DEAR SUNITY MAHARAJ
There are some people who jostle for the position of ‘voice of the people’ and when they get it jealously guard that perch. They do all they can to remove any other competing voices- from blocking those peoples access to media, canceling their popular columns, to gossiping and almost libellously mis-informing on their characters… But Activism and Progressive Change is not a popularity contest. It is not about stage managing your exits and entrances so that the cameras always get ‘your best side’. It is dirty work, it is about rolling up your sleeves’ and working on the problem, it is going where you are not welcome and doing what you would rather not be doing to get the job done. It is about doing the unpopular thing when it is the right thing to do. It is about sacrifice, and it is about seeing a job through to the end- with persistence and with Integrity.
Sunity Maharaj mentioned my name and that of my organisation in her Sunday column two weekends ago and her statements about me, my organization, and its work perfectly epitomizes the saying ‘lies, half-truths, and innuendo’. It is unfortunate that a senior journalist and a person that is respected in the community would use their power in such a manner to cast aspersions and repeat untruths when a simple fact check and a phone call could relieve them of the embarrassment of being wrong.
This is Ms Maharaj’s statement:
“At the Ministry of the Arts and Multiculturalism, Rubadiri Victor has successfully peddled the Artists Coalition for an appointment as adviser to the minister and a budget of roughly $5 million for a rush-job project. Titled “Memories and Histories”, it involves 24 sub-projects documenting the lives of some of our most exalted artistes and festivals. At the Ministry of Trade, meanwhile, CreativeTT is still preparing for sail to a destination unknown…. And yet, all the expenditure sounds suspiciously like a CEPEP for the arts with the emphasis on running the money and keeping them happy.”
Now here is the truth: There are people whose calling is Ministerial work in Trinidad and a ‘9-5’. I salute those people. I am not one of them. I am Artist and proud. Activism for me is a badge of Warriorhood in defense of my Sector, my Nation, and of Art itself. The three most important values of Art and Activism to me are Integrity, Independence, and Freedom. To me a ‘9 to 5 job’ and a ‘Wuk in a Ministry’ is in fact almost the ultimate demotion! I am not interested in a ‘Wuk’. I however am interested in ‘making progressive change happen.’ By any legal means necessary. The state of collapse in the Cultural Sector and the complete failure of consecutive administrations of politicians and public servants to firstly comprehend and adopt the progressive agendas we have fought for since Independence and especially to enact the things we have won meant that as a Sector we had an obligation to see what difference battles fought from the inside could achieve as opposed to those outside…
The Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago (ACTT) for which I am president is the umbrella body of the cultural sector organisations of T&T- members include everyone from Rock Musicians to Chutney, from Drama to the Visual Arts. We have been battling for sector interests by organizing artists and their groups, holding consistent meetings with Sector heads, consulting on Artists’ demands, and lobbying government, private sector, and international organisations in the Sector’s interest for 17 years. As activists from the outside- by marching, protesting, by leaking scoops to the press, by threats, by letter-writing campaigns, by alliances with international agencies, by strategic statements in public places and in the media, by articles, by organizing and mobilizing the Artistic Sector strategically, and by show of force- we have won a number of policy victories in the past 15+ years spanning 5 administrations!!! The battles to win these things have been historic, unprecedented, and have been long and arduous. They have taken place over conference tables, in public forums, and over Ministerial tables in battles with all administrations. Yet still we won them.
A number of these victories have never been implemented.
