Leadership Embracing Diversity

The University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Regional Headquarters, with its pale blue roof, is quite grand on the outside. Inside, it is beautiful and functional. Last Thursday afternoon, we walked through a cool hallway lined with paintings of past heads of the University to the spacious room where the “Great Leadership Debate” was about to begin.

Prizes included book tokens and other goodies.
Prizes included book tokens and other goodies.

The debate was coordinated by UWI Leads, an organization that helps to develop leadership skills among the students. It started in 2010 and supports several programs: Quality Leadership; The Live and Lead program; The Leadership Exchange Program; The Peer Leaders Program and the Leadership and Service Program. UWI Leads members were clearly visible in their red polo shirts; peer leader Adriel Howell served as a soft-spoken and charming chairperson.

UWI Leads
UWI Leads

For this debate, now an annual fixture in the calendar, UWILeads partnered with the LGBT rights group J-FLAG, under the theme “The Role of Leadership in Responding to Vulnerable Communities.” But this was not the exact topic under debate, which was: “This House would prosecute employers for all forms of discrimination.” The four competing teams had to prepare their arguments in just fifteen minutes after the topic was presented to them. A tall order, indeed.

J-FLAG logo
The J-FLAG logo includes the colors of the Jamaican flag (black, green and gold).

This was “an English parliamentary-style debate,” so there was a Prime Minister and his Deputy (University of Technology), an Opposition Leader and his Deputy, and then an additional team on each side of Parliament, so to speak – including a Whip. There was a team of adjudicators, and a moderator who was very strict. I was startled by the occasional sudden handclap from the judges and the moderator in the middle of a presentation, and to be honest didn’t understand the purpose of that. I tried to focus on the arguments. Sometimes one side tried to interrupt and the speaker would say, “Not accepted at this time!” and continue.

The room was "standing room only."
The room was “standing room only.”

After Program Director for UWI Leads Nadeen Spence had welcomed everyone (and the room was full by now) UWI’s Deputy Principal, Dr. Ishenkumbah Kahwa mentioned the importance of self-development. Education is not just about grades, he reminded the mainly student audience. He recalled his interview for a Fulbright Scholarship, and his surprise that some volunteer work he had been involved in seemed of greater importance to his interviewers than his paper qualifications.

The all-male panel of judges.
The all-male panel of judges.

One of the entities endorsing the debate was the U.S. Embassy in Kingston, which has been particularly strong in its support for LGBT rights. Public Affairs Officer Christopher Degnan informed the audience that there will be a special event at the U.S. Embassy on Friday, April 11 at 2:00 p.m. with LGBT rights activists Dennis and Judy Shepard – the parents of the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepherd who was murdered in 1998 because of his sexual orientation. The event, “Erase the Hate: Promoting Respect and Social Tolerance,” will include a film screening of “The Laramie Project.”  More on this later.

The "Prime Minister" speaks. Apologies for the rather distant photographs  - we did not want to get too close to the speakers for fear of distracting them.
The “Prime Minister” speaks. Apologies for the rather distant photographs – we did not want to get too close to the speakers for fear of distracting them.

Ms. Rose Cameron, Director of Student Services and Development at UWI, stressed the importance of “peaceful discussion” rather than the shouting matches that too often occur. Debates such as these “break down boundaries,” Ms. Cameron suggested.

“Equality for all,” declared the “Prime Minister” (from last year’s champions, the University of Technology) as he opened the debate. There is no doubt that he and his very sharp Deputy had a much easier task than the Opposition; it’s hard to justify discrimination of any kind in the workplace. Non-discrimination, the PM and his colleague contended, would help to create a “more harmonious society,” especially important in a country like Jamaica which is seeking to develop itself.” There should be a public education program on discrimination; and clearly, an environment that  creates happier employees and greater productivity. The prosecution of employers does not, of course, guarantee that victimization will go away, but it sets a precedent and establishes boundaries. Later, the PM and his deputy stressed that the government has a “moral responsibility” to protect the vulnerable in society; they must have a sense of belonging. Employers, too, must follow the same philosophy; they have a duty to the public at large.

An "Opposition" member speaks.
An “Opposition” member speaks.

The Opposition battled valiantly – and at times, incoherently. Affirmative action was the answer, they suggested, not prosecution; but they did not clarify how this would work in practice. The Deputy Opposition Leader had a sudden fit of nerves and had to return to his desk after failing to present his argument (or even to finish a sentence). This was unfortunate, provoking comment from the audience – who were, for the most part, well-behaved, although there were waves of mutterings and the odd, pointed remark from a person in the back row.

The problem was this: Neither side effectively addressed that question “How?” They put forward (and repeated) several nice-sounding phrases. There was quite a bit of philosophizing, and the tone of the debate was admirable. But the discussion never got down to the strategies and implementation. Perhaps that would have been too much to ask. Each presenter had just seven minutes to speak, and with only fifteen minutes of preparation beforehand it would have been hard to flesh anything out. The matter of what kind of fine employers would incur did arise, along with the suggestion that a Ministry board could set up a quota system.

The winning debater from UWI Western Campus. He spoke with a flourish.
The winning debater from UWI Western Campus. He spoke with an emphatic flourish.

There were dozens of tweets from the audience and the organizers before, during and after the event. “Talks about vulnerable minorities should not stop” now that the debate has ended, said one. Another tweet said, “When you assume a leadership role, don’t be partial in your representation.” Who will speak for those vulnerable groups, if our leaders do not defend them? In closing, Rasheen Roper, the Coordinator of the UWI Leads (Gold) Program, commented that “leadership has no day off,” adding that “we need to extend ourself beyond what is safe.” Were we adequately challenged to do so, I wonder?

The winners pose for their picture.
The winners pose for their picture.

Who won, you may be asking? Not surprisingly perhaps, the “Government” side won – in the shape of UWI’s Western Campus team, who had come all the way from Montego Bay. Their presentations were energetic and focused. UTech came second. The two “Opposition” teams did not fare so well: UWI Mona Campus came third, and The Mico University fourth.

As the U.S. Embassy’s Christopher Degnan pointed out, “The vulnerable do not simply disappear, if we refuse to see them.” There is a great deal more to say on this subject. This debate was a valuable and useful exercise, but just scraped the surface.

May the discussion continue.

P.S. I wasn’t too happy with the gender balance, by the way. Out of the eight debaters, only two were women; and all five judges were men. Please, UWI Leads, do better next time, please.

Some quotes on leadership from UWI Leads:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born – that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense: in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” – Warren Bennis

“A leader is a dealer in hope.” – Napoleon Bonaparte



2 thoughts on “Leadership Embracing Diversity

    1. Oh! No, I didn’t realize. 🙂 I thought your comments were very much on point and agreed with them. They spoke too much in generalities. But then, having only 15 minutes to prepare their arguments, one could hardly expect much more. It would have been more informative and helpful if they had had the time to do research and refine their arguments. But that was not the format of the debate.


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