TRAILBLAZING SONIA – A woman of firsts
Sonia Gill, newly appointed secretary general of the Caribbean Broadcasting Union (CBU) is a woman of firsts.
Not only is she the first female to hold the prestigious regional post but Gill has also distinguished herself as a journalist, media regulator, development practitioner and attorney-at-law.
Gill was the first woman to become executive director of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica where she spent over a decade.
The first woman to hold the position of Assistant Resident Representative and Governance Advisor of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Jamaica, Gill was also the first female to enter the PhD programme at the Caribbean Institute of Media and Communication (CARIMAC).
Despite her many commendable achievements, Gill remains very driven to succeed although she already has her work cut out for her at the CBU.
“I am not sure if there is any specific set of emotions around it. I don’t believe that I was engaged [by the CBU] because I am a woman, but rather [because of] my qualifications and experience. It’s an experience I have had quite a few times and I recognize that it’s important and I am sort of aware that there is some attention to me because of that reason.
“But I usually find that if you do what you are doing with passion, with care, making different mistakes each time, that people quickly move on from the gender aspect and really focus on performance. But, I am aware that it is a breakthrough and I am interested in performing and contributing in this role in a way that after this, it wouldn’t be a big deal for a woman to be secretary general of the CBU,” she said.
Her journey in the media started just over 20 years ago when she was among the first group of mass communication students at the Barbados Community College and graduated from that institution in 1989 as valedictorian.
In 1990, she was selected by the Barbados Government for a Barbados Scholarship in journalism and with that she attended CARIMAC, headquartered at the Mona Campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI).
Following her stint at CARIMAC, Gill returned to Barbados and just months after was offered a UWI scholarship to do her postgraduate studies.
She went back to Mona where she fulfilled her UWI scholarship, acquiring her Master’s, and later entered the CARIMAC’s PhD programme which she did not complete.
“But my professional life began in the media at the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and that was my heart and my passion. I dedicated myself to doing that work, both in radio and television. My media experience has been a wonderful one and I still see myself at heart as a media person.
“But these other experiences in communication regulation and then in broader development issues have all been informed and fed by the time I have spent in the media.
The time I have spent in the media has really taught me a lot about the region in which I operate.
“Therefore, I have always taken decisions that my career, in whatever role, is to support development in the region and that is where my passion for journalism took me.”
Gill’s passion for regional integration made it easy for her to accept her new post at the CBU, which was also established in support of that particular mandate.
The membership organization of broadcasters and affiliated entities throughout the region, covering 21 territories in the English speaking, Dutch and Spanish Caribbean, was established in the 1970s and began its life at CARICOM headquarters in Georgetown, Guyana before the Barbados Government agreed to host it.
Gill’s responsibilities are primarily to serve the interest of the CBU, ensuring that members’ needs – of both private and public sector entities – are being met in the areas of capacity building and training.
“Right now, there is a CBU-hosted UNESCO-funded workshop on TV production taking place here in Barbados with facilitators engaged by the CBU and the entire effort supported by UNESCO which has even provided funds for brand new camera and editing equipment that we can use for training.
“After the training, we are also going to be doing something else that is very important in the area of capacity building. We are going make that equipment available on concessionary terms to independent film and video producers because our interest is not just in seeing that broadcasters are served, but also that the indigenous programming that they rely on is available.
“So that equipment will be made available to those film and video producers who are creating that programming that all of us around the region want to see on our TV and cable services, or creating programming for radio service as well which is still the dominant area of mass media in the Caribbean.”
Though only assigned to her post on January 20, she has already worked out her strategic plan and main goals for the union. The member of Rotary International pointed out that she planned to ensure that the organization continued to fulfil its mandate towards regional integration through focusing her attention on governance of the organization, its financial viability and making sure that the needs of its 41 members are met.
In her opinion, the media sector offers one with the greatest opportunities as it relates to the global economy, technological changes and dynamism. But it also has significant challenges for those same reasons, she noted.
