Conference and Programming

This week, I attended a two-day conference consisting of chief education officers and teachers’ union leaders from Anguilla, Antigua & Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Commonwealth of Dominica, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Lucia, St. Kitts & Nevis, and St. Vincent & The Grenadines. Also present was a management consultant from Jamaica and a Trinidadian woman from UNICEF.

There was a presentation from the consultant and then questions and comments from the audience. I knew I had issues I needed to raise concerning the way forward mentioned in the presentation and was just waiting for the right opportunity.  I have to say, it is interesting to contribute knowing I was the only person not of the Caribbean and that the education system still contains oppressive hold-overs from colonialism.  There were no outward displays of animosity though and I think many in the room agreed with my comments – phew.

After listening to the comments of others, they were getting increasingly passionate. Comments were on point and with the way they were presented, I would have wanted to clap even if they were speaking in a different language. I knew I couldn’t live up to the same level of passion and clarity of speech but I did it anyway – phew.

Today, Friday, I am back working in the office and focusing on the sexual exploitation awareness project I am working on with Amanda, a fellow student (& roommate).  The program will likely be called “Preventing Exploitation with Artistic Community Engagement” with the acronym of “PEACE” (I do still enjoy naming programs with cool acronyms).

Lessons of plays, videos, interactive lectures and one hour of art include:

PEACE - slide

PEACE lesson on Alcohol and Drugs

  1. Sexual Exploitation
  2. Drugs & Alcohol
  3. Gangs
  4. Media (masculinity/femininity)
  5. Social Change

Amanda and I will co-facilitate each lesson and I am focusing my planning on lessons 2 and 4 combined with their use in sexual exploitation.

The first program will occur over five weeks in a Castries secondary school starting next week.  Excitingly, there are a number of agencies wanting to continue the program in a variety of settings across the island of St. Lucia.  The Education Management Development Unit of OECS is also interested in expanding the program across its ten member countries (the ones from the conference plus Martinique).

It is also important to note that the project is based, in part, on Amanda’s work with Children of the Street Society in British Columbia, Canada.  While the content needed to be adapted to Eastern Caribbean realities, the concept and many of the plays are coming from their program.


Hitsville St. Lucia

Today marks the end of my third week of practicum in St. Lucia.  While I am still working on a research proposal to qualitatively study why young people are leaving school before finishing their secondary education, I have also provided input on teacher evaluations and youth engagement strategies and initiatives.

Sitting at my desk researching and writing is important but yesterday, might have been my favourite workday yet.  It began with a meeting on a youth social justice arts project focusing on preventing sexual exploitation that included a fellow MSW student, a police officer, a human services case manager, two probation workers, a school counselor, a drug rehabilitation facilitator.  We learned so much about St. Lucian issues surrounding exploitation, drug use, gang activity and general culture and it was heart-warming to see how they planned to continue the program after we are back in Canada.

Next, we grabbed a quick lunch and I hopped on a public bus to the office.  It took a more scenic route than the work bus and I needed to walk a ways to the next meeting.

I am not sure what I was expecting but when I entered the room complete with flags and photos of prime ministers of each OECS member country, podium, chairs and media, I was reminded that I am working at an important multilateral organisation.

When it came time for me to stand up, I explained why I was here and began asking questions from the audience.  I focused some questions to the students asking why they have stayed in school and why they think others left.  Then I asked about differences in the way teachers and principals treated boys and girls.  That was when the real conversation started. Wow, there are some amazing people with wonderful passion for education, culture and youth in this country.  We went overtime with heated, enjoyable and entirely respectful conversation and debate.

A grade one teacher explained how she had a student who showed up for school every day except for Fridays.  After discussing with the student on a Thursday how she would attend school the next day, she wasn’t there. The teacher had her students grab their spelling books and they walked to the other student’s home.  She made sure the students where safe and then knocked on the child’s door.  She asked why the student wasn’t ready for school and got her to wake up her parents.

The teacher waited while the student get ready and then all the kids walked back to class. That girl never missed school again that year.

Sandanista! by The Clash

Sandanista! by The Clash

After ten hours of work, I hopped on a bus in Castries.  It was later than usual and the city seemed more peaceful – less bustle and less traffic. The bus driver was playing a Christian sermon on the stereo and I played The Clash on my headphones.

I looked out the open window with “Hitsville U.K.” in my ears while watching the buildings – some run-down, some broken, some well-kept, all colourful – and lush greenery go by. Traveling along the road watching the beautiful grittiness of an island nation as the sun set, I felt like I was in a travel montage of a movie.


The Ground Shook

Yesterday for the first time, I experienced earth tremors (the ground didn’t really shake – it vibrated).   This event was nothing compared to the damage and horribly tragic losses experienced by Nepal and Haiti. This was a magnitude 4.7 earthquake that occurred 21 km below the surface to the east of St. Lucia.

