if the focus is only on men, how is the “typical” inmate similar to or different from men of the same age who are not imprisoned?  If the majority of children born in Jamaica since 1838 (Emancipation) are born to or raised in mother-headed families, what do we make of the study’s claim that boys raised in such families are more likely to end up in prison? Given that most of the inmates interviewed either dropped out or were pushed out of school, it would certainly have been useful for the researchers to note whether there are existing studies that link either of these factors to young men’s (and even women’s) subsequent involvement in criminal behavior. Instead, readers are left to fill in the gaps with their own ideas about what is or is not true.  And that’s exactly what is happening.

Other basic issues which are relevant to the interpretation of the findings but were not mentioned in the report or the subsequent media analyses:  First, the kinds of criminal activity that are actively policed (and labeled as ‘crime’) is not randomly distributed throughout Jamaican society.  Second, the criminal justice system in Jamaica is not exactly one that is either fair or immune to manipulation; who ends up in prison is not simply a result of what they did, but also of their inability to beat the system through high-cost legal representation and other methods. Third, legal and policy changes directly affect the make-up of the prison population i.e. who ends up in prison and what they are charged for. Fourth, to my knowledge, the majority of Jamaican youth who have any secondary education would have attended a ‘non-traditional’ or upgraded school anyway. Fifth, access to schooling in Jamaica is not randomly distributed.  Jamaican youth do not get to choose what schools they attend; they go where they are placed, and, since placement is based on academic achievement, and academic achievement is related to socio-economic status, this means that children from impoverished and working class communities are more likely to go to school with each other than with non-poor children.  From existing research, we know that premature ending of secondary education is directly related to socio-economic factors that exist outside the school, and produce various dispositions and experiences within school settings.  Sociological research also shows that schools tend to reproduce existing social arrangements in the society.  In Jamaica, this is no different: most children from poor and working-class backgrounds do not have adequate resources to support their education at home, tend to go to poorly resourced schools that operate more like holding pens, from which they are channeled into dead-end jobs and under-employment etc. etc.  If Minister Thwaites is aware of this, he does not indicate as much.  Instead, individual schools are being targeted for what is essentially a structural problem in the entire educational system.  Curiously, he did not present any other studies to Parliament that show the factors that lead to a healthy school environment and to positive outcomes for students, regardless of socio-economic background.  What does all this mean? It is impossible to deduce anything about the relationship between schools and criminality from this single, preliminary study.  All we have are more questions, and few answers.

The researchers seem unaware of the various caveats that need to be made when presenting a study that purports to “explaining the educational background of prison inmates” and “describe the characteristic features of the typical inmate” [sic].  While they are convinced that what is little more than descriptive statistics can be used to inform policy in education and prison systems, in fact, the study has explained nothing.  Such an omission could be forgiven if this was a project completed by high school students or even college students taking their first research methods course. This oversight is unforgivable however, when coming from a statutory body, given the complexity of the issues involved.

To my mind, these oversights reflect the biases built into the study itself.  The study was designed and authored by the Jamaica Constabulary Force, a body which has a direct investment in the outcomes of the study.  That the Jamaican police are having a difficult time in curtailing criminal behavior concerning guns, drugs, money laundering and gangs is not news.  From the news reports, we know that the problem is especially acute in the heavily populated areas of Kingston, St. Catherine and St. Thomas, as well as rapidly urbanizing towns in Clarendon and St. James.  These are also spaces of incredible economic and social inequality, and where poverty has spawned a host of social problems, involving people of all ages, especially youth.  Instead of speaking to the larger structural issues that affect the types of criminal activities that ensue, the JCF uses the study to take direct aim at the national government’s attempts to expand secondary education for poor and working-class children, and declares it, a failure at best, and contributing to the involvement of youth in criminal activities. Indeed, the report claims: “it is widely felt that a significant contributing factor to the high involvement of youths in criminal activities in Jamaica is the worrying state of the country’s educational system.” (p. 5).  There is no indication of who feels this way, why they would feel this way, or whether there is any evidence to support this claim.  Here, I suspect that this is the opinion of the JCF being passed off as a fact.

