Empowering the Disempowered: `Just Throwing Water on Duck Back’?


Iman Khan is a recent graduate of the York University BA (Hons) program in Political Science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She is a dedicated mother, a Guyanese patriot, and currently a Red Thread volunteer.

By Iman Khan
I’ve recently returned to Guyana after studying in Toronto, eager to apply my degrees in Political Science and Latin American and Caribbean Studies to contribute to the efforts of poverty reduction and development enhancement in my country of birth. I currently volunteer as a youth facilitator at Red Thread, a not for profit organization focused on advocating for and defending the rights of low-income women and children.  On weekdays, two facilitators from the United Nations Volunteers Programme (UNVP) and I run literacy classes for children ranging from ages twelve to seventeen, coming from the Government Drop-in Centre, the Charlestown community, and Stevedore Housing Scheme. Every other Sunday, we meet with these teens and pre-teens for our Youth Network. The aim of the Youth Network is to facilitate and encourage these young people in developing awareness of their bodies, their capabilities, their worth, rights, and their roles and power as citizens. It seeks to heighten awareness and activeness regarding local issues and to help the youth in countering feelings of powerlessness. An incident which occurred outside of the Red Thread building two Sundays ago has prompted me to write about the need for empowering the disempowered.

The suspension of services by city garbage contractors-only recently resolved, was a crisis that had given rise to a new group of entrepreneurs: persons operating horse carts and private trucks for garbage collection. Some more unscrupulous members of this group were exacerbating the crisis by engaging in dangerous and downright discriminatory actions. Possibly to avoid the lengthy line of vehicles at the Mandela Landfill, or out of blatant disregard and greed, some of the substitutes were servicing residential neighborhoods in Georgetown and proceeding to dump the garbage collections in lower income and ghettoized communities. These actions only reinforce the sad notion that low income neighbourhoods, and by extension, the residents of such neighbourhoods matter less. One could hardly imagine a dumpsite in Subryanville, but spotting one in an area such as Charlestown has become the norm.

Two Sundays ago, just as we were about to begin a Youth Network session, a co-worker observed a group of men aided by a few teenage boys offloading heaps of waste from a truck on the corner of the road on which the Red Thread office in Charlestown is situated.  At Red Thread, we take our role in keeping the community clean and safe seriously. We urged our students to go outside and demand that they stop dumping garbage in their community. The responses from some of the students spoke directly to their feelings of helplessness.  “Miss, it ent mek no sense” and “duh is just throwing water on duck back”. We finally succeeded in persuading some of them to take action. One of the Red Thread youth facilitators went down with the students to support them. They walked over and demanded that the perpetrators stop treating their community as if it were a garbage disposal site. This did not in any way deter the group from continuing their assault on this disadvantaged community. Weeks later, the garbage heap has only increased in size.

In recent weeks there has been much discussion about the current garbage crisis in Georgetown: the inefficient and ineffective City Council; the failure of the Government; the lack of pride and irresponsibility of residents. Undoubtedly, all of these contribute to the problem. What I wish to explore however, are possible ways in which we could ignite that energy of taking on the role and responsibilities of citizenship, especially for those young people who are so distant and far removed from policy advocacy and who use disengagement as a tool for resisting oppression. I want to talk about example setting and about promoting dialogue for confronting disparities in power. I want to raise the question about whose rights matter in society.

The students returned from their brief activist stance somewhat disheartened.  But interestingly enough, several of them were also quite engaged. All of the youth that attend classes at Red Thread do so on a completely voluntary basis- they are more hopeful and confident about future change than many adults I know.  The students from the Stevedore Scheme are quite inspiring – they have come together and created their own community network aimed at addressing and resolving various issues in their community such as overgrown grass, the lack of recreation facilities, and poor infrastructure. We are continuing to encourage them to use their voices to speak collectively on problems affecting them.

Certainly for some students the experience may have reinforced the false notion that their words and actions have no power. For others however, this was a crucial start. Helping these young people to establish a critical understanding of their own potential and power of voice is the first step towards change. It is true that the group of men persisted in enforcing their power by dumping the garbage despite being requested not to do so by these young citizens. But, should they think of dumping their garbage at the same location in the future, the fact that their actions were challenged by the young people will surely cause them to think twice. The students are prepared to speak up and we are prepared to encourage them.

Education that begins with exploring local issues is definitely a useful way of engaging people to observe and analyze injustices and encourage them to mobilize in confronting those injustices. Economic inequality, neglected communities, and the culture of poverty are topics of important relevance. Discussion is essential because it highlights issues that have immediate and direct impacts on the lives of the marginalized and influences public action while promoting agency. We live in a society where children and young people have been traditionally silenced.  Where we are taught that it is rude and impolite to speak in an affirming voice to elders, and where turning a blind eye to wrongdoings is tacitly encouraged as a good way of staying out of trouble. It is important that we break away from these antediluvian notions and help youth to identify and speak out on issues affecting them and their communities.  We must empower our youth to use their voices in protest. A silent generation can only grow into a mute and powerless nation.

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