A glimpse of the past... a peek into the future

A glimpse of the past... a peek into the future

Sharon Hay Webster

Sunday, November 29, 2020

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This year marks 40 years since I first cast my vote in 1980, at the age 19, at a polling station near the end of my road which was still utilised on September 3, 2020.

I wore a green uniform for close to seven years. My address, in Arlene Gardens, kept me relatively safe, but for many of my classmates and friends who lived in Spanish Town it didn't. Many had their uniforms cut off of them, a few had to leave their uniforms in the nurse's office at the close of school and don a jeans or dark-coloured skirt for safe travel home.

As eldest child to a former People's National Party (PNP) candidate of 1976 I had been privy to discussions that made me feel I had a right to exercise my choice and, notwithstanding the colour of my uniform, many evenings I strode confidently pass 100 Lane — PNP territory to this day — in my greens to travel home.

In my general paper essay of 1981 I used portions of Haile Selassie I's 1963 speech to the League of Nations, better known to many as War as sung by Bob Marley: “Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior... Until the colour of a man's skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes... everywhere is war.” Why did I do this? I felt the pain of Gold Street and the Eventide Home fire; it rested inna mi spirit.

Fast-forward to 1997, November 17, while sitting in the auditorium at Jonathan Grant High School. I am presented as the PNP candidate for St Catherine South Central. How so? The governing party, in recognising it faced a serious challenge in garnering victory in what was regarded as a stronghold seat, a garrison some would say, requested I replace their previously declared candidate. Four weeks later on December 18, 1997 I became a Member of Parliament (MP) for the first time in an unforgettable exercise in which Beverly Clarke, a Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) indoor agent and mother of six children lost her life.

St Catherine South Central and St Andrew West Central, led by Andrew Holness, became the first of two constituencies to test the newly formed electoral court. In my case, 18 polling stations in Greendale and Twickenham clusters were designated for reruns. In West Central, my then colleague, Andrew Holness, also faced reruns in five selected stations in Tower Hill.

These juxtaposed incidents — politics and school and assuming political leadership — present some of the negative energies and challenges associated with political choice and assumed leadership challenges in stronghold constituencies.

I have always felt the need to organise at the local level. I have been driven to champion matters from the sideline, not to stand on the political platform, so I was not campaigning for a seat when I became an MP. I provided technical assistance for several commissions of the party. As secretary for one of the most powerful regions, I organised, planned and produced training events and communication campaigns, which were critical back room activities.

As a result of being MP I've had the opportunity to travel the world, even to the point of receiving the keys to the esteemed ancient city of Timbuktu and being honoured in Bamako, Mali, with the investiture of Order of the Republic of Mali (ORM). As a backbencher, I have had the pleasure to sit as Speaker for an occasion, and actually affix my signature to legislation in order for it to be passed to the governor general. I've also had the opportunity to serve as Caricom ambassador to retrieve former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from the Central African Republic during the Haiti-US stand-off. (Interestingly, my mother was born in Haiti and didn't set foot in Jamaica until she was seven years old.)

Nationally I have had the opportunity to respond as advocate and champion the Sexual Offences Registry due to the voice of one male parent, a constituent, who had the courage to rise in a community meeting and urgently plea, “Please, MP, too many of our children and women are being assaulted, abused by people who they know.” I raised a private members' motion for a Sexual Offences Bill three times before a Bruce Golding-led 2007 Administration facilitated this while I sat as an Opposition MP.

In sitting as a backbencher I've had the opportunity to visit parliamentary buildings in several states, indeed too many to count. The striking point, for me, is that the stark flip of the coin, being that, on one hand, the deep regard political colleagues have for Jamaican parliamentarians, vis--vis the state of our meeting spaces, which has limited to great extent our ability to properly conduct the people's business from whom we have been served a mandate to deliver.

Trinidad and Tobago, demographically a much smaller state, has dedicated meeting spaces for the Upper, Lower houses, and supporting committees to meet, as does the Parliament of Brazil in their legislative capital of Brasilia. We have never had a parliament constructed to serve the interests of the citizenry since being declared an independent nation in 1962.

As a backbencher, during a sectoral debate, I had the opportunity to present plans sent to me by an architect as he had read of my advocacy for a new parliament building. It was designed then recognising our Taino heritage as guide.

In three terms of service I've attended meetings of all the standing committees of Parliament and been assigned to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), and several select committees. While as MP I have used the space of Gordon House, our adopted parliamentary meeting space — recall this was formally constructed as the Kingston and St Andrew Corporation Headquarters to convene a meeting in the government conference room with vendors and constituents from Central Village along with representatives from the Registrar General's Department (RGD) and National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) and the police to resolve a very tense situation. I've never forgotten the awe on the faces of the vendors that they could sit in a room in the parliament with their representative in order to settle an economic matter pertaining to how they could legitimately earn a living and provide a service. One of the women thanked me, on behalf of the group, for two things — responding to their cry for help and giving them the opportunity to not only visit Gordon House, but to do so with a wide group of stakeholders, one time, in order to work out a solution for themselves and their families.

Time step again, I crossed the floor nine years ago, having renounced US citizenship due to a whole saga of leadership and sense of rights to Jamaica House. I have chosen Jamaica appreciative of my family's choice to have returned me here at seven months of age, having been born in New Jersey. Interestingly, my first trip back to the land of my birth was as a public servant, at age 29, on an Organization of American States (OAS) Youth in Business study tour in 1990 while I served as personal assistant to a parliamentary secretary. I have committed myself since that transition to the JLP in several capacities, serving first as a volunteer, then later as camera person and media manager, and then later served as communication support staff to current party leader Holness when in Opposition.

Now I provide secretariat support and act as a mentor to new candidates. This, as I believe that Holness's leadership strategies enable the kind of fundamentally important development thought and action which can bring significant change to how parliamentarians truly meet the mandate of advocacy and legislative responsibilities.

How many people appreciate the layer of services Parliament offers them? The people I hear saying that the money committed to finally give us a properly designed and dedicated space to deliver services to them as citizens should be used for more roads or hospitals or schools need to consider that this is the very space where the need for these developments ought to be properly considered in the first place. The space where citizens themselves can propose, attend, and request to speak from the Bar to question or provide support for matters they believe are critical to them.

The loss of inclusion of civics is, I believe, a great contributor to the loss of active citizenship and participation, and as such I steadfastly believe that this new space designed for enabling these services within a circle, a building designed with no sides, gives opportunity for a new cycle of development that can foster great development to all of us as Jamaicans.

Having been involved in the many stakeholder meetings with over 18 agencies of the State to finalise the plans for construction, I believe every one of the stakeholder agency leaders and delegated staff feel privileged to be involved in a truly national heritage project, a legacy, which will hold significant value for generations to come. This building, to be erected on just over eight acres of land, set next to 38 acres of dedicated green space to honour our past and enabling recreation and wellness, beckons immeasurable possibilities of which I want to explore and share more over time.

I hold this for my grands and their offspring.

Sharon Hay Webster, ORM, is a community development consultant, podcaster, and former parliamentarian. Send comments to the Jamaica
Observer or sharonhaywebster@gmail.com or @reggaesharon.

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