On this matter, the report is certainly clear: the study was designed on the premise that schools mattered, and so the researchers set out to identify which schools the inmates attended.  They wanted to show that there is a causal connection between school and history of involvement in criminal behavior.  The data was gathered in a way that merely affirmed what the researchers already believed: that some schools ‘harbored’ or ‘breeded’ criminals more than others. From this perspective, which schools showed up on the list was almost not as important as the production of the list itself.  No one has said it better than Commissioner Ellington:”We wanted to provide some evidence of a correlation between issues in the school community and the risk factor for individuals going into criminal activity,” (Gleaner, “Thwaites’ Presentation Of Prison Report Doesn’t Paint Complete Picture – Commish”).  Set aside the truism that correlation is not the same as causation.  Such a startling and bare-faced admission leads me to wonder whether Commissioner Ellington understands how damning his statement was. In effect, he revealed that the study is guided by a fundamentally unethical research practice of collecting and reporting data in such a way that it proves what you already believe to be true.  Or, perhaps neither Commissioner Ellington nor the legislators care about whether they are using ‘good’ research or not.  As long as it’s called research, and the information says what they want it to say, no more questions need be asked.

Equally problematic is that many voices – some with more sway than others – have been raised in support of the public disclosure of the problematic report, claiming that no harm was intended to the schools and that disclosure is a necessary part of addressing the problem.  Airing the dirty laundry is a good thing, they say. But intention has little to do with effect. The implication of such vociferous support is that it doesn’t matter how the information was collected or why: if there is evidence that there is something particular about the schools themselves that actively enhance and even produce criminality among youth, then action should be taken.  Except, the study didn’t provide any evidence of such. Further, what action and to what end? If there is a school-to-prison pipeline, and there probably is one, how exactly does public shaming of the individual schools (and those associated with them) as well as directing specific and limited resources towards those specific schools address the problem?  That there is no definitive information about direction of association does not seem to make any difference.  The police and legislators believe that the school is at fault; the public is certainly encouraged to believe so. I suspect that the principals and students of those schools might see things a little differently.  That the study does not provide any answers should have dissuaded Minister Thwaites from embracing the study so quickly and uncritically, until corroborating evidence had been gathered to make their case.  That would have been the prudent, responsible and informed course of action to take.

One implication of shifting the locus of police attention to schools is this: when specific schools are labeled as the centers of, or at least conduits for, criminal behavior – “breeding ground” is the pejorative language used in recent discussions – it is only a matter of time before police are given greater control of and authority within schools.  Given the public record of police conduct and interaction with youth, especially young men from non-wealthy backgrounds, we should all be worried about this.  And yet, studies like this one, flawed as it is, operate as the perfect justification for a whole range of “interventions” that the Ministry of Education and Justice did not feel they had a mandate to take before.  The rushed response to “intervene” – the militarized metaphor does not escape me – is both telling and wanting.

That is, the same low value placed on students from working-class and impoverished backgrounds that make their educational experiences less than productive in the first place is merely being reconfirmed. Basic resources like social workers and conflict resolution programs are only being brought into the picture as a way to isolate and treat the ‘bad’ students (proto-criminals?) on the list of ‘bad’ schools.  All schools, and the students who attend them, are mostly left at the mercy of structural conditions that create the problems in the first place.

However, the reception of the study tells me that it’s not only the specific schools and the individual students that need ‘intervention’.  Legislators and policymakers need to learn how to properly assess and interpret the information that is being fed to them.  That may be difficult for many of them to accept, but the consequences of not doing so may be more than our citizens can continue to bear. Social policy can only be as strong as the evidence that supports it.  At this moment, the basis for policy seems to be emotion, prejudice and raw opinion, with a poorly designed study or two thrown into the mix to support particular agendas and points of view.  Maybe this is how public policy is usually made in Jamaica.  I hope not.  However, if the current reality of youth’s lives and experiences in schools and communities is any indication, this approach is a recipe for disaster and cannot be allowed to continue unchallenged.  

