By: Dr. Kim Williams Pulfer

“Well, I really want to know if your research covers topics like ‘Susu,’ ‘Pardner,’ or ‘Box Hand,’ topics that show who we are as Caribbean people and explain how we have supported, cared for, and loved each other.”

A student posed this question to me after I had presented to a group of Ph.D. students as part of their research seminar at the University of the Virgin Islands’ doctoral program in Creative Leadership for Innovation and Change. My topic for the session was “The Building Blocks of Caribbean-Based and Community-Engaged Research.” During this presentation, I used my recently published book, Get Involved: Stories of Bahamian Civil Society (Rutgers University Press), as a roadmap for the students to advance their work as emerging Caribbean researchers.

Expanding Regional Research:

I wanted to encourage these emerging researchers to expand our regional research repository. The case for research excellence I laid out to them was three-fold:

  1. We have untapped research opportunities focusing on the Caribbean’s comparative and shared histories, experiences, and perspectives.
  2. Failure to pay attention to these opportunities will limit the possibilities for advancing the well-being of all who call the region home.
  3. Using one’s lived experience and valuable research methods and approaches that center people’s experiences in the region is critical in expanding the knowledge base of relevant research.

I sought to show them how my book drew on these three research principles for strengthening Caribbean community-centered research.

Cultural Practices and Community Support:

In response to the Ph.D. student’s question about what he called “Susu” and what we in The Bahamas call “Asue,” I smiled and affirmed his inquiry. Through my research, he recognized something about our shared regional experience. This indigenous banking system is one relevant local example I highlight in the book as a mode of philanthropic engagement that has provided more than an exchange of community funds but also advanced human dignity and fulfilled an unmet need for social mobility. It warmed my heart that he had made the connection.

Historical and Contemporary Philanthropy:

From my experience and ongoing study, the history and legacy of robust philanthropic and third-sector activities are long-standing and rich. Yet, dominant research sources pay little attention to these activities. Research on philanthropy often concentrates on individuals with enormous wealth who give from their vast financial resources and originate from countries socio-geographically defined as the Global North. While these kinds of philanthropic efforts are, in many cases, laudable and valuable, I wanted to center on Global South, Caribbean, and Bahamian practices. I wanted to honor and assess how people who did not have access to large sums of wealth and faced exclusion used their definitions of philanthropy based on their cultural identity to support and “make a way when there was no other way.”

Personal Research Journey:

When I started my doctoral program, I knew from the outset that I wanted to consider ideas like philanthropy and civil society (also known as the third sector) from a Bahamian and Caribbean perspective. I was drawn to studying these subjects because I sense their force in my own life and my understanding of my identity. As I embarked on my research journey, I wanted to know how former small Caribbean island colonies, like The Bahamas, produced such strong leadership and a sense of communal and regional identity. My initial study of our country and the region drew me to the research on enslavement, emancipation, and independence. Over time, this revealed how the pursuit of more equitable living was often led, created, and maintained by local people committed to the ideals of community empowerment.

Community Leadership and Civil Society:

I saw how philanthropy, from the Greek, which means “love of humanity,” and today has one contemporary definition of “voluntary action for the public good,” was embodied in many ways in Bahamian and, by extension, Caribbean contexts. In our earlier history, many communities relegated to the lower rungs of society developed leaders who saw these immense social problems as opportunities and demanded full citizenship and inclusion in a rigidly socially stratified political and social climate.

Analyzing Local Leadership:

I analyzed the creative ways local leaders practiced their philanthropy and advanced civil society through various institutions over time. They established friendly societies, lodges, protests, advocacy groups, and other community support and care systems that fostered unity and collaboration. I identified the efforts of leaders like Dr. C.R. Walker and Mother Frances Butler, who spoke out and cared for others who would otherwise not have access to essential services. I observed the vital role those religious institutions played in creating safe spaces for religious expression but also served as central headquarters for incubating and driving social change. I observed the role of the arts through direct artistic expression, which included resonant literary depictions of our community perspectives by writers like Robert Johnson, Marion Bethel, and Ian Strachan, and its function in establishing artistic institutions that provided many opportunities for creative leadership, art-based advocacy, and national development. I also interviewed the leaders of current nonprofit and civil society organizations. In our conversations, they described how pioneers of the sector inspired their leadership and propelled them forward in their organizations. Earlier practices became the pathway for the next generation, allowing emerging leaders to expand older organizations and create new ones to serve the evolving needs of local communities.

Recognizing Third Sector Contributions:

There is a tendency for dominant research or policy insights to describe the third sector in the region and the Global South as anemic or plagued with various shortcomings. However, we must fully understand earlier evolutions and formations and, more importantly, recognize what the third sector continues to accomplish. Without these critically relevant insights, we further marginalize practices that have guided and bolstered our communities and people for many generations.

Documenting Stories of Freedom and Community:

In documenting these experiences, I had to engage with stories of freedom and community, our stories of striving against various odds of racism, sexism, socio-economic disparities, and additional forms of exclusion deeply rooted in the history of the Americas. Once a dissertation and now transformed into a book, this depiction broadens our recognition of our shared humanity and celebrates our rich local legacy of community leadership. I argue that these practices are vital for addressing the ongoing challenges that beset us.

Just as I appreciated the Ph.D. student’s question, I am excited whenever I see local third-sector organizations forge ahead in their efforts. For every summer youth program, community center opening, local grassroots activity, and every form of sponsorship provided to support community activities, the drumbeat of our vision and version of philanthropy and civil society still beats strongly. My research mediates our work to date and invites additional research. Ultimately, I hope this book does its part in renewing our commitments to support and strengthen the third sector, ensuring that it continues to be a dynamic space where communities can galvanize to advance social good.