By Kim Williams-Pulfer, Ph.d
The times demand that Caribbean women must learn that they must either, as we say in The Bahamas, “fish or cut bait.”…I plead with our men not to remain asleep through this women’s revolutionary period. All must participate if the ship of state which we have taken into the treacherous sea of independence is to survive.
It will take the conscientious effort of men and women in the towns as well as men and women in the field and rural areas to make their contribution …for new nations to survive.”
-Dame Dr. Doris Johnson, “Women as Responsible Citizens, 1975”
It was a joy and privilege to find this quote in a speech by Dame Dr. Doris Johnson, a surprise archival gem while researching my doctoral dissertation. Dame Johnson was the leader of the now monumental Bahamian Women’s Suffrage Movement, the first Bahamian woman nominated to serve as a Member of Parliament, and she was also appointed to the Senate. In addition to her work in the public sector, Dr. Johnson was a teacher, scholar, author, and leader within the third sector, serving as a member of The Bahamian Federation of Labor and The Bahamas Folklore Group. She also served as President of the National Women’s Housing Association and a coordinator of the Bahamas Baptist Missionary and Educational Convention’s Women’s Auxiliary.
The quote comes from the text of a speech delivered by Dame Johnson in 1975 during a regional conference held in Grenada focused on the importance of Caribbean youth and the role of women. Dr. Johnson used a well-cited Bahamian catchphrase to admonish her audience, revealing her pride in her Bahamian roots while also signifying her belief that grassroots and local community work are vital aspects of nation and region building. Dr. Johnson sought to encourage others to get off the sidelines and fully engage in community building. In her speech, Dr. Johnson laid out a comprehensive practical, interconnected community engagement strategy that included forming father’s and mother’s clubs, youth work, rural health education, and cooperatives. She knew that collaborative work and partnerships were the keys to the success of any community. Dame Johnson’s life’s work was not only dedicated to fighting for women’s rights. She was also invested in grassroots and inclusive community development and committed to participating in various organizations building collaborative partnerships.
Dr. Johnson’s vision and insight shaped my leadership as a Board member of the One Eleuthera Foundation (OEF) and as a researcher and writer. I am invested in exploring the Bahamian third sector by documenting its rich history while identifying best practices to support local community development. At OEF, we know that we cannot traverse this journey alone. We have a commitment to setting an open table. This commitment is much like Dame Johnson’s efforts to inspire men, women, and youth from the cities and rural areas to get involved as active community change-makers.
Dr. Johnson also surmised in her speech, “In the Caribbean and developing nations, our human resources are greater-greater perhaps than our material resources….” Our unique history of struggle and persistence is the Bahamian story and one of our most powerful assets. A love for The Bahamas and its people has created friendship bonds among many visitors and residents. At its founding ten years ago, OEF engaged a group of Bahamians and residents with love for Eleuthera and The Bahamas and formed a coalition to discuss and imagine the possibilities for Eleuthera’s holistic and sustainable development. Today, a living document called “A Shared Vision for South Eleuthera” captures the outcome of these discussions. This document provided
OEF with its founding principles and guides our mission of 1) Strengthening communities, 2) Connecting the island, and 3) Planning for the future. As Dr. Johnson also noted in her speech, “no country can become truly great if it fails to utilize the full potential of its resources.” OEF strives to identify, preserve, and develop Eleuthera’s inclusive potential and, indeed, The Bahamas through programming focused on five social pillars: health, education, environment, heritage, and the economy.
In addition, OEF also has a comprehensive approach to partnerships with other like-minded organizations categorized as either core, service, or strategic. Some of our core partners (also known as founding partners) preceded and laid the critical groundwork for OEF’s emergence. While deeply connected to the mission of OEF, these partners provide programs and services as a part of their distinct mission while operating within one of OEF’s five core pillars. OEF continually provides these organizations with financial and programmatic support and, at times, direct administration. Some of our core partners include the Centre for Training & Innovation (CTI), South Eleuthera Emergency Partners (SEEP), The Eleuthera Arts and Cultural Center (EACC), Island Journeys, and the Cancer Society of Eleuthera. For example, while CTI serves the educational needs of Eleutherans, SEEP provides critical emergency services on the island.
OEF’s service partners are often located on the island of Eleuthera or in the wider Bahamas and are independent of OEF. OEF partners with these organizations by providing financial grants and technical support as they seek to fulfill their unique missions. Many of these organizations share their expertise and community experience while supporting OEF’s efforts. Some of our previous and current service partners include CTI’s Harbour Island Trade School and the Rotary Club of Eleuthera.
Finally, OEF also works with strategic partners. These partners engage with OEF in service delivery or implementing initiatives that address social challenges. Strategic partners can include public sector institutions as well as local and international organizations. Some of OEF’s previous and current strategic partners include The Bahamas Ministry of Education, the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI), The Harbour Island Green School, and numerous universities. We love how our work has evolved working alongside all of our partners. We aim to advance these relationships in the coming years while identifying new partnerships for increased mission impact.
What Dame Johnson knew back in 1975 was that an expansive focus on human development was necessary for addressing community needs. Her words and approach prove fruitful as our society grapples with old challenges such as gender and economic inequality and newer existential threats like climate change. Even though Dr. Johnson did not win her seat as the Member of Parliament for Eleuthera, fate would have it that we can carry the torch of her vision in our work at OEF.
Dame Johnson should inspire us all. Her life and words certainly speak to our work and mission at OEF. I reflect on her speech written over forty-seven years ago, just two years after our nation’s independence and I am amazed at how it still resonates today.