Our youth need hope they can trust
It seems like I graduated from high school just yesterday, yet it’s been 30 years. I spent seven years at The Queen’s School; they were some of the best of my life. I honed my leadership skills, made lifelong friendships, and had fun.
While it was a privilege to be head girl, including house captain, games captain, student councillor, and prefect, I also saw first-hand the harsh socio-economic plight of many girls I knew — simple everyday needs, like being hungry or having no money to get to school from home in the morning. I am essentially the woman I am today because of my experiences at Queen’s.
This past week, I visited my alma mater because I live by a code that says if you can climb to new heights, you should always leave the ladder for others to do the same. I want other young women to experience the same 360-degree learning I received. But many of our girls are still experiencing these same realities I saw as a student over 30 years ago, and even now in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, with mothers who come to me for assistance for their girls.
Moreover, I don’t want them to turn in the wrong direction for financial support. No student, boy or girl, should have to stress over how to eat lunch or their ability to get to school. These ought to be some of the best years of their lives to learn, live, laugh, and set a solid foundation with hope for their future.
With this in mind, I made a personal contribution of $1 million towards assisting students with financial difficulties. This will be an annual contribution.
However, I have learned that while giving money may help with short-term relief, it can never build the hope of young people that they will have opportunities once they leave high school.
Members of the sixth-form body reinforced this lesson as I spoke with them for over an hour. Yet, it was not the sobering reminder that led me to write about the discussion. I felt helpless as I engaged this group of intelligent, articulate, and poised young women.
Before I started our dialogue I asked them to close their eyes and picture what they would rather be doing than sitting in a room speaking with me. Most of them said sleeping; of course, being the parent of a past adolescent I understood completely. So then I asked: Did you all have time to eat this morning? Who’s hungry? All hands went up. In that moment, with the teachers all watching, I told them that if they had something to eat in their bags, they should take it out and have it while we talked. There was a sigh of relief as they got more comfortable and proceeded to pay attention to whatever I had to say.
I spent 10 minutes speaking about my life and cited examples of when I failed — assuring them that life was not meant to be perfect. They began probing with their questions, and I answered. Some of the questions I asked were: How many of you are interested in the Jamaica project? When you leave here, what do you want to do? What’s the most challenging part about growing up now? And, indeed, how many of you intend to vote in the next election?
It was the last question that sparked the most emotion. First of all, no one affirmed the positive by raising a hand. Then, when I asked: Really, nobody? Two ladies sheepishly raised their hands, looking around to see who else was coming with them.
Remember, these young women, 17 to 18 years old, are our future generation of power for nation-building.
While I was not surprised, I didn’t realise it was this bad; the reality is that our youth is disinterested in participatory democracy.
As my mentor, the late Professor Aggrey Brown would often instil, to have actual development, asking and understanding ‘the why’ is crucial.
Consequently, I asked: Why would you not participate in voting? Then the hands started to fly up fast. I allowed every girl to express herself. As they spoke, pieces of my heart began to tear.
One young lady began with: “Jamaica is just too hard…” and explained her difficulties when she tried to open a simple bank account to get a summer job last year.
Another spoke to the fact that she had to leave her mother’s house and is now living with her grandmother because of the lack of water. Subsequently, her mother moved in with them as she still had no water.
Several ladies said the country’s leaders don’t care about women and girls based on the number of rape and murder of their gender without an end in sight.
They spoke to the lack of opportunities, jobs, and safe spaces for mental health relief. And they went on and on.
In the end, I felt broken.
I remember when I was in high school we all couldn’t wait to begin our lives. Jamaica was fun. We would come to school every morning and tell our stories of what happened in our communities, at church, and if we went to another school barbecue. I was involved in school activities, and, yes, we were all troublesome (justified by Mrs Wilson on Monday, who taught me third form), yet we were never rude.
I reflected not only on my high school years but also on my years as a Member of Parliament giving service. For, if after spending four terms in public life, I am leaving with our youth feeling this demotivated about Jamaica, what have we genuinely achieved to give our young people hope they can believe in?
In Jamaica, we constantly speak about the metrics of measuring our progress. For example, we say we are doing well when there is a fiscal surplus, excess international reserve balances, low unemployment, and lowering our debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio. Notwithstanding these yardsticks, the most critical one, in my mind, is how we have positively impacted the lives of our citizens, especially our youth’s perceptions of what they need to become successful in their own country.
It is this metric that we must seek to address urgently.
I do not doubt that The Queen’s sixth-formers’ opinions represent a national sample of their age group. Let’s change this now and give our youth hope they can trust.
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People’s National Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.