You may know that Jamaica boasts the fastest man in the world, has an international reputation for being homophobic and was the first Caribbean nation to decriminalise marijuana for personal use, but if you've never heard about Respect Jamaica, you're missing out on one of the most game-changing movements on the island.
An anti-discrimination initiative that promotes the inclusion of all people regardless of racial identity, religion, class, sexual orientation, age, political affiliation or special needs, Respect Jamaica has attracted the support of several high-profile companies, as well as the government.
In fact, in support of the national development plan, Vision 2030, Respect Jamaica has been calling on citizens to stand in support of the marginalised and vulnerable to bring about genuine nation building. One project that brought to light some of the issues Jamaica is grappling with was the Privilege Walk — Respect Jamaica's version of the fairly common social experiment born out of from Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
Global Voices spoke with Respect Jamaica's activation specialist, Jordanne Edwards, who told us more about the organisation, what it is hoping to accomplish and what the Privilege Walk revealed.Global Voices (GV): What sort of work does Respect Jamaica do, and why was it necessary to have this type of initiative?
Jordanne Edwards (JE): We believe that everyone, no matter who they are, is deserving of respect. Our island home, the land we live in, must also be given due consideration. It is what we depend on for our most basic needs — food, water, and shelter. We must, therefore, have respect for the environment, as it is an essential part of our vision for Jamaica.
Our work centres around social media: establishing a digital platform that creates a social movement, channeling the programme’s message, corporate engagement (getting corporate support to build the programmes and influence the message — and practice — of equality, inclusion and youth engagement), and empowering, challenging and mobilising young Jamaicans to become social advocates. This is necessary in changing the course [of] human rights development in Jamaica.
GV: The organisation has been vocal on everything from domestic and sexual violence to the rights of the LGBT and differently abled communities. What is your ultimate goal?
JE: Yes, we focus on a number of human rights issues. Our ultimate goal is to foster a culture of equality and social inclusion in Jamaica.
GV: How difficult are some of these issues to talk about — especially within the social, cultural, religious and political context of Caribbean societies?
JE: As with any programmes tackling behavioural change, it can be challenging to have open, authentic and healthy discussions around social issues, particularly those that have been considered taboo. Our culture is critically informed by religious beliefs (particularly those relating to Christianity), and general socialisation from family, media and peers. Our beliefs and experiences are, understandably, very personal to us. It is what helps to build our identity, so you will find that people become defensive when confronted with issues that challenge their perceptions. For example, sexual orientation, race and class, gender roles and identity and political affiliation can be difficult conversations to have. Talking about gender-based violence (GBV) can be hard — approximately one in three women have been abused in Jamaica — and so sometimes, when we are having conversations about GBV, we have to recognise the sensitivity behind it.
GV: What does a respectful Jamaica look like and how far away is it from the current reality?
JE: A respectful Jamaica looks harmonious, productive and vibrant. It’s from the little things like having basic manners — saying ‘good morning’, acknowledging someone else’s presence — to the bigger things like having better infrastructure in place for people with special needs to have equal access to goods and services, to serious measures being taken to address climate change. Official research has not been done to conclude how far [away] we are from reaching our vision 2030 goals, but I can see us achieving many milestones: [there has been] a jump in the literacy rates to over 85% percent, we had our first gay pride event last year, companies are becoming green, the previous government had started planning for a Human Rights Institute of Jamaica and organisations tackling issues relating to discrimination and equality are becoming more vocal and effective. Jamaicans are more informed about their rights and so we can observe a progressive shift in the way people respond to human rights discourse.
GV: Can you share some of your successes thus far?
JE: Just recently, we reached 60,000 followers on our Facebook page. That to me, indicates how open Jamaicans are becoming about participating in conversations that [deal with] diversity and inclusion. Our youth ambassadors have also achieved many milestones. Last November, they planned and executed a national forum with over 250 youth, representing every region across the island. The aim of the forum was to empower young Jamaicans to become advocates within their communities. We had breakout sessions with young people having very active dialogue about issues relating to the stigma and discrimination that they face and challenging each other to formulate solutions. Everyone — including our ambassadors — left feeling so empowered, that I think having these events is an effective way show young people that their voice and work matters and can challenge the status quo.
GV: The Privilege Walk video, which was recorded by Jamaican filmmaker Allison Harrison, was a really daring initiative. Tell us about that.
JE: I knew about it [the Privilege Walk] during my undergraduate studies in social work, then a colleague sent us a BuzzFeed video that explained the concept of privilege through doing the exercise. We were so inspired by it, we knew we had to do something similar. We were very curious to see how it would play out in a Jamaican context and so we tailored the instructions to our local realities. The purpose of the Privilege Walk activity is to learn to recognise how power and privilege can affect our lives even when we are not aware it is happening. The purpose is not to blame anyone for having more power or privilege or for receiving more help in achieving goals, but to have an opportunity to identify both obstacles and benefits experienced in our life. This is essential to developing the compassion we need to create a more equal society. People are often oblivious to the experiences and struggles of others; they are not aware of what discrimination feels like, so they assume other people manoeuvre life the way they do. Knowing how your identity influences your social status is so important in helping you to advocate for yourself, and also being an ally for other marginalised groups, because we can use the power that comes along with our privilege to influence change. We live better together when we understand each other's experiences and we are able to collectively challenge the system that structurally disadvantages other people.