Whitney and me

I’m watching myself respond to the news that Whitney Houston died.

I heard on FB.  I watched the status updates change, and was – still – in disbelief.

My first reaction: what???

My second was a status update:  “alright. stop the world right now for a minute please. I’m having a moment.’
I mean, what the fuck…?  I realise I’m still fighting to put words to feelings long buried and usually hidden.

I’m not one to get sentimental about a popular figure.

But I feel like I lost something of myself in these recent deaths – earlier this week it was Wilmot Mutty Perkins.  Today, it’s Whitney Houston.

When I came to the US in 1985, my first purchase with my birthday money was Whitney Houston’s album aptly named “Whitney Houston.”  I played that LP day and night.

I gazed at her for hours posed in her Norma Kamali bathing suit on the album cover.  I promised that the moment I could afford it, that’s the exact bathing suit that I would purchase.

Her music took me thru a  turbulent year and a half.  Her voice comforted me through a rough period of displacement, of being forced to grow roots in soil that was hostile to me, of having to grow up and get used to a whole new way of life and of identifying myself.

I tried to decide whether I liked any of the boys that were in my high school, but I ended up fantasizing about Whitney instead.  I learned to dance to this album;  I cried to it, laughed, wore out a few needles on my new turntable that sat at the foot of my bed.  I still have the album.  Never saw the need to get rid of it, no matter how much technology has changed.

Major moments of my girlhood took shape with Whitney playing in the background.  I can’t help but feel connected to her joy and her pain.  I never knew what to do or think about her drug habit, so I pushed it out of my mind. I had no answer, none that made sense.  Although it did make sense. She was dealing with her emotional pain the way so many of my generation were dealing with theirs.   She simply was Whitney.

Dulce posted:

“Ay, Whitney!!! May she rest in peace and may all her pain be finally gone! In sheer disbelief and sadness and feeling like some part of my youth and early adulthood has gone with her!”

I responded:

” yes. I’m having the oddest conversation in my head as I’m listening to her music. Even as I’m just stunned into silence, I’m asking, why am I feeling like the wind was just knocked out of me? like I don’t even know where to turn? Like all the mirrors are cracking and falling down and I’m left looking around for something to look at, reflect back something loving, inspirational, a reminder of what’s possible? why am I feeling this way, totally bereft of those moments of pure joy in my young adulthood? I’m not supposed to feel this way about a pop star? would I feel the same way if Mariah Carey died? I know I wouldn’t.”

Nicole echoed that sentiment:

“Now that my childhood is officially over, I am going to bed.”

Tony, too:
” I just want to say that I am deeply shocked, disturbed and shocked by this news and feel as if a major part of my youth has been stabbed in the back.”

And when we wake up tomorrow, we will still have that dull feeling of having lost something, and perhaps feel guilty that we never loved her enough.  Otherwise, she would have stayed.  Or maybe not.  The point is, we just lost something big, and we have no idea how to fill that gap, or whether it can even be filled.

Poor women having children is a crime against society…

…or so you will come to believe if you read Jamaican newspapers and take public opinion as gospel.   The latest example of how Jamaicans love fi tek poor people mek beat’n tick emerged this week.  The Jamaica Gleaner has been doing a series examining how various individuals are managing to meet their needs in a steadily eroding economy.   The most recent story was one featuring Mrs. Karen Davis, a single, widowed woman who manages a 29-person household in the Kingston/St. Andrew area on very little.

The comments in the newspaper have leaned towards heavy blaming and moralising, with the occasional intervention of a few brave souls.  It can be a fairly brutal experience to go against the popular viewpoint among Jamaicans.  But sometimes, you just have to do what’s necessary and take the lashes.

On the FB thread started by Donna Hope-Marquis, a faculty member in Cultural Studies at UWI-Mona, they’ve been vicious, to say the least:

“what I don’t understand is why these idiots continue to have children and not able to feed them. Fools never realise what’s going on around them..”