“This union is really a great way of making sure that together what are admittedly very small entities, in most cases, are able to join their strengths to address their weaknesses. By doing so as a collective, they are much more likely to be successful. I think this is an amazing role to be in and I think that the opportunities for any professional in a role like this are to make a contribution to see an impact, [though] not for personal ego reasons,” she said.
“I have always been blessed to be able to engage in jobs that I love and not just have a job for a job’s sake. And I always commend other people to don’t look at work as something just to do to pay bills to get by, for the title, or the status. Look at what you really get excited by and what you would do if you didn’t get paid,” said the soft spoken lady, well dressed in her professional attire.
A Barbadian and Jamaican by nationality, Gill was actually born in England. Having distinguished herself in academia with qualifications in media and communications and in law, Gill expressed the view that Caribbean women often took for granted opportunities that women in other countries fought for.
However, she acknowledged that gender empowerment was still very much an issue the region had to deal with, noting that there were still many locations of power where women were under-represented.
“But I recognize that I have had these opportunities and I have throughout my life focused on using the opportunities that are available to me.”
For Gill, her opportunities started at a young age when she accessed the high quality of secondary education she received in Barbados at Queen’s College. At that time, QC was an all-girls’ school, which the media regulator who also studied at the University of London saw as a privilege.
“I actually thought that this was a wonderful thing because some of the pressures and challenges that you can experience when you are in a co-education environment I didn’t have to go through. But on top of that, QC at that time, under the headship of the late Dame Elsie Payne was also a place that recognized women’s value and did not seek to place limitations on them.
“Then both my mother and father always recognized that their three children can do anything, once they set their mind to it. While there are limitations and while there are prejudices and challenges, it’s really about: are you willing to go after it? And that was something that we took up the challenge and it worked for us,” said Gill, who has pledged to continue making her mark in life in whatever positive way she can.
TEN THINGS YOU DIDNT KNOW ABOUT SONIA GILL
1. I start every morning with a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee. Despite a very healthy upbringing without stimulants as part of my diet, on moving to Jamaica I discovered Blue Mountain Coffee, and have since become one of its greatest fans.
2. I’m ambidextrous, while I favour my left hand for writing, I use scissors mainly with my right hand.
3. While I’m passionate about my career and public service, I’m very domestic. One of my favourite pastimes is baking. I love to fill the entire house with the smell of brownies or rum and raisin cheesecake.
4. I’m a published poet. Many years ago, while at Queen’s College, a Haiku I submitted ended up in an anthology of children’s poetry from across the world. I was inspired by the Sandbox tree which stood in the centre of the former school campus on Constitution Road. I still have ideas for poems which I jot down and plan to compile one day.
5. I’ve visited every continent on the globe, except Australia. If I hadn’t taken up a new work position in early 2014, I would have been sure to attend the Rotary International Conference in Sydney, Australia, from June 1 to 4 this year.
6. I’ve eaten all sorts of exotic foods in my travels around the world, including haggis, alligator and even fried ants. But I heartily dislike okra and will even avoid gumbo, because of the detectable okra taste.
7. I have absolutely no fear of lizards. I own a number of pieces of art and clothing, most of them acquired from friends, in the form of a lizard, or with a lizard motif. I also own two necklaces with lizard pendants – one silver, one gold.
8. Whenever I travel I always take at least one soft copy of a novel with me. Even though my tablet is full of my favourite relaxing reading, I don’t consider my hand luggage packed unless there’s an Agatha Christie or Alexander McCall Smith nestling beside my passport case.
9. I’m a track and field fanatic. I am extremely proud of my opportunities to meet and take photographs with three of the four members of Jamaica’s World Record Men’s 4X100m team. After snagging pictures with Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Michael Frater I’m looking forward to meeting up with Nesta Carter to complete the collection.
10. Despite more than 20 years in media, more than ten of which were spent working in television, I’m not eager to be in front of a still or video camera.