Nashauna Drummond, Lifestyle Coordinator
All her life, until 1993, Dr Claire Nelson stuttered. Now that she has found her voice, she won't stop talking. How did she find her voice? "When I became a spokesperson for those who cannot speak."
As a developmental engineer, Nelson has done a lot of talking on behalf of the less fortunate. "I can't not use this gift, it would be a travesty of God's will," she told Flair in an interview recently.
For her gift of gab, she was last month awarded a Champion of Change award by United States President Barack Obama. "I hope this award will baptise me so people will listen to my gospel," she said.
Her gospel is the wealth and expertise she has gained in her 30 years at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, DC. "I can accept this award with some sense of 'I deserve it'.
"It wasn't just a job for me. I love development and people ... ." It was a lifestyle, one she continues even though she left the bank last year.
Nelson is the founder and president of the Institute of Caribbean Studies. The organisation was her hobby, she told Flair, explaining her motivation for starting it.
"I was angry about being excluded from the table of the Caribbean intelligencia." Now her work continues spanning the United States and Jamaica. "I don't want the 25- and 35-year-olds to feel the way I did, that no one is listening to them," she explained.
As the first black woman in her department, when she joined the bank, she was marked for failure. She told Flair that was the most difficult time in her life. "But if I wasn't burnt by the fire at IDB, I would not be so spiritually mature," she added. She said it was frustrating to be at an institution that wouldn't accept what she had to offer and she had to be constantly watching her back. "It was very hard to push my agenda. That's how I learnt the power of faith, believing in God and the power of prayer in a very intimate way."
She remembers one day driving to work in tears, when she heard a voice (the same voice that told her to leave Irvine Hall at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and go study abroad). "You are crying because people are lashing you with their tongues? Your great grandmother received lashes on her back. This is your plantation. What kind of slave are you going to be?" the voice said.
She made her decision. She initiated strategic foresight processes for the social development department of the IDB during their 2005 re-engineering process and also pioneered the topic of development with equity at the IDB, helping to build the bank's portfolio in black economic empowerment in Latin America. As she explained to Flair, "Colour and poverty are aligned. When you look at those who are poor, they are of a darker hue."
She noted that many in development harbour contempt for the people they are helping and that with such contempt, it will not work. "If their mental conception is that these people are incapable of certain things, then it is not going to work." She also holds strong views on why some developmental programmes do not work.
"They are not developing people's mindset. Development is a state of mind. Development is about transforming the mind. Social transformation happens when you make a certain number of people believe the same thing. Emotional and spiritual transformation."
As a 15-year-old student at St Hugh's High School for Girls, her dream was to become Jamaica's first female prime minister. "Portia stole my job," Nelson quipped, telling Flair that she had it all worked out. The child in her came out as she explained, "I was going to finish school abroad then return to Jamaica and run for counsellor in Harbour View. And I would win," she said excitedly, noting that her mother was a principal so everyone knew her. She would then work hard to prove herself, moving on to become a member of parliament and work up in the ranks to become head of the party and then prime minister. But in her plan was the clause that she didn't want to become prime minister too early because without spiritual maturity she could become corrupt.
God had other plans for her. She did four jobs to put herself through college because she had to get her degree. "Your shame tree is bigger than anything else, so I couldn't return from college without my degree." Nelson graduated in the top five of her undergraduate class and was the only female of African descent to do so. She received her bachelor's and master's of industrial engineering from the SUNY at Buffalo and Purdue University, and her doctorate in engineering management from George Washington University.
Now she will be speaking louder than ever so that those in Jamaica, land she loves, can hear her. "My biggest frustration is living through last year's plans for our 50th anniversary of Independence and not being able to do anything because I didn't have the authority. We have squandered the opportunity. We had to capitalise on the emotions leading up to our 50th anniversary. We have failed in having a collective vision and collective story. We are a nation on a mission - a mission to go where, to think what?"
She noted that the situation can still be saved as we have until December 31.
"Now that we have excelled in the Olympics, what next?" she asked, noting that she could revolutionise the birthplace of the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt.
But whatever it is, she is ready to work. "I need a platform so all the lessons I've learnt won't go to waste."