“I see parents of these kids as selfish. They are not thinking of the kids and the life these poor lead and the effect lack of food has on development and education.”

“Stupid people!”

I responded to the above statements as such:

Wow. I wonder how many of us would be around if all persons living in poverty chose not to have children until they were no longer poor? And we seem to forget that poverty is not an individual situation; it’s a social condition.

I’ll say it again, even though most of us choose to ignore the basic fact and replace it with moralizing:

Having many children does not make one poor. Family size might lessen the amount of disposable income that you have, but it doesn’t determine whether or not you have an income or access to social resources to begin with. Public policies that govern access to education, quality housing, transportation, utilities, etc. make the difference.

A who tell mi fi guh seh nutt’n? Donna ready fi tek mi aawn:

Natalie D. A. Bennett, I can see you are taking this personally for some reason. Well I am taking it personally because I come from a very poor background, much worse off than this one where there was no rice and chicken back on any day, as we could not afford either one and had to live on what ground provisions we had, sometimes with a little salt. And one thing I learnt early was that having multiples of children in poverty and not gaining education and some source of income is going to keep you poor. You tell me and all the others what kind of public policies are going to improve the lives of these able-bodied people without their input. If you have ever been truly poor you would know that PATH programmes and other forms of social relief and welfare are designed to keep you poor since it is not enough to live a decent life off much less to carve some semblance of social mobility. Rich in nature and poor in pocket is not just a saying but a reality. When people who know better encourage others to stay in these situations with all kinds of cliches and shifting of responsibility to states and governments we remove the full agency from people to take charge of their own lives. Stuffing some contraceptive in diverse parts of your body is as important as getting up and looking some gainful employment that can be multiplied by the number of able-bodied adults who could spend their time more sensibly, rather than trying to ensure that the nation is populated. When that is added to whatever state benefits there are then one can only marvel at the possibilities.

I read and re-read this response, and then decided to reply because it seemed to be responding to things that I didn’t say. But I was also really taken aback by the shallowness of the analysis:

@ Donna – Because you choose to make your social background a part of your public identity, this story is personal for you. Perhaps you need to create some distance so that your personal experiences can stop clouding your vision. I’m probably way off, but I do expect that as someone who is a professor of cultural studies would know how significant public policy is to shaping people’s lives, choices and identities even in Jamaica.

So, when you make statements like

“one thing I learnt early was that having multiples of children in poverty and not gaining education and some source of income is going to keep you poor”


“When people who know better encourage others to stay in these situations with all kinds of cliches and shifting of responsibility to states and governments we remove the full agency from people to take charge of their own lives.”


“Stuffing some contraceptive in diverse parts of your body is as important as getting up and looking some gainful employment that can be multiplied by the number of able-bodied adults who could spend their time more sensibly, rather than trying to ensure that the nation is populated.”

I can only conclude that you don’t have nearly enough distance to see clearly, or that I am mistaken with regard to your knowledge of public policy.

Being able to stuff contraceptives anywhere is a matter of public policy
Being able to go to school and get an education that can translate into adequate income is a matter of public policy
Being able to find a job is a matter of public policy
Being able to go to work is a matter of public policy
Having a place to live (or not) is a matter of public policy
Getting old enough to become an able-bodied adult is a matter of public policy

I also expected that you would pay attention to the data presented in the newsarticle. Let’s look at that again:

“Widowed four years ago, Karen said the loss of income from her husband, Sherman, who was a fisherman, has also led to a decrease in their purchasing power to maintain the large family.

Ranging from age two to 53 years old, the family consists of 12 children and 17 adults. Twelve of them are Karen’s children and nine her grandchildren. The other eight comprise of cousins or partners of her children.

Five of the adults have permanent jobs, while the others do the occasional odd jobs here and there.

Of the children, two are in high school, two in primary school and five in basic school.”

Mrs. Davis is 53 years old, a widow and head of household. That means she was born around 1959. What were her options when she arrived at childbearing age, roughly 1970? The oldest child mentioned is 31 years old. I don’t know if that’s her son, but let’s pretend he is. That would means he came along when she was about 22, around 1980 or so.  If I just counted 12 adults chronologically (again, we don’t know who is who), her youngest child would be 20 years old, being born in 1981.

