The St. Lucia Association of Georgia hosted a high-level virtual event: ‘Women on the Frontline of Power: A Dialogue in the Diaspora’ on Saturday, September 25th, 2021 that welcomed just under 120 participants from the United States and the Caribbean. This inaugural dialogue brought together nine Caribbean women politicians from Georgia and Saint Lucia to share their experiences and challenges as women in high-level political spaces.
The featured women for the Diaspora were: State Representative, Ms. Donna McLeod, Georgia House 105, Lawrenceville; Ms. Urania Petit, Registrar of Voters in Hartford, Connecticut; and Ms. Solange Destang, Council Member for Snellville. The Saint Lucia panel comprised: Hon. Emma Hippolyte, Minister for Commerce, Manufacturing, Business Development Cooperatives and Consumer Affairs; Hon. Dr Virginia Albert-Poyotte, Minister for Home Affairs, the Public Service, Labour and Gender Affairs; Ms. Lisa Jawahir, Government Senator; Ms. Jeannine Giraudy-McIntyre, President of the Senate (2018-2021), Dr. Gale Rigobert, Minister for Education, Sustainable Development, Gender Affairs and Innovation (2016-2021) and Ms. Mary Isaac, Minister for Health and Wellness (2016-2021).
President of the Association, Mr. Cornelius Alfred, officially welcomed the distinguished guests and participants, after which Her Excellency, Dr. Joycelyn Fletcher, Saint Lucia’s Ambassador for Diaspora Affairs addressed the gathering. She commended the Association for this initiative even as she noted that this event would most likely be her last official event since she would be demitting office shortly. Representative Donna McLeod also delivered remarks in which she reiterated her special connection to the Caribbean Diaspora and her appreciation for such an initiative to bring together women leaders from the Caribbean Diaspora to share their experiences.
The first dialogue: Woman of Power in Georgia – Narratives and Perspectives was moderated by Mr. Austin Thompson, a candidate for Lawrenceville City Council. The women leaders shared insights on being women in the public eye and how they have each shaped the respective offices they occupy – even as they juggle the complex roles of their public and private lives. Representative McLeod shared memories of her Jamaican heritage before elucidating on her responsibilities as state representative to pass the budget and deal with state laws. She underscored the importance of these processes to the lives of Caribbean citizens in Georgia.
Councilwoman, Ms. Solange Destang, who has Surinamese and St. Lucia roots, credited her St. Lucian father for her success. Having been elected in November 2020 as the first woman of colour to serve in this position, she was also the first immigrant to win a seat on the Council. From both these standpoints, she noted that just being at the table does not mean that you were going to be on the menu forever. Therefore, it was important to seize the opportunity to make a difference for her constituents. She also spoke about her portfolio which, by and large, handles ordinances, land use policies and applications for building projects.
Ms. Urania Petit, a Saint Lucian from Saltibus, Choiseul; shared her story of having run in 2006 for the City Council and losing by nine votes – painful to her since she felt that she had done everything to win. Having revamped her strategy of running for a major party, she earned her seat at the table by being elected through a 3rd minority party. From there she became the Registrar of Voters in Hartford, Connecticut. As an election administrator, Ms. Petit is responsible inter alia for registering voters, running the elections, certifying the elections; and activating the candidates. Ms. Petit concluded that there was a need for older women politicians to be utilized to mentor the younger aspirants.
After this initial round of dialogue, Ambassador Fletcher introduced a special presentation by Ms. Yasmin Solitahe Odlum, Gender and Development Specialist, entitled: “60 Years on: Saint Lucia’s Political Dames (2011-2021). Noting the paucity of numbers of women on the slate of general elections in 60 years, Ms. Odlum examined the performance of 17 women candidates who had participated in the elections of the last decade – highlighting the variable political careers of at least 10 of these women. The presentation concluded with a key takeaway: that a benchmark of 20% of women’s representation is required as a critical mass to shift the needle on the legislative agenda in Parliament.
The second dialogue featured Saint Lucia’s women politicians and parliamentarians who reflected on their experiences in participating in electoral processes – some as pioneers. Atlanta-based Journalist and political commentator, Mr. Nicholas Joseph framed and moderated the dialogue among the bipartisan panel. Mostly all the women spoke of their admiration for two foremost women in Saint Lucia who had had an impact on their choice to enter politics – or the manner with which they approached their political lives. Ms. Heraldine Rock, first woman to be elected to Parliament in 1974; was heralded for being forthright, grounded in service to people, able to stand her ground amid a group of men in politics and government.
Almost every woman on the panel praised Dame Pearlette Louisy for being a role model for women in the public sphere. The grand Dame was also lauded for her elevation of the ‘kweyol’ language on par with English in high office, by communicating fluently in it on official occasions; and for being the epitome of service in a bipartisan context.
However, for Dr. Rigobert, another influential woman politician, Mrs. Leonne Theodore-John, had been very instrumental in her early political career. According to Dr. Rigobert, when she had decided to take the plunge into elective politics, she had sought wise counsel from Mrs. Theodore-John.
Government Senator Lisa C. Jawahir, the youngest member of the panel and only woman to have yet to face an electorate, shared her admiration for Sister Emma Hippolyte – as she called her – having been an active part of her campaign team in the Gros Islet constituency in 2011. She spoke of Ms. Hippolyte’s hands-on approach where she could be found going door to door and house to house in her constituency.
Given women’s multiple roles in the public and private spheres, most of the women political figures – some of them mothers – alluded to the disappearance of a private life and the acute loss of personal time for self and for family life, due to the incessant demands and sacrifices that come with a political calling and the rigours of public life. The immediate family network gets accustomed to falling back and to picking up the slack in the myriad disappearing acts of the politician. Mostly all the women politicians did not see this contraction of their private lives as being new or unfamiliar for that matter.
The political women were also asked the predictable question about any discrimination that they may have faced as women in the male-dominated world of politics. Only Mrs. Jeannine Giraudy-McIntyre had not experienced any form of gender bias and discrimination – even as President of the Senate – and she credited this to being an attorney who was very acutely aware of her constitutional rights and exercising them fully. Ms. Mary Isaac had a telling story about how her life had been contoured by gender politics – but not in the political arena, though – and she asserts, she would have called it out.
Dr. Gale Rigobert spoke of the attempts that came in public life to diminish, silence and marginalize her, she did not allow this to phase her and developed instead a built-in mechanism to dismiss, overwrite and to beat it.
Hon. Dr. Virginia Albert-Poyotte noted that in her debut into the electoral race while contesting the general election, she was left – more or less – on her own to manage her candidacy in her constituency. Similarly, the senior-ranking lady politician of her party, Hon. Emma Hippolyte, the first woman to become the Deputy Chairman of her party, had experienced gender bias within her party when she decided to contest for the vacancy in the executive of the party.
The inaugural virtual dialogue closed on a high note after the enlightening, engaging and robust discussion across party lines and across countries as nine women politicians shared their journeys, their stories and experiences. To bring the curtains down, Ms. Kirsty Douglas, Treasurer of the St. Lucia Association of Georgia and Youth Ambassador of the Union of Overseas Associations, was recognized by President of the Association, Mr. Cornelius Alfred and presented with a certificate to proclaim her: Outstanding Young Woman of the St. Lucia Association of Georgia. Ms. Douglas, upon expressing her appreciation for the award, also had the honor to conclude the ceremony by delivering closing remarks on behalf of Ms. Marva Jacobs, Honorary Consul of Guyana in Georgia.