Jamaican Nationals Association celebrates 50 Years of service to Diaspora
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(28 Sept. 2019) – The Jamaican Nationals Association (JNA) of the Washington DC metropolitan area celebrated 50 years of service to the Jamaican diaspora community in the United States with a Dinner & Gala befitting the organization’s longevity and service. The event on 21st September 2019 in Silver Spring, Maryland was supported by hundreds of Jamaicans and friends with many leaving the event inspired to support the organization’s future work.
Mistress of ceremonies for the occasion Emmy Award Winning broadcast journalist Ms. Maureen Bunyan, of Caribbean heritage, kept the program running seamlessly throughout the evening.
In her message on the occasion of JNA’s 50th Anniversary, current JNA President Dr. Elaine Knight (PhD) in highlighting JNA’s past accomplishments, noted that Jamaicans are “… restless people who know we must do even more to assist persons of Jamaican heritage in the Washington Metropolitan Area and in Jamaica.” She added: “We believe we just need the right vehicles and opportunities to further harness our drive to make a difference.” And, “We believe JNA is one of those vehicles and the time is now.”
I had the privilege of preceding Senator the Hon. Keith “KD” Knight, O.J., Q.C., who gave the Keynote address., and who’s vision as a student at Howard University led to the founding of the organization in the Spring of 1969.
I spoke of the impact and future of the organization on the Jamaican and Caribbean Diaspora communities. I provided my perceptions of what the organization meant to the Jamaican community at the time of its founding in 1969, where it is today, and what it needs to improve on to carry out its vision.
Sen. Knight gave the audience a trip down memory lane, providing us with the genesis of the organization, its vision, and its immediate importance in advocating for the rights of Jamaican household workers in the Washington metro area. In reference to Jamaican household workers during that period, Sen. Knight said, “They worked seven days a week, only because the week did not have eight days.” As he pointed out, these Jamaican household workers had no days off and received no overtime pay. In fact they were being exploited by their employers, and they were grossly underpaid. They had no right of redress and the Jamaican ambassador in Washington had ignored their plight. As far as the Jamaican government was concerned, these household workers were faceless and forgotten.
Sen. Knight reminded us of the ambassador’s rejection of JNA’s advocacy for the Jamaican household workers in 1969 and the fortitude of the association’s young leadership in seeking justice for this group of forgotten Jamaicans. This group of young Jamaican students with their nascent organization relentlessly pursued the Jamaican ambassador until he capitulated, agreed to meet with them, and agreed to their demands that the workers condition be brought officially to the U.S. Labor Department. Their advocacy resulted in a positive response from the Labor Department which issued new rules to improve the working conditions, including etablishing a 40-hour work week, for Jamaican, Caribbean, and all household workers across the United States.
The leadership of the JNA showed courage and fortitude when faced with injustice and provided an advocacy platform for the organization in its early years. But, as time went by, perhaps due to improving conditions in the working conditions of the immigrant community, the JNA shifted its focus to promoting Jamaican culture and organizing social activities for the Jamaican community. JNA also concentrated some efforts in helping the less fortunate in Jamaica, with a focus on health and education.
In marking its 50thAnniversary, JNA now looks to building its capacity to improve on its work and to create a newly focused vision for the organization. If turnout at its celebration is indication of support for the leadership, the organization, and its future work, then there is every reason to be optimistic. With support, JNA has the opportunity to claim its premier role in the Jamaican community in the Washington DC metro area and the Jamaican Diaspora at large.
Although , I served as JNA’s 10th President for two consecutive terms during the early to mid-1980s, like many Jamaicans in the area, I have not always been fully engaged with the day to day activities of the organization. Even so, I have been called on, by different leaders, for advice and guidance, willingly given. Furthermore, my civic activities in the Jamaican and Caribbean Diaspora communities have transcended any particular nationalist organization, and JNA and others have been beneficiaries of my work.
In my presentation I recalled my own experiences and perceptions having been there also as a student at Howard University in 1969. I offered my own views as to what JNA meant to all of us then and throughout the years. I noted that the founders, led by KD Knight, “…saw the lack of connectedness between Jamaicans, yet they saw the Jamaican community as one; not a community separated by social and economic barriers. They had a vision and they acted upon it.”
I noted further that in the absence of the internet and social media, “JNA was organized to fill the void of communication and of community. JNA was organized to connect us together as students; to connect us together with the broader Jamaican community; and to connect us to Jamaica.”