You don’t know if she had any abortions, miscarriages or stillbirths before then and since then.

You also don’t know about the quality of healthcare that she had. When one has access to good care, doctors and midwives tend to pay attention to women with histories of twins, as she does, and with multiple births to begin with.

We don’t know what her relationship to her husband was like.

Five out of 17 adults have permanent jobs; we don’t know if they are fulltime or part-time, minimum wage, etc.

We don’t know how long odd jobs last, or how lucrative each is.

We do not know the relationship between the adults.

We do not know if it’s the children vs. the partners who are more likely to be employed.

Of the 12 school-aged children who live in the family, we don’t know who they belong to, and how those children are distributed i.e. if one person had 5 of them, or if its 1 per adult, etc.

In short, we do not know a lot.

What we do know shows how severely people are shortchanged in Jamaican society, not least of which is developing frameworks that enable people to become their best selves.

The only thing we know for sure is that Mrs. Davis runs a large household on very little, and has more love to go round than most of us will experience in a lifetime.

You raise the question of agency, as if such is disconnected from structure (or that other apparatus that manages structure, public policy). But in doing so, you also decided what “agency” should look like for her. Isn’t that a rather disempowering, and frankly, disrespectful, claim to be making on Mrs. Davis’s behalf?

To go back to your personal story, it’s also fascinating that you choose not to see the amazing display of agency in a newsarticle (which doesn’t even give us adequate details to justify the moralizing, mind you). Mrs. Davis could have CHOSEN to abandon her children, or to discourage them from staying close to her. She didn’t have to work this hard at preserving some notion of stability even in their difficult circumstances. Instead, she seems to be very committed at maintaining her homestead as the “haven in a heartless world” for family and kin, to use a cliched expression.

Compare this news story to all the other stories that populate the newspaper encouraging scorn against the archetypical careless, irresponsible woman who doesn’t even know who her children’s fathers are, is mean and abusive to her children, and has no sense of dignity or moral interior. Can you honestly look at Mrs. Davis’s story as presented and not see a display of courage and tenacity beyond what I (and perhaps you) would even be capable of in such circumstances?

As for your comment about “encouraging people to stay in their situation”, I don’t know how you got to that. You don’t know anything about me or my politics regarding women’s reproductive choices.

What I do make clear is that I don’t care to judge Mrs. Davis or anybody else for the choices they make. What I try to do is understand what obtains, and why they feel the way they do.

No amount of moralizing about what Mrs. Davis should have done, no amount of insults leveled at her about how stupid, irresponsible and careless she was for having 12 children, etc. can do her any good. Instead, what it does is far more harmful. It is exactly attitudes like that, coupled with an “I understand because I was in her situation” that would lead policymakers to want to forcibly sterilize women who have more than 3 children, and have that proposition be taken seriously.

I made a vow to myself many years ago, perhaps an outcome of being a medical student, “to do no harm” with the life that I live. I see people as human beings, and that requires me to pay attention to what makes it possible for them to have the best choices that they need. That’s the only way I can know how to be of best service.

In other words, as someone who *does* know that the circumstances of Jamaican women’s childbearing decisions are not as simple as some of us would present, I am not going to capitulate to “commonsense” when I don’t know enough about this person’s situation to begin with. And yes, I’m going to point out the problems inherent in presuming what choices she should have made, without also prescribing for her.

I certainly hope that Mrs. Davis does not get a whiff of the kind of stuff that is being said about her on the internet. The article presents her as a stoic woman who is far more devout than myself. Certainly far above telling people who are calling her stupid to eff off.

But then again, this is part of what it means to be poor isn’t it? To always have other people telling you what choices you should make and what kind of person you are, but who never actually do anything to improve the range of choices you have.

