Heroism in many formsMonday, October 20, 2014
Last week's prelude to National Heroes' Day gave us two inspiring events and some sad losses. The 'Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell' at UWI, Mona, and the address given by Ambassador Sue Cobb at the 10th anniversary of the Women's Leadership Initiative would have been so much more enjoyable if I had been able to share them with my friend and mentor Syringa Marshall-Burnett. After a brief illness Syringa left us a little over a week ago, the organisations she served bereft of our guiding star.
First to Gladwell's conversation. He explored the concept of legitimacy, one that had escaped crime-fighters for eons, but is now a buzzword as countries strive for law and order. To illuminate his argument, Gladwell wove in the story of an unknown Alva Smith's rise to fame and fortune when she married Willie Vanderbilt, grandson of the richest man in America, Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Where was he going, we wondered, as he noted that Alva became "the most conspicuous consumer" of her time, building a city-block-sized mansion in New York City in 1890 (coincidentally CNN's Anderson Cooper mentioned this mansion that very evening of Gladwell's talk...Alva Vanderbilt was his great-grandmother). Gladwell told us that Alva insisted that her daughter, Consuela, be well educated and masterminded her marriage to Charles Spencer-Churchill, England's ninth Duke of Marlborough, in a "cash-for-class" deal, financing the renovation of his huge Blenheim Palace.
Then the story about legitimacy and Alva Vanderbilt started to come together. In the New York high society of her time, Gladwell said, it was considered "dignified and correct" for women to "withdraw in the shadows...[and] get her sunlight by proxy" from their husbands. Alva Vanderbilt's insistence on her entrance into British high society was to give her the legitimacy, the respect, she would not have enjoyed in New York. Her daughter had resisted because she was in love with a dashing New Yorker, but Gladwell explained that it was a time when women "had to make impossible choices". Alva had to "turn her own daughter against her and send her away". Further, Alva decided to divorce her philandering husband and was ostracised.
"She doesn't fold because America's judgement [at that time] is not legitimate," notes Gladwell. So how does he believe that an individual or a country can achieve legitimacy? Listen up, leaders:
1. People must "perceive the authority as legitimate...when they are treated with respect, they will listen".
2. There must be fairness..."all people should be treated in the same way".
3. "There must be trustworthiness...if you have a problem, someone will listen to you."
Alva joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1909, pouring funds into their campaign for women's right to vote. Her activism resulted in a watershed moment: In August 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution gave women the right to vote -- finally, their legitimacy.
Sue Cobb: 'Let your light shine'
It was in this same spirit that, during her term as US Ambassador to Jamaica, Sue Cobb spearheaded the Women's Leadership Initiative (WLI), impressed by the women leaders she met in Jamaica. The over 90-strong WLI, currently led by the generous Sharon Lake, has been mentoring ambitious students, supporting the VOUCH basic school, and conducting the 'Darkness to Light' project, initiated by Lezanne Azan, to fight child abuse.
Ambassador Cobb had already gained international respect as partner in one of the most respected legal firms in the US when she took up office Jamaica. Not resting on her laurels, she launched the WLI and "built bridges" with women in Florida's public and private sector. She had, what she calls wryly, "a silly accident" last Tuesday in Jamaica; a fall which resulted in a painful broken arm, hours before she was to address the 10th Anniversary Gala of the WLI. Brave lady that she is, with arm in cast, she delivered a strong address, quoting the Bible: "You are the salt of the Earth...let your light shine." And she does. Passionate about data-driven policies for development, Ambassador Cobb and her husband Ambassador Charles Cobb continue to sponsor scholarships and research in Jamaica -- such are the ways in which we preserve our legitimacy.
Phenomenal Syringa Marshall-Burnett
I met Syringa Marshall-Burnett in the early1990s, during one of the five times she was president of the Nurses Association of Jamaica. Inspired by her resolve and eloquence, our company volunteered to assist in their activism for better compensation. I remember her response to a criticism from then Minister of Health Easton Douglas: "Such a comment is not worthy of the distinguished minister."
Syringa was one of the best definitions of the legitimacy proposed by Gladwell. Her word was her bond, and her compassion boundless. She was beloved by members of not only the political party she supported, the PNP, but also the JLP. She worked tirelessly to promote nursing education worldwide. She was a senior lecturer at UWI's Department of Nursing Education and was an external examiner and supported the development of the BScN degree programme at the University of Nairobi. She was a member of the UN's World Health Organisation Expert Committee on Nursing and was elected a member of the International Council of Nurses (ICN, Geneva) for eight years.
When we decided to start an organisation to empower Jamaica's seniors, Syringa agreed to join our board of directors and has helped to navigate the CCRP over the past four years.
I was out of town on August 20 when I heard that there was a plan to triple JUTC fares for seniors and immediately called Syringa. As chairman of the National Council for Senior Citizens and director of CCRP, Syringa said she would represent both organisations at a meeting called by Minister Omar Davies to discuss the public response. Our seniors should know that, despite health challenges, Syringa made herself available to the media for interviews, participated with the diplomacy of a seasoned ambassador, and got the proposed fare reduced by one-third. We mourn with her beloved husband Jasper Burnett, daughter Jacquie, grandson Jared of whom she was so proud, and her beloved family and nurse associates, particularly Merel Hanson and Rupertia Smith.
Congrats, Shirley Pryce, OD
Congratulations to our many friends and colleagues who will be invested with national honours today. While I have written them individually, I have to make special mention of Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Union of Household Workers, who has overseen the growth of the union from five to 11 chapters islandwide. She noted in a mail last week, "It is not every day that a domestic worker gets a national award". Indeed, it is not. Congratulations to the amazing Shirley Pryce, Officer of the Order of Distinction.
Farewell, Wilbert Sirjue
It was a packed Webster Memorial Church that bade farewell to the unforgettable Wilbert Sirjue, retired chemist with the West Indies Sugar Company, former JLP MP, and elder in the United Church. We were moved by accounts of his life of service, his particular attention to the less fortunate, his devotion to his wife Jennifer, sisters and members of his extended family. Rest in peace, cousin and generous patriot.
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