I emphasized that, “While as individuals we all benefited from the vision and the actions of a few, JNA was not organized to promote individualism.” I encouraged members of the Jamaican community to offer their “expertise, their experiences, and their resources” to help the organization to grow and to strengthen its effectiveness in pursuing its work and fulfilling its current vision. And, I implored our Jamaican community to “not become so comfortable in our exclusivity of individual successes that we ignore the importance of the organization and the community it represents.”
I drew attention to the realities of Jamaican society today. I said: “Carrying out this vision is needed more today than ever in our history as an independent country. Despite the good news we hear of economic growth, poverty has increased in Jamaica in recent years. More Jamaicans are living in poverty while many in Jamaica have grown richer. There are far too many Jamaicans lacking adequate health care, and far too many children receiving substandard education, and who cannot afford tertiary education.” Further, that “JNA’s vision in 1969 must be JNA’s vision today. JNA’s work to fulfill that vision must continue to be the focus of JNA’s current leaders and members.”
In a clear message to the gathering and the Jamaican community at large, I said, “As immigrants we face similar issues and are subject to anti-immigrant discriminatory practices no matter how we arrived, where we came from, or where we have reached. As Jamaicans and people of Jamaican heritage we have an obligation to promote unity within our Jamaican communities and with our Caribbean brothers and sisters; and with the immigrant community.”
Local elected officials were either present or sent representatives with citations congratulating the organization for its work over the past 50 years. Jamaican-born elected officials, Maryland Sen. the Hon. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam and Del. Jheanelle Wilkins presented citations from the Maryland Senate and House, respectively. Deputy Chief of Mission of the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, Mrs. Andrea Dubidad Dixon brought remarks from the Embassy.
Also, making preentations on JNA’s long history were two of the organization’s long serving members and past presidents, Louis Hemans and Atty Franklyn Burke. Also present was Mr. Desmond Malcom, one of JNA’s five founders and JNA’s second president.
The presidents and members of a number of Jamaican and Caribbean organizations in the Washington-Baltimore area, as well as from Buffalo, NY, were present in support of JNA’s 50thAnniversary.
Community leaders present were: Mr. Ricardo Nugent – President, Jamaican Association of Maryland; Ms. Joy Dufour – President, Partners of Good Shepherd Jamaica; Mrs. Venice Mundle-Harvey – Chair, Caribbean-American Advisory Group of Montgomery County, MD; Dr. Goulda Downer – Chair, Caribbean-American Political Action Committee; Gabriel Christian, Esq. – Co-Founder/President, Dominica Academy of Arts & Sciences; Dr. Althea Belcher – former President, St. Andrew Alumni Association; Dr. Claire Nelson – Founder/President, Institute of Caribbean Studies; Mr. Larry Sindass – Founder/Producer, CaribNation TV, and Ms. Beverly Morrison – President, Jamaican American Association of Buffalo, NY.
© 2019 The Ward Post
Ambassador Curtis Ward’s full statement is reproduced below.
Jamaican Nationals Association 50th Anniversary Celebration, Silver Spring Civic Center, 21 September 2019
Some 50 years ago, a small group of visionary students on the campus of Howard University, in their low to mid-twenties, saw a need not only for the students to connect among themselves on the campus, but for them to connect to working class Jamaicans in the Washington metropolitan area. These were not Jamaicans of our age or individuals such as we have become. They saw the lack of connectedness between Jamaicans, yet they saw the Jamaican community as one; not a community separated by social and economic barriers. They had a vision and they acted upon it.
It was a period when there was no internet and, therefore, no email and no social media. Some students didn’t have telephones. Their way of connecting and socializing with each other were afternoon informal gatherings in front of Howard University’s Founders Library, and on weekends at Jamaican parties.
Most students had limited communication with Jamaica and tried to keep up with the homeland through exchange of letters with families and friends back home.
Lest we forget, JNA was organized to fill the void of communication and of community. JNA was organized to connect us together as students; to connect us together with the broader Jamaican community; and to connect us to Jamaica. Who among us from that period and beyond dare forget how much we looked forward to Peenie Wallie, JNA’s monthly newsletter?
While as individuals we all benefited from the vision and the actions of a few, JNA was not organized to promote individualism.
In creating JNA, these visionaries helped us to connect to Jamaica and provided us with a catalyst and vehicle through which we could promote and celebrate our Jamaican heritage here in the United States. JNA helped us to show off our pride in being Jamaican. JNA helped us to be outwardly proud of our Jamaican roots. And, flaunted it we did!