So basically, if you aren’t going to berate this woman as careless, irresponsible and fool-fool for not having used birth control, for “allowing” her grown children to “live off her”, and for working hard to take care of her extended family, then you shouldn’t say anything.   In fact, there’s plenty to say, but it won’t necessarily fall on open ears.   I did say that I wanted to do  more public writing that engages the discourse around poverty and childbearing, and particularly the woman-bashing, so I guess I might as well begin right now.  Aaah bwai.

2011 Reading & Art Summer Program in Jamaica

The Red Bull Tree

I giggled when I saw it: the willow tree that was adorned by unlikely ornaments – empty Red Bull cans that sparkled and spun around in response to the occasional sea breeze and the steady traffic off the main road.

Just my kind of person, whoever it was who thought to do that.

Not having a chance to take a picture was ok – the bus was not travelling on my schedule after all – but I knew I would remember it for a long time.

Besides, that sight alone made the rest of my trip back to Montego Bay tolerable. Yes, the highway may be lovely to travel on, but it has also destroyed all of my 30-something years of memories and the way I had learned to use geography and landscape to mark time.

Over the next few days, I saw a few more trees from a distance: one was a glittery red and white – empty foil-lined snack bags stuffed into clear Chubby plastic bottles; another was quite colorful, adorned only with those snack bags which had been cut into strips; yet another was dripping with empty Fruta cans, no particular flavor preference.

I was returning from a week-long trip to Kingston where I had been doing a bit of recycling of my own. You know those bountiful slick, colourful, smelly (likely toxic!) flyers that Island Grill, C &W, Digicel, Claro, B-Mobile and the like have been using to blanket the island to drum up more business and produce more garbage? Well, after a particular late-night visit to the IG on Knutsford Boulevard and having to wait a little too long for a cup of sorrel – no ice please, for the third time – I took one look at the stack of the flyers spread out on the counter – and which nobody was paying attention to – and decided that they needed a different kind of life. I scooped them all up and stuffed them into my bag, and considered myself doing a public service.

Litter really does piss me off, even if it was the highly expensive branded kind (those black lada bags, plastic bottles and Digicel phone cards are pretty high on my shit-list).

At first, the flyers were made into gift boxes and envelopes. I had a limited amount of time to produce holiday gifts made of other kinds of recyclables – seeds and calendars mostly – and these containers were absolutely perfect. It turns out that the corporate variety of flyers held up better (they were thicker) than the ones available from Susie’s Bakery. Go figure. The latter I used for very small gifts, like earrings.

About two days later, I was making my annual pilgrimage to Barry Street to do a little impromptu street performance, the content of which is never entirely clear until I get there. At that time, the flyers took on a different form. On my way to Barry Street, I had stopped by Jamaica AIDS Support for Life (JASL), and fell into a conversation with the E.D. about the 50,000 calendars that were sitting on the floor and which were sorely in need of a distribution plan. I took a couple off her hands, and suggested that I might be able to move them quite quickly downtown; she looked unconvinced and was downright skeptical that this was possible; she gave me several posters anyway. I said thanks and went on my merry way.

On Barry Street, I set up next to Mother’s patty shop, and kept company with Mr. Typewriter Man for a few hours. During that time, the flyers turned into a few other things: covers for miniature colouring books (children) and notebooks (adults), picture frames. The flyers absolutely sparkled, though, as when they morphed into gift boxes containing condoms and lube. Whenever I travel outside the U.S., I bring as many condoms as I can and give them away, doing impromptu sex ed (the adult variety) wherever it is called for; and no, I feel no shame about doing this. JAS’s posters were particularly useful for this impromptu Santa run: with the red and white theme, the boxes looked appropriately Christmas-y. I handed them out as “presents”; some people even returned to my little stall bringing friends with them. Others – both men and women – took gift boxes with the intention of passing them on to others.

Schoolers were an interesting bunch to interact with. My silent nonjudgmental attitude – want one? take one! – along with a certain frankness that I am sure they do not encounter from guidance counsellors – turned a few encounters into both enlightening and difficult conversations. One group of girls – hilariously comprised of a talkative, booksmart but clueless one, a questioning one, a falla-fashin one, a silent and uber-religious one – wanted to know if I was going to be there (ie. in that same spot) all the time. I told them I wish I could; both of us were disappointed about that.

