The Cultural Studies Programme at UWI in collaboration with Dr Dylan Kerrigan set out to address some of these concerns in a discussion forum on Active Citizenship held in the Social Sciences lounge on Tuesday with presentations by activists Hazel Brown and Afra Raymond, and a young representative of Michael Als’ Toco Foundation.
According to Dr Maarit Forde, moderator, the idea was to “hear from people who have been involved in activism and then get the students involved. To hear the strategies that worked and strategies that have been less successful.”
Brown, who took time to note that she was a 22-year cancer survivor, said her activism came out of her family experience as well as her experiences in her community.
Her short reflective narrative about her personal history served to show how an ordinary citizen can come to a certain consciousness about the ills of society, self-mobilise, then galvanise others to raise awareness and even instigate change by simply refusing to give in.
Born in East Port-of-Spain, Brown was the first child in her primary school to win an Exhibition to Bishop Anstey High school. Her school fees were paid for by the Port-of-Spain Corporation at a time when Local Government was very important.
Every term, Brown had to take her report card to the mayor and and so, as a child, she habitually met with the mayor and city clerks. Eventually she would attend council meetings.
The culture of her family was a factor, too, in shaping her activism. Both of her grandfathers were active in their communities. One was a carpenter from Tobago, she says, who would buy old houses, repair them and resell them. This elder held membership in a church, in the Good Samaritan lodge, and was also a Butlerite.
Those formative years for Brown were the early 1950s and 1960s. Back then, she says, “people in the community had power.” More controversially, Brown also claims that although there were gangs then, they were a form of power in the community for the good of the community.
Brown said she was precocious as a young person. She joined the public service at 17 and was married by age 20. As a 20-year-old public servant working for just over $100 a month, she nevertheless followed the advice of her Tobagonian grandfather who cautioned her, “You must not rent from people.”
Brown saved $500, borrowed another $500 from her mother and the final $500 from Rhand Credit Union, and put a deposit down on an $11,500 house in Diamond Vale. Even as a very young woman she showed initiative.
Brown noted that she did not last long in the public service because she was always asking questions and querying the way things worked and in 1976, she became involved in politics, and with the Housewives’ Association, which espoused a spirit of sisterhood that she has embraced as a powerful principle in her life.
For Brown, it seems that activism is more than just helping people within communities, but is also about making a systemic intervention so that societal change is effected whether on a small scale or on a large scale.
She says of the recent Good Friday Blackout, that according to the 2009 Order, if one pays the electricity commission a certain rate, one should expect a certain standard. Therefore, if there is an outage of over ten hours you are entitled to claim your $60 refund.
“People are writing blogs, but what are we doing?” she says. “Has anyone claimed our sixty dollars?”
- courtesy Dara Wilkinson