For example: Artists won the National Trust Legislation in 1991 which is supposed to protect the Nation’s Heritage and hundreds of our treasured buildings. That Bill was only promulgated and amended in 2001. The first part of that bill was only implemented in June of this year 2014!!! Battling from the outside it took us 23 years of almost weekly pressure to get that piece of Policy implemented. In the interim, billions of dollars of Heritage Sites were destroyed! Billions! The picturesque Lion House in Couva was razed to the ground, just like Bagatelle House in Maraval, and dozens of others all over the country. The Christopher Brothers studio, where Golden Age Kaiso like Spoiler’s was created, still existed in vintage condition up to 3 years ago. ACTT helped save the building from fire and demolition during that period. It is one of the 5 most important musical Heritage Sites in this hemisphere. It is worth billions. Was worth… The site- which was unprotected due to the non-implementation of the National Trust- was gutted, looted, and destroyed 2 years ago and this nation lost one of the most important touchstones to itself- and an asset that could have earned us billions in perpetuity…
In ACTT’s estimation Heritage should be easily earning this economy over $1.5 billion dollars annually. Instead Heritage is losing us over $1 billion. The Red House which should be earning almost $400 million annually as an economised Heritage Site is instead costing us over $450 million to repair because of lack of maintenance and care. Mille Fleurs which in some estimates could be earning more than $250 million will probably cost just under $100 million to repair. And so it goes. This is just one example where things won on paper- as significant as those victories are (especially because they were paid for in sweat, blood, and tears) could be sabotaged by non-implementation in the Public Service. There are many things artists can do for ourselves but we cannot construct an enabling environment of policy, legislation, and national institutions- that is the duty of the government that we the people put there as servants to accomplish our most appropriate plans. For 52 years we have failed to get them to do so.
Sunity pretends in her article that there is no masterplan for the Arts- but she knows that ACTT has developed one through research and consultation with the Sector and international agencies over the last 17 years. It is a plan admired by many international onlookers. This is the principled agenda ACTT battles government for. Two years ago, ACTT- through sustained effort over years- and by the sacrifice of the late Pat Bishop’s death in a bloody, tempestuous meeting in the Twin Towers- won nearly every single item of the first phase of the Sector’s 5 year plan for the country. We won 129 line items and $100 million in the National Budget! It was a historic victory paid for with the ultimate price. Instead government took the entire $100 million and spent it on bunting, fireworks, and events for the 50th Independence anniversary. The implementation of that agenda would have permanently employed tens of thousands, earned the country at least $500 million in the short term, revitalized communities, rescued Heritage, and amongst other things begun the transformation of East Port of Spain and Laventille. None of the substantive projects were implemented.
Implementation. This is the real crisis!!!
The definition of ‘madness’ is continuing to do the same thing over and over and wishing for a different result each time. We at ACTT and in the Sector are not mad. The policy victories we have won were made because we changed the ways activists from the past did things. We became more professional, we solidified unorganized artists, we hired lawyers and experts, we spoke policy language. Because of this we won historic policy gains. The next frontier however is implementation. This much is clear. Our first victory was to win the concept of an Arts Council as the implementing agency at policy level. But who was going to implement the Arts Council? Then the Arts Council was dismissed along with the 129 line items- and instead the white elephant called CreativeTT- which Pat and all of us fought against- was reintroduced. ACTT fought against CreativeTT for 1 year and was able to block its worst excesses until Cabinet over-ruled the will of the people and created CreativeTT anyway.
It was in ACTT’s battling for the reinstatement of the Arts Council and a series of programmes that we called ‘The Low Hanging Fruit’ that the offer was made to me by Minister Lincoln Douglas to enter the Ministry for the sole purpose of getting implemented the Progressive Agenda. I did not jus ‘take de wuk’ immediately- it doh work so within ACTT. I first had to approach my board and the Sector with the offer and get their opinions. They approved me to take the historic opportunity and instructed that I must report to the Sector every 2 months. I was also given an agenda of things to accomplish and was sent on my way. Finally we have gotten a chance to see what battling from inside is like and what it can accomplish. It would have been a betrayal of the sacrifice of ancestors not to take the opportunity.