GV: Many regional territories grapple with these insidious and often accepted forms of privilege and prejudice. Can you describe the most common forms Jamaica faces?
JE: I would say […] privilege versus oppression and prejudice versus inclusiveness can be found within the lines of race and class relations in Jamaica — the uptown versus downtown culture and the systemic barriers poor people face in gaining equal access to facilities and opportunities. It is a class struggle, but with our growing focus on education and equality, these issues are being addressed which is the most important thing.
GV: Is the Privilege Walk part of a wider awareness campaign, and do you plan to roll out the concept in other countries?
JE: Interesting question. We certainly want our work to inform the discourse of best practices used to address human rights — so yes, we would like to see this exercise, along with other projects we have done, to be adapted in other programmes of a similar nature in countries across the world. We had an organisation from Central America contact us to provide information on how they could adapt this exercise for an event they were hosting on gender equality. So I think we are gradually building a regional and global network. It is a lot of responsibility and work, but we aim to build a more strategic approach to building a wider campaign.
GV: What has the reaction to the video been like?
JE: It has been fantastic! We have been getting emails asking us to advise on how to conduct a Privilege Walk exercise. It really has resonated. Most people who have watched the video find themselves in a critical process of self-reflection, unmapping the ways in which they are privileged and oppressed. This process is an inception of becoming more socially conscious in a way that helps us to navigate how we respond to social justice.
GV: Why did you want to work on the project and what was your filmmaking approach? What did you learn?
Allison Harrison (AH): I became a filmmaker because I believe in the power of storytelling. My company actively seeks out projects that tackle social problems, improve people’s lives, their communities, and the environment. When Respect Jamaica contacted me about conducting a social experiment that explored privilege in Jamaica, I knew it would stir up some conversations about how we, as a people, view and relate to each other. Twelve Jamaicans from 12 different backgrounds placed in one room is bound to be interesting and I knew this was an opportunity for me to be a part of something bigger.
Going into the project, we wanted a documentary style of shooting, real life reportage. Not intrusive at all. It was important to not only capture the participants’ responses on camera but [also] what happened off camera, when they had to confront some of the more sensitive questions or realise how much further ahead or behind they were to each other as the exercise progressed. The size of the room was important as well. The space we used was big enough to allow free movement, but participants had to stay close enough to each other which in and of itself exposes vulnerabilities and encourages the sharing of personal space.
It was a tremendous experience. One key takeaway for me was that showing respect doesn't always mean how I interact with others, but also how I view and express myself through my work and in any given circumstance. The exercise definitely opened up discussions among the participants as well as crew members on the importance of celebrating similarities and differences in equal measure.
GV: Respect Jamaica seems to use new/social media very well! How has it helped and do you think it can be better harnessed by other NGOs and lobby groups?
JE: Social media is one of the major components of Respect Jamaica. It has created a virtual safe space for people to learn, speak about and understand concepts relation to human rights. I think it has also been very useful in building a sense of community where people are interested in hearing more about real stories of everyday people and their experiences. It is a space to engage people (especially youth) who otherwise would not be able to participate in our initiatives. We have been building relationships with other NGOs in Jamaica and have online partnerships in which we share content and participate in things like Twitter chats. Building digital networks with organisations in your field helps to build a collective, cohesive message. For example, the hashtag #KickOutGBV that we used on social media for our discussions around gender-based violence was originally used by @WeChange and @UWIMUN, which have been two of our strongest supporters.
GV: What are the benefits of respect? How does that one virtue have the potential to change Caribbean societies?
JE: Respect informs how we relate to each other. When we truly respect ourselves, we are able to respect both people who we agree and disagree with. It’s a basic understanding that despite who you are, we all deserve the same access and equal opportunities.
GV: In the end, do you think we are all more alike than we are different?
JE: Yes. Humans want the same things from life. We may chose different paths, but we have similar goals. We have this common will to do something greater than ourselves. Whether it’s being a parent, a leader of a top company, a giving friend or neighbour, we want to be part of something that makes us feel validated. I think that is the core of who we are and once we recognise it, we find that it can be a beautiful experience to know people who are not exactly like you. At the Privilege Walk, everyone was theoretically different: different life experiences, body image, skills and talents, yet everyone got along so well. They were open to learning more about each other’s lives and the most powerful thing was seeing them laugh! There you had a room filled with completely different people, but everyone was laughing at the same joke. They found it — that common space of humanity, at the core of who we are, where everyone is welcomed and everyone just gets it.
It was a real honor for me to participate in the Privilege Walk video. I am continually impressed by Respect Jamaica’s ongoing anti-discrimination and human rights focus – not only consistent and all-embracing, but conveyed in a sensitive yet “no nonsense” way. Their use of social media is brilliant, of course. They get the message across, with the all-important youth perspective firmly embedded. They are the best thing to have happened in Jamaica for years!