COLUMN – Whither the Bajan dream?
For a generation of Barbadians the financial crisis of 2008 ushered in a moment of unease about their ability to achieve the Barbadian dream –– a dream characterized by upward mobility, the ability to attain and sustain a better quality of life than that of their parents. Intrinsic to this dream was the ability to not only achieve personal social capital, but to be able to contribute to the development of the country.
Despite these aspirations, the harsh realities of austerity “have come home to rest”: free tertiary education dismantled, subsidized health care compromised, allowances curtailed, a safety net for the country’s poor and middle classes weakened. As a result of many developments, the Barbadian project now feels somewhat unstable in ways it has never felt before, particularly for the youngest generation.
Undoubtedly, now more than ever, the country needs the unique contribution of all Barbadians to assist with the project of nation building. Yet, a cohort of youth, who saw their mirror image as one defined by public participation, seem to face the risk of the cracking of the mirror; the risk of meaningful participation being taken away.
At a macro level this moment is defined by a paucity of avenues for meaningful youth engagement. This is odd and disappointing from a Government that ran on a youth manifesto, and developed youth forums that were supposed to invoke the realities and aspirations of youth into public policy.
It is not unknown to the Barbadian experience that young people have been a part of public and civic life. One thinks of the former Prime Minister the late David Thompson, who in his youth (and, to be noted, not relative youth) entered into electoral politics.
It is in this context that the Government’s treatment of the new and youthful leadership of the trade union movement demands interrogation. Last week, after a four-week impasse between the National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) and the Government over the retirement of 13 individuals from the Barbados Investment & Development Corporation, which saw a protest march and the non-collection of garbage, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart made his first substantive comments.
The Prime Minister invoked the stereotypical notions of youth reflected in his use of the terms and underlying narratives of “adventurism” and “fanatics”. This rhetoric requires a substantive unpacking, for it has implications for and tells a tale of how youth participation is viewed not only by the Prime Minster, but by the Government.
The Prime Minister’s reference to the First World War and the death of millions of innocent youth was both alarmist and strange, and seemed to suggest that participation by our young people could lead to dire if not deadly consequences –– an assertion that plainly suggests that the cost of error by Barbados’ youth is higher than that paid by those who currently hold power, a reality that in and of itself unbalances the scales, and defers a dream.
The Government must make room for critique, for such is a marker of a maturity in leadership that a country nearing its 50th year of Independence should aspire to. The unique and necessary contributions of academics, and average citizens alike, should be embraced.
With new union leadership in the country defined by the relative youth of Akanni McDowall and Toni Moore, the Prime Minister’s comments struck at the very heart of the notion of youth participation in public life. At the very least, they serve as a continuation of the aloofness for which Stuart is often criticized, and at best a paternalistic admonishment on who gets to participate and how they get to do so –– not to mention an affront to the historical lineage of the trade union movement in this country. It must be noted that things did feel different about this particular trade union activity, namely protests activity and strike action continuing while negotiations at the ministerial level were ongoing. However, one could easily attribute these differences to what was the palpable frustration of workers across the island after 3,000 were sent home and they held strain –– not to mention the unresolved industrial cases, and the failure of process in recent months. Perhaps, the breaking point had come, for, as Sir Grantley Adams once said: “There is a forbearance of even so patient an animal as the average Barbadian.”
We should all be minded that thirty- something is perhaps the age at which young Barbadians should be participating in nation building and seeking to shift the realities of this country for the better. The project of making Barbados better at a relatively young age should not be novel to a country whose Father Of Independence entered elective politics of at the age of 36.
The criticism of Akanni and his colleagues was a swipe on every Barbadian of this generation and certainly dismissive of the sacrifices both large and small of a generation past.
When we critique the youth, not on substance, but on the basis of age, we risk stagnation; we risk Barbados not benefiting from the fruits of its historical labour, while as a country witnessing its own unravelling.
The Barbadian dream requires that we do not merely pay lip service to the participation of the country’s youth, offer token exchanges, and mount displays for local and international media –– and only engaging when it is politically expedient. Instead, it requires us to commit to being pushed forward by the youth in ways that not only make their lives better, but mechanizes development for all of us.
The Barbadian dream depends on it.
(Andwele Boyce is a young communicator who is passionate about politics and popular culture. Andwele holds a Master’s in international trade policy and is currently pursuing a law degree.)