I have been battling to fulfill the Sector’s objectives, from the inside, for the last year against overwhelming odds. I look at my time in the Ministry as a reconnaissance done on behalf of the Sector to finally see how things work inside the Ministry- and at Cabinet and Parliamentary level. Before I did this, none of us had a clue what happens inside the Ministry of Arts- now we have an accurate read of all its workings, of who, what, when, why, and how. Now we know exactly where blockages emanate from. We would never have found out this information from outside. The indispensable knowledge I have gained has been shared with the Sector regularly- and it is significant. Apart from that I have warred for the Sector’s agenda from the inside and for implementation of things we treasure and have won at policy level. It has been an eye-opening and serious battle and when the time is right we shall all talk about it nationally, because it has everything to do with why nothing progressive happens in Trinidad. But first things first…
After titanic battles at close quarters the following are the programmes I have won and which have been mis-represented by Ms Sunity Maharaj. It took one whole year to get these things through the system. They are:
- the creation of an Arts Council (the programme Pat Bishop gave her life fighting for) which would disburse seasonal and transparent arts funding for all artistic disciplines;
- the commissioning of 44 indispensable Memoirs and Histories on cultural forms and icons by getting $200,000 into the hands of expert historians and authors who have been working on those subjects over years so that they can finish and publish manuscripts so the country finally has the gift of these Legacies;
- the creation of a National Elite Artist programme based on the international Best Practice MacArthur Genius Grants programme and our own Ministry of Sports Elite Athletes programme which has bred numerous Olympic medalists, and critically;
- the Regularisation of the land tenure of all Pan Yards in the country. The latter programme would lead to the greatest redistribution of wealth into the hands of the roots classes and artists in the country’s history and involves programmes to ramp up the managerial capacity and entrepreneurial abilities of every single band.
This is what the last year has won. Whereas ACTT and myself are the vehicles through which these things are happening we do not get anything out of this. The monies for these programmes go towards the stakeholders, not us. ACTT has never requested any stake in any of them. They are national programmes.
It is important to examine the programme that Sunity Maharaj has attempted to malign by calling it a ‘rush job’. The 2 year programme is giving grants to historians and authors who have been devoted to their subject matter for years, many for decades- like 86 year old Mr Roderick Espinosa who has written the ‘History of Parang’. None of these people had the resources to complete their books and to complete them at their optimum with the best pictures, layouts, or publishers. Now they can. Many of the historians had almost given up on their projects because of the lack of resources from government and private sector. Meanwhile the Elders whose stories are indispensable to their research are dying all around. The situation is thus urgent. Now with this project these critical research and books- with multi-media supports- can be completed in time. None of this is as important as what it would mean to the nation- especially to students at primary, secondary, and tertiary level and all practicising artists, now and in the future- that will now be able to have comprehensive Histories of things like T&T Carnival, Dance, Hosay, Soca, Ramleela, and most of T&T’s artforms- as well as comprehensive biographies of Sparrow, Kitchener, Sundar, Beryl, Minshall, and many others done by the best researchers, writers, and photographers. This is a historic repair of missing pieces of the National Memory!
Sunity Maharaj- do not disrespect the work of our historians and legitimate cultural workers to score points…
As real activists- not posers trying to position themselves as ‘voice of the people’- we know our backs must be broad to take gossip, innuendo, and outright lies and fabrications. Most of this gossip is spread by political parties on both sides who feel their parties have been hurt by our complaints. Sometimes the gossip is spread by just jealous people who feel that you are better writers than them so they feel they need to bring you down a notch… Most times it’s water off a duck’s back. I know that Trinidad is a gossip country. However, a few times I have felt it necessary to respond to public accusations. When I do it is for the following reasons: Young people are watching all our works, words, and the institutions we inhabit- and are forming opinions.
At the moment many forces are attempting to malign the existence of activists and NGOs. The work of activism and independent NGOs is a critical job to the functioning of a modern Democracy. Granted there are some people whose lack of integrity has besmirched the reputation of activism and NGOs- just like others have besmirched the reputation of the business class and the job of doctors. However there is a campaign to paint all activists and NGOs as political opportunists and people who work for the highest bidder. This is not my reality and not what I have seen of most of the people in the Sector. In fact I have instead found here many people who sincerely care and are driven to try to intervene to solve Society’s ills in different ways, whatever their limitations. I will not have this pathway dishonored by lies and gossip from the mouths of those who should know better. I will also defend the integrity of the organisation ACTT, its board members, and its committed stakeholder participants who sacrifice and battle for and on behalf of the cultural sector.
For this reason we are requesting that Ms Sunity Maharaj do her job, do her proper research, and then apologize to ACTT and its president so that we can all get on with the business of building a phenomenal nation where transparency, accountability, justice, equity, integrity, and freedom are paramount. There is room for more than one voice. Thank you.