I continued the giveaways on two other days in downtown, trading gift boxes for underwear (I had to buy it; the woman selling the polyester drawers done lyrics me off!), for a smile, intervened in at least two potential arguments over foolishness, replaced the boredom and worries of the sleepy, irritable cart-men and the drop-pan man for a minute, and as a gesture of kindness to individuals who rarely ever get anything for nothing. I mean, who doesn’t like to receive gifts?? I even gave a couple to the MOH folks who were set up at the corner of East Queen Street with the wooden dildo (that thing frightened me!) I think I had a lot more fun than they did, but that’s my opinion. Plus, I think I was more creative.

Before the end of day number 1 at Walter Fletcher Beach (I will never call it Aqua Sol) I had acquired a bit of a reputation. Random men of varying ages were coming up to me to interrupt my last push to finish holiday gifts: ” ‘ello miss, mi ear seh yuh a gi wheh someting,” with a shy almost embarrassed smile. It did well sweet some o’ dem fi ask mi dat yuh si? Some also saw this as an opportunity to make their move, not that they needed any special invitation to state their other intentions of course; having condoms meant that I was already open to a certain kind of talk. Others would stand and watch me make the boxes (I did have to work a little harder to keep up with the demand) and ask with more than a touch of curiosity: Why was I doing this? Who did I work for? Was I a nurse? No, I would laugh, I’m just being a good citizen. But by the time I left that beach after seeing the bottle stoppers, snack bags and plastic bottles littering the place and lying around the garbage bins, and noticing the contents of the piles of garbage in the gullies and around the place, I started thinking that we really needed to find a way to turn much of this garbage into beautiful and useful things, however ephemeral they might be.

There was a time when flour bags, empty drums, tyres, glass bottles, zinc, crocus bags etc. seemed entitled to a second life. Even as we are steadily embracing the “throw-away” ethic and lifestyle of North America – with little or no infrastructure to deal with the overwhelming volume of trash that accompanies – I think some of us can and should draw brakes every once in a while. I think we often forget – or maybe never knew? – that beauty does not only reside in galleries, museums and the environs created by the wealthy to display their wares.

I did go to the opening of the Biennial at the National Gallery of Jamaica, and recall a couple of pieces that were based on recyclables. In that space the term is “multimedia.” Curiously, with the exception of the altered Bible, they didn’t spark much response or interest on my part, maybe because the context in which I was viewing them completely changed how I received the artists’ work. Nonetheless, creating beauty does not need to come at the expense of other commitments – individual and otherwise – but it does need to be part of how we live everyday.

The Red Bull Tree was such a pause for me (by the way, I googled “red bull tree” and came upon this site:

At a time when the Jamaican economy is one flush away from tanking, and when BG just gave small business a sorta nod towards sustainability, maybe its a good time to think about how art, aesthetics, environmental activism and economic growth overlap and can provide mutual benefit: why not a crashie program for artists a la the WPA of the 1930s? Meanwhile, we have an abundance of garbage to work with, certainly enough for a few sculptures at KOTE 2009.

Herro Blair & Religion as Politics

In response to the ongoing complaints and handwringing that “The Church” is becoming irrelevant, powerless or compromised in defining the moral values of most Jamaicans, in steps Herro Blair, a fundamentalist Christian clergy and political ombudsman, to defend and reassert the relevance of this still undefined entity, The Church.  Not only does he claim to speak on behalf of The Church, but he also claims that his personal biased opinions on abortion and gay marriage are representative of The Church’s and God’s position on these issues.  Such a claim is arrogant, insulting, shortsighted and uninformed.

This concept of “The Church” as the arbiter of morality in Jamaica is as dangerous as it is divisive.

