Building empathy through culture: Taking a seat at your table

By Holly Bynoe

On Being: Timed Out

On November 8 and 9th, over 250 members representing 26 countries from civil society convened in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for the 17th Annual Inter-American Development Bank Civil Society meeting. The IDB conducts quarterly meetings with Civil Society to expose civil society to international networks, and strengthen local capacity through information exchange. These annual meetings are an expanded and more dynamic and thus an important gauge for the regional work. The Caribbean region was represented by members from The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Suriname. As a cultural worker, I understand how important it is to position these meetings in the belly of Latin America and within the Global South, as it offers us a great moment to congregate, share, exchange and grow the already broad historical and social affinities that we have.

Hosted on the fecund grounds of Los Tajibos Hotel and Conference Centre located just outside of the third ring of the centre of Santa Cruz–nine radials and rings construct and divide this growing circuit– the meeting’s primary focus was to have a moment of conversation between the IDB and civil society. In other words, an orientation to figure out the temperature of the broader societies that constitute our expanding countries and the things that are tickling our fancies and imaginations, as we develop our future cities and smart cities. As Information, Communication and Technologies (ICTs) become the wave of the future, the dawn and rise of the digital era are bringing about new attitudes for working which involve greater institutional demands along with the updating of methodologies.

Fertile and lush grounds of Los Tajibos Hotel and Convention Centre where peacocks and peahens roam freely.

It was clear that the driver for all of this is the human capital and talent bringing these innovations to the table. Within this is the problem of regulation and policies to protect workers and keep the markets open. As a region that often plays second fiddle to the dominant Latin America, I was particularly interested in hearing how The Orange Economy and digital activism and advocacy is working to change our playing field. Sadly, The Orange Economy was mostly left out of the dialogue, which to me was a contradiction as the vast networks of creativity needed to implement these changes and to advocate for a fairer more just system of innovation will, in fact, land squarely in the hands of those listening to the cultural heartbeat of their countries and participants across the industries.

As a region which is grappling with severe limitations- access to resources, underdeveloped infrastructure and problems with education and digital/visual literacy, human capital became the centre and the pillar of all of the conversation, and it was interesting to see how technology is becoming a tool of further separation and I think, inequity.  If we don’t rise to the moment and figure out how to invest and integrate, we are left out. Our burgeoning startup culture while provocative and an under-tapped resource, is still very nascent in its development. Groups like the IDB can position themselves more proactively in the region to engage in training within industries that have a lateral mobility.

The Caribbean,  with its history of colonisation and the eventual independence for most countries, is already mostly out of opportunities with regards to its timeline of development in conjunction with the new world. The trauma of post-colonisation and the current wave of investment further strips away our integrity and humanity. It is crucial for these development and social initiatives to work in context with the situations that they find on the ground. I thought it very interesting that one of the most influential buzzwords dropped around and spoken about with equal parts superficiality and depth was “empathy”. Human capital, if an essential thing in the estimation of innovation and the evolution of the tech industry, is undoubtedly something that cannot be overlooked.

But, are we in the Caribbean there yet? When you look at major projects like Elon Musk’s Tesla or SpaceX initiative, it feels as though we are light years from wielding power to transform our local spaces through means that are similar to these. I’m admittedly not saying that local innovators should be working to open up space to humanity, but thinking about it very simply, we still haven’t started to agitate for alternative power and energy across the region. Not in any comprehensive way to buffer the current threat of climate change, rising sea levels and the many wars brewing- the war against terror, the war against poverty, the war against difference.

If we further separate ourselves from the land, from nature, and get caught up in materialistic and superficial–capitalistic-things,then we end up suffering more. Caribbean bodies have a particular relation to the landscape and nature. Can we rise to be the protectorate of our lived environment given our history?

The region also has a murky relationship to governance, investment and corruption. There is a way for us to work towards the remediation and health of this space, but can civil society advocate for such when hierarchies keep us from communicating and trusting?

If we are moving into thinking about technology as a forefront and pioneering space for abundance, inclusion and regeneration, perhaps we might want to start with unpacking the baggage we bring to the table  instead of embracing trite and superficial buzz words that work out of context with our space and realities.

A seat at the table

Part of the Bahamian cohort included Gevon Moss, IDB Resource Planner and Civil Society Liaison; cultural pioneer, Pamela Burnside, director of Creative Nassau and a founding member of Transforming Spaces; and longtime social advocate and Haitian activist, Pierre Richard Parisien, who currently lives and works in The Bahamas with the displaced Haitian diasporic community.

Bahamian Cohort at the XVII annual civil society meeting in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. L-R: Pam Burnside, Gevon Moss, Holly Bynoe and Pierre Richard Parisien. All images courtesy of Holly Bynoe.

Pam Burnside, the co-founder and President of Creative Nassau continues to fight for the visibility and advancement of culture in The Bahamas. Creative Nassau was formed in 2008 by the late Jackson Burnside III and a group of passionate Bahamians who applied to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network to have the City of Nassau designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Crafts & Folk Arts, an objective which was achieved on December 1, 2014. Creative Nassau’s mission is to “celebrate and promote Bahamian Art, Culture and Heritage from the Inside Out” in a platform which revolves around the adoption of the “Orange Economy” model as a means of encouraging the growth of Creativity as a sustainable development tool for the country.

