I have a mental gathering of “Jamaicans I admire” in my head. They never cease to inspire me. They are young, and older, and in between, and in all walks of life. Linnette Vassell is one.
This quiet afternoon – the first in three days of COVID-19 lockdown – I listened to a short interview with Mrs. Vassell on a weekly radio slot for older Jamaicans. This is presented weekly by the Caribbean Community of Retired Persons (CCRP) on Radio Jamaica’s “Palav” Sunday programme (3:00 pm Jamaica time!) The topic was “Women and the Ageing Process.” In 2019, Mrs. Vassell was honored as a recipient of CCRP’s Living Legacy Award. On that occasion, she gave a moving address.
I confess that when I first met Mrs. Vassell, I was in complete awe of her – and more than a little nervous. She is a towering figure in women’s rights, a fierce advocate, an unrelenting activist, steeped in knowledge and experience. In the 1970s, she coordinated the Committee of Women for Progress, established in 1976, which campaigned for maternity leave with pay and was ultimately successful. Now, remember in those days there were basically no computers, no social media, no smartphones, no Zoom. The Jamaican media was quite undeveloped at the time. Things were done by hand, on foot, delivered in hard copy. One requested face to face meetings with the powers that be; or one stood outside offices holding up placards, or organized a march by calling people on the phone, or holding meetings. The maternity leave legislation was eventually passed in 1979. It was very hard work.
Mrs. Vassell has always maintained a sharp focus on the betterment of women, in all areas – whether economic, social, or political. She has also always acted at the community level, addressing family and health issues, including water rights, gender-based violence, maternal health and gender-sensitive sanitation policies. She is a founding member of the community-based organization, Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC), a grassroots non-governmental organization that seeks to empower and support not only women, but also young people and seniors, in the surrounding inner city areas of Greenwich Farm and Lyndhurst Road. Organizations like WROC deserve so much more support. WROC takes on the difficult work.
And as true advocates do (and in fact, this is the exact meaning of the word) – Linnette Vassell possesses a great skill, that of being able to bring people together to discuss and thrash out “thorny issues.” I have witnessed this sense of community and collaboration myself, on several occasions.
Listening to this afternoon’s conversation, I was particularly struck by a phrase she used: “Step out of fear.” As we get older, as women, fears start to creep in (men have their own fears to contend with). In the Jamaican context, and in the context of COVID-19, older women worry about their health (including the cost of health care); loneliness and isolation; family trust issues (yes, these are real); and finances in general – after all, women get paid less. Moreover, there are care issues – sometimes having to care for an ailing husband or another relative in need. This burden traditionally falls on the woman. Who is going to care for me? she asks.
As an older woman myself, I have from time to time felt overwhelmed with anxiety for the future. However, my husband and I have been trying to train ourselves in mindfulness – in other words, take life “one day at a time.” How else can we cope with the uncertainty, and this feeling of fragility? (That song by Sting often comes to mind: “How fragile we are”).
Jamaicans are often devoted to their grandmothers, and with good reason. Many Jamaicans are actually brought up by grandmothers – but as they age, they have needs too. They need someone to take care of them, and often, they don’t have the support, Linnette pointed out.
What can we do? Share our issues and concerns with our peers. And advocate for those that affect us directly; Linnette Vassell continues to believe in social action to influence policies.
I know that Linnette is a woman of faith. During the interview, she offered both practical and philosophical advice:
Ageing is a part of life. Don’t fear death.
Don’t give up on life, embrace it. Don’t give up on yourself.
See younger women not as competitors (you don’t have to keep dyeing your hair!) but as partners. Reach out to the younger generations (we have so much to offer each other).
You don’t have to fit the stereotype of the “older woman.” (I would add: be yourself).
Actively “embrace a culture of faith.” Help to build communities and strengthen families – “in a real way,” said Linnette Vassell. Not just talk. It’s all about support for each other, and that is needed even more in this period of the pandemic.
Yes, there are challenges. And importantly…
Step out of fear.