For one thing, the issues of “abortion” and “gay marriage” are not even on the national political agenda; political candidates have not shown themselves as able to debate or define a sensible position on these, nor have feminist groups, reproductive health advocates or sexual justice groups sought, in any organized way, to put these issues on the agenda.  So, Blair’s invocation of these issues is scaremongering at its finest and most pathetic.

But, even if they were on the national agenda, Blair and his ilk who are defending the right of “The Church” to tell us how to live our lives, seem to forget (or are unwilling to recognize?) that there are many stances on the question of abortion and same-sex marriage within and across religious traditions.  And like all those folks on the Religious Right in the US who constantly claim to speak on behalf of God in order to persecute those who disagree with them, Blair is also claiming his position on abortion and gay marriage as the god-inspired right one.  In truth, I’m not surprised about this based on Blair’s history in organized religion.

But, as a matter of fact, his impassioned exhortation/warning to the political candidates that “we are watching you” provokes even more questions: who elected Blair as the person who would watch and then tell us what we should believe, think and how we should vote?  Why should we accept his definition of morality and reality over others?  Has anyone looked into how his definition of morality continues to affect people’s lives on the question of abortion and gay marriage right here in Jamaica? What were the answers?  I wonder if Blair knows that the 2006 reports from the World Health Organization estimates (conservatively at that) that there are approximately 19 million unsafe abortions that are carried out each year around the globe, and that abortion procedures are very safe when performed legally and properly.  But, health systems spend an obscene amount of money having to treat the complications of the more than 5 million women a year who had unsafe abortion procedures.  And that’s for the women who don’t die the first time around; death in childbirth is highly likely for those who had serious complications from previous abortions.  Or I wonder if Blair realizes that a society like Jamaica is nowhere ready for a discussion about gay marriage when fundamental human rights like the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, or to be recognized as a person under the law, to have the right to a family, or the right to privacy are arbitrarily recognized and abused by people who take his very positions?

Once again, at a time when people are looking for some clarity in a rather murky political climate, Blair has usurped his position of leadership and sought to manipulate the religious beliefs of ordinary Jamaican men and women in order to secure his own political future.  This is disgraceful, unethical behavior that runs counter to democratic principles.

“The Church” that is being promoted by Blair, and for which he claims to speak, is political Christianity.  He/It represents the views of fundamentalist Christianity which are dogmatic, prescriptive, ideologically conservative and profoundly anti-democratic.  And he has a lot of role models:  Jerry Falwell, James Baker, Omar Al-Bashir, George Bush, etc. From this perspective, religion is not about nurturing a communal sense of self and wellbeing, and helps each of us to hope, imagine, grow, create, love and act in just, humane ways. And religion certainly ought not to help us recognize the wrongs committed against other humans in the name of God, and to use our institutions to restore justice and equity.

And yet, Blair’s claims that he speaks for The Church, and is the mouthpiece of God, apparently, hide a more complex reality.  In truth, his version of Christianity, and the form that underlies The Church, has little to say about justice, compassion and ethical living, all of which are of primary concern to Jamaicans in this election season.

The concept of “The Church” as political entity which Blair promotes is inherently exclusionary.  Indeed, it does not even [wish to] reflect the diversity of viewpoints among Christians.  Rather, it justifies its own existence by manipulating what people believe and how they understand the society they live in through specious interpretations of scripture.  It seeks to dictate how people ought to think, live, believe or act.

For persons like Blair and other defenders of “The Church” it is better that we are told what to believe and think.  That we should not care about or take seriously other viewpoints; in fact, any other position must be the work of the devil.  And most importantly, we should not care about evidence.  Having access to correct information and being able to dialogue with people of different views about matters that are important to us are dangerous practices that we should avoid under all circumstances.

Why? Because we would be able to think for ourselves, recognize the dangers of the positions we are being told to take, and perhaps come to informed conclusions that contradict the stance of “The Church”.  And then how would “The Church” and folks like Blair secure their positions of power and hold over us?  Not from our collective ignorance, that’s for sure.  Thanks for the offer Herro Blair, but I think my own moral compass works just fine.   And I suspect there are many others who [silently] agree.