Source: St. Lucia Times

Image Source: St. Lucia Times, May 14, 2015

At 10:16am, I was sitting at my desk when I felt vibrations in my feet.  By the time I realized that it might be an earthquake, a coworker was walking through the building letting us know we need to evacuate because of an earthquake.  We gathered in a open space outside and made sure everyone was accounted for.  When it was clear that nothing was damaged, we went back into our offices.

The cool part about this for me as a newcomer – other than not getting hurt – was that it provided a bit of a bonding experience.  I now had a shared experience to discuss with coworkers.

On the bus after work, I mentioned to the woman next to me that that was my first earthquake.  She asked about my home country and I mentioned that earthquakes do not tend to be felt in my part of Canada.  I did mention though that we had tornadoes where I grew up.  She thought that was way scarier than St. Lucian earthquakes – because they are not damaging like the recent ones in Nepal.

She then asked if the mosquitoes here bothered me.  I mentioned that they don’t really bother me but that I also don’t like them.  I started saying how the mosquitoes were horrible where I grew up and that the worst bugs I have experienced was during a visit to the Northwest Territories.  We were there during a particularly bad summer and I mentioned the black flies that take pieces of skin with them when they fly away.  She was shocked and then I realized I was painting a very unappealing picture of Canada – she had already mentioned that she wouldn’t be able to handle the cold.

We then discussed hurricanes – which she also didn’t like.  Hurricane season in St. Lucia is from June to November and my coworker mentioned something about July being common for storms.  When I mentioned that my family will be visiting in July, we smiled sort of a knowing smile of nervous excitement.

All is good here by the way, no damage reported from yesterday’s earthquake.  Let’s see if I experience my first hurricane here too ;-)

It has come to my attention that Alberta does experience earthquakes periodically:……


First Week of Practicum

Before I get into a reflection of my first week at the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (“OECS”), I wanted to share a fun beach story.  Other than going for espresso Saturday and Sunday mornings, I don’t take money to the beach (nothing, nada, zip).  This weekend, we were laying in the sand when a friendly gentleman stopped to chat.  He had three large leaves of aloe vera in his hand and explained that he helps people with their sunburns and their livers after drinking too much rum.

He wanted to help me because, apparently, I had sunburned my forehead and shoulders.  He started to peel the aloe vera and I stopped him to say that we had no money with us. “That’s okay, health is more important than money”, he said several times. Then he rubbed what felt like a half-centimetre thick layer of aloe vera juice (thick and gunky juice) on my face, into my hairline and on my shoulders.

When finished, he mentioned that he just needs to make enough money to get back home (another city on the island) and that any amount would do.  I explained again that, “I meant it when I had no money”.

“Even small money is okay”, he said.

I told him again that I didn’t have any money at all with me and that I hope he earns what he needs.  And with that, we tapped fists and he was off with a friendly jester.  I liked that guy, he was fun – but I really had no money at all with me on the beach (nothing, nada, zip).

Okay, onto stories of work.  On my first day of work at the OECS, I went to the main building to meet with a woman from Human Resources.  She did a fantastic job of orienting me along with another person who was starting her new job.  Later, I was shown my office – an office with a desk a phone, wonderful tropical view, air-conditioning and a door.  The office isn’t in the same building as the small team in the Education Development Management Unit (“EDMU”).  In a couple weeks, there should be room for me in the EDMU building.

After lunch, I sat down in my new office.  It felt a little like one of those Seinfeld episodes of George Costanza pretending to work.

Instead of pretending though, I read. I read revised legislation of the Act creating the OECS; I read two years worth of education programming and policy; and I started reading books of statistics.

The next days, I was able to connect my laptop to their network for internet access. I noticed that ,for years, the member countries had been improving education initiatives in many, many ways.  One thing that kept coming to my mind though was that I did not know exactly why kids (especially boys) were dropping out of school. I could not find any academic literature on the subject and my social work education kicked in: we need to ask kids why they are not in school; and we need to ask students why they stayed in school.

I brought this up with the head of EDMU (also my practicum supervisor) and he confirmed the need for research.  He provided steps for me to take leading up to a research proposal – if funding is granted, the OECS and a Caribbean University will conduct the research.  This felt amazing and exciting (and still does) – that I can start something that will hopefully lead to participatory research that would find answers from youth.  This could give voice to the experiences and knowledge of at-risk youth.  This could help The Commission (OECS is also known as ‘The Commission’) set policy that makes it easier for youth to stay in school in ten Caribbean countries.

Sometimes self-doubt kicks in and I wonder, “What the hell am I doing here?”, “I’m so under-qualified”, “I don’t even know about education – I’ve never been a teacher”.  It is at these moments when I try to remember that I am a life-long learner, I’ve experienced a lot of education, I co-founded Helping Youth Through Educational Scholarships (“HYTES”) so kids could attend secondary school in four countries.

Lately, I am also reminded of something an old friend (we recently reconnected on Facebook) said a couple days ago, “you’re living what people dream of”.  I am living one of my dreams and even in times of self-doubt and minor culture shock, I am happy.