March is always packed with speaking engagements due to International Women’s Day. I’m always happy to see the conversations continue well past March 8, so I’m looking forward to attending this week’s Rotary Club of South East Nassau meeting to talk about gender-based violence. Last week was full of terrible news, so there are many examples to use in this sessions and, more importantly, put in the context of structural gender-based violence and the reform we need.

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As a part of the activities planned by Equality Bahamas, I’m looking forward to facilitating gender-based violence training for student at University of The Bahamas over the next few days. These sessions will cover the basics of gender, sex, and sexuality, look at domestic violence, intimate partner violence, and structural violence, review a selection international mechanisms and laws of The Bahamas, and guide participants through development of responses and interventions.

I moderated a conversation with Phylicia Alexander from RedRoot SVG in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Joseph-Zane Sikulu from 350 Pacific in Tonga. We talked about recent experiences of climate disaster, ways to meet the needs of people in situations of vulnerability, and feminist approaches for disaster relief in the future.

I attended COP26 and, on November 8, I was on a panel, Intersectionality at the Nexus of Climate, Human Mobility, Loss and Damage: Regional Perspectives, organized by Hubo Observatory, Islamic Relief Worldwide, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. This event was held in the Derwentwater Room in the Blue Zone which had capacity for 44 in-person attendees. The room was full with quite a few people watching on screens outside. It was also livestreamed, and I am happy to share the recording here.

Last week, I moderated Young Leaders Speak—the second event in the Critical Conversation series hosted by the Commonwealth Foundation. A collaboration with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust and the Commonwealth Youth Council, this conversation was a space for young people to talk about what they need from Commonwealth institutions in order to expand their work and increase its impact. Darrion Narine from Trinidad & Tobago, Kakembo Galabuzi Brian from Uganda, Kavindya Thennakoon from Sri Lanka, and Emmanuelle Andrews from the UK were the main speakers. They talked about the past atrocities and lingering effects of colonialism in Commonwealth countries, the importance of recognizing one own privilege, rejecting tokenism and recognizing young people’s expertise, and the questions and comments from viewers were just as interesting. Check out the 90 minute conversation.

Over the past few months, I have been facilitator and participant in scores of conversations. In most cases, they were informal, but generative. They gave attention to issues and root causes, but also invited participants to explore different ways of addressing them that could lead to solutions. Still, it was not unusual for someone to point out that “all we’re doing is talking” or “we need to do more than talk”.

It seems as though people are not only interested in seeing someone else drive action — because they are not taking it upon themselves to do it — but they want to skip the important exercise that is conversation. It is not just about spewing words. Through conversations about human rights, justice, equality and creating change, we are able to build community, learn about each other’s interests and skills, establish trust, share ideas, identify the nonnegotiable matters and collaborate on direct action.

Even in movements that begin with rapid response, conversation plays an important role. Its usefulness is often underestimated and people tire of it quickly. This may be a signal that we need to move toward a different, more fluid form of organising that allows conversations to happen while action is underway, even in the early stages.

There is always frustration about the amount of time change seems to require. It is possible the “change takes time” rhetoric has been a tool to keep us complacent. Maybe it has been an excuse for us to take it easy and do the minimum, thinking that more effort would not bring more reward.

Change can take less time if we have more of the other ingredients. More people, more energy, more action, more dedication, more willingness to be uncomfortable and unpopular. Our desire for change has to be great enough for us to commit to doing the work and our commitment has to be greater than the competing desire for comfort. We have to be more uncomfortable with injustice and inequality than we are with the sacrifice required to wipe them out.

Among our unfortunate comforts is ignorance. Far too many people would rather pretend to know than ask a question, read an article, or watch a video to get to the answer.

Another damaging comfort is what can be termed oppositional contempt. This is the pessimistic view of all people who are not clearly and decidedly on the same side, whether or not they are in the moveable middle — the people who hold a position loosely and can be persuaded to move toward either side. Oppositional contempt leads people to shut conversations down right before a transformational engagement can take place. An example of this is fresh in my mind because I saw what could have been an unfortunate exchange on Monday.

When a question is really a quest for knowledge

Darren shared a post about discrimination against Haitian migrants regarding access to Bahamian citizenship. The post made Darren’s position clear — that children born in The Bahamas should be able to apply for Bahamian citizenship. Whatever your views on the issue, put them aside for now so that you don’t miss the point. Janae replied with questions about what this might look like in practical terms and how we would establish boundaries. Her questions boiled down to:

  1. If you designed the system, how would it work?

  2. What would be the requirements and restrictions?

Janae was seeking understanding. She could not picture a version of The Bahamas in which the children of Haitian migrants could access Bahamian citizenship. It is likely that, when she tried, she envisioned crowded classrooms and public clinics which is a predictable picture because education and healthcare are the two services Bahamians frequently cry are being monopolised by Haitian people.

