Diaspora needs a Renaissance: We are Fractured but not Voiceless
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(Address to the Jamaican Diaspora UK Diaspora Day Celebration & the JDUK 7th Biennial Conference, on June 17, 2023)
(19 June 2023) — It is a pleasure to be addressing the Jamaican Diaspora UK Diaspora Day Celebration & the JDUK 7th Biennial Conference. However, I must confess, I have one major regret. That is, having to address you via Zoom instead of being in the same room with you, live and direct. However, as a member of the diaspora living in the United States, it is rewarding for me to be connected to you, even via Zoom. And, for the record, I am available to travel.
There are at least three (3) million of us Jamaicans here in the diaspora with the overwhelming majority living in three (3) countries, the United States, Canada, and in the United Kingdom. We are geographically thousands of miles apart, but we share a common heritage and an abiding love for the country of our birth or of our ancestors.
Diaspora geographically fractured
Geographically, we are fractured, but today’s technology offers us tremendous opportunities to connect our communities as Jamaicans in the diaspora. We are joined by the spirit of the land we call the “Rock”. We are bound by the country of our heritage, where ours or our ancestors’ umbilical cords, our navel strings, are buried. We are bound by being Jamaicans by birth or descent. Being Jamaicans by birth or by descent make us no less Jamaican. And whether living in Jamaica or abroad we are all Jamaicans.
Most importantly, we are bound by the love we share for Jamaica. During our recent diaspora panel discussion on the constitutional reform process taking place in our country, one of our panelists from Canada said, “We love Jamaica, and all we ask is that Jamaica loves us back.” Her words were as much of a plea for reciprocity as they were a recognition that far too often, we are led to question whether Jamaica truly love its diaspora.
I am old enough to recall the time when children born out of wedlock were not included in the core family structure. They suffered discrimination and were deprived of certain rights under law and in practice. But since the 1970s, a period of great social transformation, Jamaicans decided that “nuh bastard nuh deh again,” We in the diaspora are not bastards or stepchildren of Jamaica. We are full members of the Jamaican family, and we demand that we are treated accordingly.
Perhaps you, in the UK Jamaican diaspora, unconsciously or intentionally, because you share similar sentiments and concerns, invited me to share my perspectives on a few issues related to the diaspora and the challenges we face in engaging with the Jamaican government and Jamaican civil society.
I was given an option to choose my own topic and, as a long-term member of the diaspora, I decided that I would speak on these issues from the perspective that “We need a Diaspora Renaissance: We are Fractured but not Voiceless”.
Diaspora in sync while speaking with a thousand voices
It is truly anomalous that with as many as three million Jamaicans comprising a diaspora which speaks with a thousand voices, we are often in sync on most issues related to Jamaica. It may be a contradiction to suggest that even though the diaspora lacks coordination and unity when they speak, they often appear to be speaking from the same script. And those voices are loud. Underlying these sometimes-discordant voices is patriotism, a common denominator. Thus, it would be a mistake for any Jamaican government, group, or entity back home to underestimate us, and try to take advantage of what is often regarded as a fractured diaspora that is lacking in structure and unity of purpose.
True, there is no organization or anyone who speaks for the diaspora. For most onlookers, for most members of the diaspora, it is almost inconceivable that such authority could rest with a single de facto leader or organization. In that sense, the diaspora is fractured. But there are voices that are respected within the diaspora, and they often have diaspora support on important issues affecting diaspora communities and the Jamaica nation. We are obligated to bring those voices together and make our collective voices stronger.
Unifying the diaspora against silo mentality
Efforts to organize and unify the diaspora in the past have a record of successes and failures. A major fault line in diaspora organizations is that they overwhelmingly rely exclusively on volunteerism to conduct their day-to-day activities and the programs on which they are focused. Each organization operates independently and with a silo mentality. The programs providing services that benefit Jamaica and Jamaicans at home are the motivating factors that meld them together. Importantly, this high level of volunteerism which characterizes diaspora organizations is driven by their patriotism and love for their country of birth or heritage. Identity as a Jamaican wherever in the world they reside is a badge of honor.
The NAJASO experience of the seventies
There was a time when the Jamaica diaspora in the United States was far from being fractured, and they had one motivation and purpose with Jamaica at the center of their focus. I was privileged to be a part of organizing the first Jamaican diaspora movement in the United States, in 1977, which created a structure and vehicle through which Jamaicans could organize and speak with one voice on issues affecting Jamaica and Jamaicans in the United States. Under the leadership of the late Ambassador Alfred Rattray, then Jamaica’s ambassador to the United States, Jamaican organizations from across the United States were summoned to a conference in Washington DC to consider ways of providing patriotic support for Jamaica. Thirty-three organizations responded to the call for patriotic support and those efforts led to establishment of the National Association of Jamaican and Supportive Organizations (NAJASO) which was launched in December 1977.
These organizations represented Jamaican communities from eastern, southern, mid-western, and western states – from across the entire United States. They came from the major cities and states in the northeast, from the mid-Atlantic and the south; from several mid-Western cities and states; and from the West and northwest.
Jamaican diaspora leaders from across the United States were meeting each other for the first time. They were leaders in the communities in which they lived. But they decided to come together and pool their leadership skills for Jamaica. They put their individual egos aside to significantly increase their collective impact on issues affecting Jamaica. And they did not allow local Jamaican politics to circumscribe the level of their patriotism.
They were Jamaican patriots who were determined to stand in the breach and defend their country from the invidious propaganda campaign of the 1970s against Jamaica, the land they loved. Most importantly, they spoke with one voice; and their voices were heard and respected.