Importantly, JNA was organized as an association of Jamaicans to work together through cooperative efforts and collective actions to promote the welfare of the Jamaican community in the United States and back home in Jamaica. We were promoters of Jamaican culture, not just among ourselves, but to the community at large. We were Jamaican diaspora long before any government back in Jamaica even began to understand the value of the Jamaican diaspora to the development needs of the country. JNA was promoting Jamaican cuisine at its functions and community events long before Jamaican food exporters began to appreciate that the growth of their businesses depended on Jamaicans maintaining their love and preference for Jamaican food. Yet many of Jamaica’s exporters have taken us for granted.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The celebration of JNA’s 50th Anniversary is celebration of an important part of or history. It is an important part of the history of members of the Jamaican and Caribbean diasporas. We are celebrating and honoring those members of the Jamaican community who have selflessly given of their time and treasure in the past 50 years plus, ensuring that the organization never abandoned the original purpose for its founding.
Thanks to the many programs and events organized by JNA, as Jamaicans far away from home, we have shared memorable experiences as a community of Jamaicans. Through its programs and events, JNA has touched the lives of thousands of Jamaicans in the Washington metropolitan area and beyond in very positive ways. Through these events we have celebrated our history and our independence, and we remained connected to our homeland and our heritage. We grew into adulthood and parenthood as beneficiaries of the work of a few resolute working members of the organization who dedicated many hours of their lives to the organization, and who have never given up on the original purpose for which JNA was organized.
As young Jamaican parents we took advantage of JNA’s programs to expose our American-born children to our Jamaican culture. Our children, now adults, have fond memories of JNA’s Christmas parties which wasn’t just about celebrating the birth of Christ but exposing them to our rich Jamaican culture. They were entertained by individuals who brought them Anancy stories and the Jamaican dialect as written by the late Hon. Louise Bennett. How could we forget? My children haven’t, and I am sure those who were a part of this organization will also have similar memories.
As I said at the Church Service last Sunday,
“The founders knew what it meant to be far away from home as young men and women of different social and economic backgrounds disconnected from their homeland and their families; separated from their cultures and the environment they grew up in; separated from the land of their birth; separated from the land they loved. They envisioned the creation of JNA as a vehicle through which to impact on the social, economic, and political lives of their fellow Jamaicans at home.”
Carrying out this vision is needed more today than ever in our history as an independent country. Despite the good news we hear of economic growth, poverty has increased in Jamaica in recent years. More Jamaicans are living in poverty while many in Jamaica have grown richer. There are far too many Jamaicans lacking adequate health care, and far too many children receiving substandard education, and who cannot afford tertiary education.
JNA’s vision in 1969 must be JNA’s vision today. JNA’s work to fulfill that vision must continue to be the focus of JNA’s current leaders and members. I applaud JNA for its alliance with the Jamaican Cancer Society. I applaud JNA for its annual scholarship program helping Jamaican students in the Washington metropolitan area. And, I applaud JNA for helping to feed the poor right here in the area.
While JNA as an organization has an obligation to build its capacity to increase and deliver these services, we as members of the Jamaican community at large have an obligation to assist. We have an obligation to contribute our expertise and our resources to help JNA carry out their mission.
Even as I applaud JNA’s scholarship program, much work needs to be done to engage with the young students on the campuses and with the second and third generation Jamaicans in our communities. The perpetuity of JNA depends on all of us helping with this level of engagement. JNA must provide opportunities to attract our young Jamaicans to the organization; alternative forms of exposures to Jamaican and Caribbean cultures must be provided. JNA must find ways to work closer with other Jamaican and Caribbean organizations in the Washington metro area and across the U.S. Together we are stronger; and in strength we can be more effective. Yes, we are stronger as community; and we are weaker as individuals.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As immigrants we face similar issues and are subject to anti-immigrant discriminatory practices no matter how we arrived, where we came from, or where we have reached. As Jamaicans and people of Jamaican heritage we have an obligation to promote unity within our Jamaican communities and with our Caribbean brothers and sisters.; and with the immigrant community.
I conclude with this entreaty to those who are here and to those Jamaicans who are absent.
As we celebrate this milestone in our Jamaican community we must not become so comfortable in our exclusivity of individual successes that we ignore the importance of the organization and the community it represents. We must become involved and supportive of JNA’s work and purpose. And, I repeat, we must bring our expertise, experiences, and resources to the table and help the organization to grow in strength and effectiveness.
We must build this organization to be representative of who we are as a Jamaican community. It is our community; it is our organization.
© 2019 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post