She wanted to know how, if we extend these human rights, we would manage our resources in a way that allows us to continue to function at the same level. This basic question is one that governments have to answer all the time. Our government contended with this issue when it implemented a lockdown. With so many people unable to work and receive pay – and with the government’s obligation to provide for its people – how would it be able to meet its other obligations when money has to be spent differently because of the unexpected situation?

These kinds of changes to budget, legislation and policy are infrequent at this scale and level of visibility, but not unheard of. The public is not typically involved in these processes, so Janae’s questions, while possibly frustrating, are not invalid.

Some interruptions are fissures, meant to disconnect

Myrtle came along and decided to intervene with what we like to call “attitude”. She asked a rhetorical question meant to make Janae feel embarrassed for asking a question Myrtle obviously considered offensive. Janae stayed the course, however, and clearly stated that she was not seeking to cause offence, but to get a better understanding of Darren’s point of view.

Myrtle had already successfully derailed the conversation and the next few responses were to questions Janae did not ask. Janae then said that she had seen these conversations before and has never seen anyone propose a solution. She wanted to support Haitian migrants in their fight for human rights, but needed to understand the end goal. She added that, given the limited resources of the country, she would like to know if and how The Bahamas, if it grants access to citizenship, could reasonably state that it can no longer accept applications for citizenship.

Janae’s engagement remained respectful in the face of a toxic politeness — the skillful use of careful tone and wording adopted by someone who knows they are being aggressive and do not want anyone to be able to call them out on it — even when Myrtle came back to tell her she was unfairly burdening Darren with her questions and should seek out an organisation, activist, policymaker or academic instead.

Interestingly, Darren is an activist, personally known to Myrtle and perfectly capable of saying he was not interested in having the conversation. He, however, is a consistent and active participant in these conversations, often starting them on his own. Myrtle noted that she knows Darren and would prefer to engage him and understand his perspective.

Some interruptions are bridges, meant to (re)connect

At this point, Darren stated there was no simple answer and pointed to systemic issues of political and economic exploitation which directly impacts migration, the need for migrant labor and the usefulness of a focus on controlling migration rather than attempting to stop it completely.

These are valid points, but did not quite answer the questions, so it was a relief to see Rufina enter the conversation and deliver seven helpful points which included action steps including regularisation of people already here and a direct challenge to the idea that migrants are a strain on resources. If a standing ovation was possible on Facebook, it would have happened at this moment. Someone read the conversation, saw the questions asked in sincerity, chose not to lambaste or embarrass anyone, and provided thoughtful responses.

We like to believe we are ready for change. That change should not take such a long time. That we spend too much time talking. That we need to get to the action. Somehow, however, we prove every single day that we are not on the same page. We are not prepared to engage one another with respect and share knowledge, even when it is to the benefit of the communities we care about.

The issue of immigration is one example, but there are many other issues on which we do not agree. There have been thousands of conversations that could have resulted in conversation, but participants gave in to oppositional contempt or toxic politeness rather than doing the work — the action — of sharing information and ideas with a person in the middle who could be moved by what they said.

If we are not prepared to properly engage even the moveable middle, then no action we take will be successful. We cannot rush to move when we leave behind the people who make a movement. Conversation matters — the content, the tone and the motivations of the people in it.

To be the smartest, the loudest, or the one with the hardest shutdown should never be the goal. We have to move the middle.

In response to the growing Black Lives Matter movement, QCT has been running a weekly discussion with young people looking at various forms of injustice on the experiences of young people today. This is part of the Trust’s wider work on considering historic injustice, which started in late 2019. QCT exists to champion, fund and connect young leaders around the world; this work is being driven by young people in its network and is helping to inform the Trust’s future direction.

In the special session last week, QCT was joined by The Duke and Duchess alongside Chrisann Jarrett, QCT Trustee and co-founder and co-CEO of We Belong; Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas; Mike Omoniyi, founder and CEO of The Common Sense Network; and Abdullahi Alim who leads the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers network of emerging young leaders in Africa and the Middle East.

The above is taken directly from the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust press release. Read more about the conversation here, and watch the edited recording here.

In last week’s session, young people in the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust talked about what is taking place in their national and regional contexts in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. We talked about the gap between gestures and meaningful action, the link between race and class, the tension between address issues at home and showing solidarity for actions abroad, and how COVID-19 and the stay-at-home orders may have helped to fuel the current movement and the global response to Black Lives Matter protests.

In last week’s discussion on racism and injustice, we took a look at some of the responses to the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and thought critically about their usefulness. When is an action or response appropriate, and when it is inappropriate? Which actions are we uncertain about? What lessons can we learn from failed responses and successful responses? Check out the video, varied thoughts about specific actions, and ways to assess our idea before we take action.

In the coming weeks, I will be hosting a discussion series with young people in the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (QCT) network about the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., racism and injustice in Commonwealth countries, solidarity, allyship, and the work to eradicate racism. These conversations are often difficult to have, but they are necessary, and there is a lot for us to learn from each other. In this first conversation, Izzy, Mike, and I ask broad questions to give us a sense of how everyone is feeling, what people are thinking about, and which topics we need to focus on exploring in upcoming sessions.