Diaspora patriotism serving Jamaica’s interests
Many of these organizations were decades old and were doing extraordinary work in their areas of operations. They were connected to and recognized by political leaders in their cities and towns, and in their states, but they had no experience in the corridors of power in Washington. Yet they came together to support their homeland. Under ambassador Rattray’s guidance and with the assistance of his team from the embassy in Washington, me included, they organized as one body representing the Jamaican diaspora to work in unison to advance the interests of Jamaica and of Jamaicans at home and in the United States. I served as rapporteur for the July 1977 conference, and it was amazing to be a part of that movement and to experience the patriotic fervor of those Jamaican diaspora members.
The organization’s representatives returned to Washington DC, repeatedly, to petition congressional representatives on behalf of Jamaica. We organized training for them from experienced congressional senior staff of Jamaican heritage on how to be effective advocates on Capitol Hill. They were all volunteers who took time from their normal day to day activities – professions, businesses, and jobs to come to Washington to make a case for Jamaica. They spoke with one voice as representatives of the Jamaican diaspora in the United States. They were most effective at lobbying Representatives and Senators from states where there were high concentrations of Jamaicans. No one could suggest then that the Jamaican diaspora was fractured.
Most importantly, Jamaican governments during that period recognized the value of the diaspora to the homeland. The diaspora loved Jamaica, and Jamaica loved them back.
But the organization, which was quite effective in its mission for several years, suffered the fate of many diaspora organizations which have failed to transition from one generation to another. The organization still exists but it is a shadow of what it was and can no longer claim the mandate of the U.S. Jamaican diaspora. Seen as an effective diaspora organization in its heyday, diaspora communities in Canada and elsewhere began organizing similar movements because it was a model worth emulating.
I use the example of NAJASO to demonstrate that with the right motivation and focus we can come together and be a force for change in our communities and in Jamaica. Most importantly, we can coalesce around issues affecting Jamaicans at home. And we can collaborate and speak with a unified voice when the government places obstacles in our path when we raise issues they don’t want to hear about.
Diaspora remittances saved Jamaican economy from COVID collapse
But we have a vested right as Jamaicans to engage the government in meaningful discussions. Our rights as Jamaicans are strengthened by the impact we have on Jamaican’s economic and social life. Our more than three billion dollars ($3 billion) in annual remittances keep the Jamaican economy from failing. Our remittances sustained the country’s economy during the COVID pandemic. Remittances provided the foreign exchange the country desperately needed to purchase goods and services from abroad, to finance the country’s vast food imports, and to pay for medicines and medical equipment to help the country through the worst period of the pandemic.
Under normal circumstances, diaspora remittances contribute over 16% to the country’s GDP. The collateral effect of remittances are estimated annually at close to 35% of all economic activities.
We must awaken to the potential power of the diaspora that is available to us when we act collectively; when we cooperate and support each other, whether we are in Canada, the U.S., or the UK. When we collaborate on issues of common concerns, when we speak with one voice, the government of Jamaica is forced to listen and respond.
The government of Jamaica, in welcoming and acknowledging the importance of our remittances, will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the one-way flow of our money, unencumbered to fill the coffers of the Bank of Jamaica with foreign currency. We also know the government does not wish to hear our voices when we raise concerns about corruption in government; when we question government inefficiencies and lack of good governance; or when we question the government’s competence in dealing with crime and security, and ameliorating the social and economic conditions of the poor, the marginalized, and underserved.
Omission for constitutional reform process
The most recent failure to engage with the diaspora was evident when the prime minister omitted diaspora representation from the Jamaica Constitution Reform Committee. The Committee’s co-chair only responded to this omission after an outcry from the diaspora. She has since suggested that a mechanism for diaspora participation will be established to give voice to diaspora concerns. We are waiting but not confident that the diaspora will be afforded any meaningful opportunity to have an input in this historic reform of the Jamaican constitution.
The internet makes it possible for me to be addressing your conference in London, the capital of the United Kingdom from thousands of miles away in the suburbs of the U.S. capital of Washington DC, any member of the diaspora, anywhere in the world, could be watching and listening in real time if this was livestreamed over the internet.
Similarly, the government’s Constitutional Reform Committee can use internet technology to engage with us in a meaningful two-way exchange of views.
There is no doubt the diaspora needs a unified voice, an advocacy group that can speak for, and with the mandate of the diaspora; and that the diaspora needs a renaissance in terms of leadership, vision, commitment, and focus to lead the Jamaican diaspora across international boundaries. There is no need to view the Atlantic Ocean any longer as a barrier between us.
The Windrush generation broke barriers
Generations ago, 22 June 1948, 75 years ago, hundreds of Jamaicans who boarded the Empire Windrush at Kingston, Jamaica, landed at Tilbury, UK, breaking barriers that separated Jamaica from the UK. Their contributions to Jamaica’s and the UK’s economic, social, and political development are enshrined in 75 years of the UK Jamaican diaspora history. Our current generation of Jamaicans in the diaspora have tools for communicating and connecting that never existed with the Windrush generation. Yet generations of Jamaicans in the diaspora remained connected to their homeland.
Diaspora needs a renaissance
Ours and future generations across the entire diaspora have an obligation to use the tools we now have to connect, cooperate, and collaborate to give us an effective voice and to make Jamaica a better place. And we can do so by insisting on good governance and respect for the rule of law and the elimination of impunity for political leaders who are corrupt, or who fail to serve the people they are elected to serve.
I implore my fellow Jamaicans, members of the diaspora, we must modernize our existing organizations and we must create new institutions and mechanisms which bring us together across all boundaries. From the UK, Canada, the US, and wherever we are, diaspora leaders are duty bound to organize an entity that is resourced to take advantage of modern communication technology, and an organization whose day-to-day operations are elevated beyond volunteerism. The diaspora needs a renaissance.
Our vision must be clear, and our mission must be certain. We must put Jamaica and the welfare of the Jamaican people first.
(c) Curtis A. Ward