Haitian activist Pierre Richard Parisien, budding politician, advocate and leader of HOPHAS (Haitian Organisation for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS & STDs), has been living and working in Nassau for the last nine years with the Haitian community to figure out ways to mitigate social challenges and create more integration within the Bahamian space. Parisien works in his organisation with women and youth who have been identified as the vulnerable demographic and lately has been working to increase the visibility of art in their outreach programming as it is one of the best ways to eradicate stigma and discrimination.

As someone working with culture and in particular with visual art, it isn’t hard to see why we want to be at the table for these conversations, especially as our budding partnerships cultivate a space of education and advocacy and as we try to wade through our complex history and the erasure of indigenous culture. There is a way that the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas becomes a pilot for being one of the first spaces that would be home to this kind of technology. Whether it be partnering with local initiatives to increase our national visibility or working with artists and advocates who are thinking about how we move to work towards inclusion to create a more harmonised and tech-savvy space.

As a cultural hub and an incubator of ideas, we want to keep abreast of the works going on in the region with civil society so we can start making motions to figure out efficient and equitable partnerships. I am not even speaking so much about a real reciprocal exchange, but a way to consider the deployment of tech in the third world and the solutions that are emerging slowly to aid the learning and development of our general public. As art practices also advance, how do we continue to agitate for the institution to move forward? Learning modules are being updated, spaces are becoming more tech integrated, and artists are now working with data, information and visuals more seamlessly.

Cultural Booth of Trinidad and Tobago with the branding of chocolate by artist Brianna McCarthy.

Do we not have to advocate for the presence of this kind of work nationally? There is an incredible amount of power and empathy when we think about connecting to vulnerable communities and the institution as a protector, arbitrator and advocate for such is essential. As the world becomes smaller and as industries become more porous and intersectional, digital transformation, as evidenced by the rise of social media, is something we can’t ignore. It is the culture of our new world. The economics of The Bahamas is changing given the migrations of people and investment. However, we must stand as advocates within the institution to be able to educate our public regardless of their social strata.

It is important also to state the truth about these challenges and the fear of not being able to advocate or advance in a legitimate and fair way. We live in a world where artists, agitators and advocates overthrow governments and maybe the Caribbean is often seen as a passive region. However, our history is anything but, with Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago, as examples of the fragile state of governance. At times we become complacent in our attempts to agitate for real change or forget our collective power.

The investment in startup culture with groups like Shift the Culture and Starter Island, who are leading this field and their work in tandem with cultural institutions, continues to be essential as we find  ways to partner and learn about their concerns and be a witness to their works. We already have such a problematic time at the institution when we think about accessibility and nation building through visual art, patrimony and heritage. How are we going to work to humanise the digital revolution in our cultural institutions? Do we think about the evolution of our National Collection and access to it through sites like the Google Art Project or other platforms that are quickly coming on stream? Will the walls of the National Gallery become fluid as we open up our methods to the changing pressures of technology?

With high and growing levels of visual illiteracy, how are we giving support to, or pioneering the fields of digital and visual literacy in New Providence and across our Family Islands? If the future of our cities will be integrated with digital technologies, what is the role of the institution to be a space of involved cultural innovation and advancing material culture?

If the institution fails to keep up with the changing times, we get left out of another important and all-encompassing conversation around this shift and lose the younger demographic, millennials included. There isn’t an institution on this planet that can prosper without the youth contributing heavily to its success. In 2011 creative goods and services earned $646 billion globally–to opt out of this economy is to accept a certain death.

Culture at the centre

The conference ended with a roundtable session where we spoke about the importance of working on trust, transparency, reciprocity and true engagement, instead of the typical hypotheticals that often feel shallow. It was clear that the similarities within the cultural space, even though we have different colonial histories and governments, was a familiar and profound thread and common terrain across the region. There were small pockets of culture present during the conference, for instance a stall and presentation by Arte Campo, an organisation created in 1985, that unites twelve associations of indigenous groups of arts and crafts’ manufacturers. It has been the result of training, exchange of experiences and cooperation between existing groups of artisans and to date, it supports over 1000 families and encourages individuals to value themselves, strengthening their personal and collective cultural talents.

Inside of Cathedral Basilica of St. Lawrence at the city centre of Santa Cruz.

At the end of the two-day conference, the cohorts were taken to the centre of Santa Cruz to visit the 24 de Septiembre Square which is almost 500 years old and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Lawrence, also called Santa Cruz de la Sierra Cathedral, the main Catholic church in the city. We were welcomed by Santa Cruz’s Mayor Fernandez with a special performance by musicians and talented youth.

Again, these kinds of development events and meetings are always bookended by some cultural event. It exists on the periphery as entertainment and it, in my estimation, decreases the value. The Orange Economy as it stands can change the economic statue of the region if we decide to invest and meet the needs of artists, entertainers, writers, and those pushing these avenues forward.

Our creative and human capital can marry and through culture make transformative waves across our region. We cannot afford to treat this natural partnership as peripheral and cursory. There is always going to be value in meeting people doing social work–work linked to environmental protection, poverty eradication, education and the like. This continues to be invaluable as a resource to build partnerships, but there also comes a moment where regional cultural workers must stand in awareness and fight to be involved in these meetings that discuss development and innovation, so that we can be a part of keeping our authentic spirit alive and flourishing.