Take your eyes off government – Nelson - Caribbean Heritage Month architect calls on diaspora groups to change focus
YEARS AFTER helping to draft a bill to designate June as what is now widely celebrated in the US as National Caribbean Heritage Month, Jamaica-born development engineer and founder of the US-based Institute of Caribbean Studies (ICS), Dr Claire Nelson, says the need for such a platform remains great, as is also the need for a major paradigm shift in how Caribbean people lobby for change, both at home in the region and the US.
Pointing to incidents like the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked riots across several US states since late last month, Dr Nelson says Caribbean groups must begin to recognise and consistently act on the power they have to reduce inequality and injustice.
Fifteen years on from the Caribbean American heritage month bill’s approval in both the House (2005) and Senate (2006), she says the issues for Black communities have not changed.
“The issues for me are always the same. My argument is that, for us to be a political force, we must be a political bloc; for us to be a political bloc; we must have agency, and be willing to demonstrate that agency and have it respected.”
“Agency means being empowered and recognising that we are a centre of power, that we can effect change.”
She says the National Caribbean American Heritage Month recognition, an idea which crystallised for her in 1999, was always meant as another platform for Black and Caribbean community concerns to be taken seriously, and for persons to learn about and embrace the American democracy.
“I have created a voice, I have created visibility – what we’re missing now is agency. We cannot, as Caribbean people, continue to say we will not get involved. We live here, we work here, we pay taxes here, we raise families here, and most of us are never leaving here, despite the fondest dreams we harbour about moving back home. The American democracy is designed, supposedly, so that we have the right to reshape it to or with our dream, even as we embrace and pursue the American dream.”
SHIFT TO ACTION
Dr Nelson says diaspora groups, too, need to prepare for a shift to action that can produce real change, and work to strengthen links with the region.
“The diaspora needs to take its eyes off government and look to some of the other groups and partnerships that we need to create. We need to seek out groups that are struggling, that need our help.”
She says a focus this year will be on engaging with the Caribbean diaspora on economic development issues.
“We are going to be asking questions about how we can use the opportunity of COVID-19 to chart the way forward.”
Dr Nelson says the group’s efforts have been helped by renewed attention on the Caribbean, through a bill HR4939 – which mandates the US State Department to outline how it intends to engage the Caribbean region, and particularly the region’s diaspora.
In 2017, the ICS presented the State Department with a paper which has now been adopted as a diaspora companion paper to the Department’s White Paper on the Caribbean region.
Activities for the month will include a SMART Caribbean gathering, to focus on the blue and green economy. This runs June 5 to 8.