Who run the world? Girls!
When Beyoncé screamed those words in her 2011 pop hit, women globally were inspired. With 8 March marking International Women’s Day, and after a period when women have been speaking out against sexual assault, we meet a handful of Bajan ladies determined to make a difference. Words and images by Risée Chaderton
Alexa Hoffman , LGBTI Activist
“I needed to change things – for me and for younger people following.”
Although she is only 24 years old, Alexa’s youth has not stopped her from becoming one of Barbados’s leading and most visible activists for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) rights. Often seen leading impromptu ‘flash stands’ – short, pop-up, low-key demonstrations – in the centre of Bridgetown, Alexa has become the voice for the island’s often unheard LGBTI community, particularly focusing on transgender issues. “I consider myself to be quite old emotionally,” she says.
Alexa was instrumental in organising the first-ever Barbados PRIDE week last November. With the support of the Canadian High Commission, Alexa spoke about the need for more legislation to protect the vulnerable LGBTI community, and noted that if its members continue to emigrate to places such as Canada because they feel unsafe, Barbados will continue losing skilled workers and creative minds that could be contributing to the growth of the Barbadian economy. “When we leave and give our skills to another country, that country benefits,” says Alexa. “I like Barbados and I want my home to benefit instead.”
Alexa continues to work toward making Barbados a safe space where LGBTI people can feel at home.“I used to be scared to leave my house,” she recalls. “I never wanted to be too far from people who could rescue me if I was attacked. This impacted my ability to get a job because I didn’t even want to catch the bus to go beyond a certain distance from home and be exposed to the public and potential violence.” Trans women in the Caribbean are often subjected to horrific assaults and many are abandoned by their families.
Alexa realised that she could not allow herself to be a prisoner in her own home. “There was no hiding who I was, so I started to embrace myself and move forward,” she says. Alexa wanted to help others avoid those same feelings of oppression and abandonment, so she began speaking out. “I guess I kinda made myself a target, but I had to do it. I decided that I needed to change things for me and for younger people following.” Now Alexa has global support behind her and has made Barbados aware of the issues affecting the LGBTI community.
• www.facebook.com/alexa.v.strauss; Twitter: @UltraViolet_940; Instagram: alexa.hoffmann
Luci Hammans, Playwright/Poet/Teacher
“It takes courage to be creative.”
Poet and playwright Luci Hammans has long been different – different in presentation, different in her thinking. Her difference has led her to become a big voice on the underground poetry scene in Barbados. Always one to take her struggles straight to her notebooks, Luci has recently begun working as a playwright, too. While studying theatre performance in Birmingham, England, Luci saw how young people thrived when they had a space to speak their truth. This led to her participation in BeatFreeks, a youth engagement agency, and she brought their poetry jam model back to Barbados when she returned home after completing her studies in the UK.
The poetry jam was a success. Since then Luci has been creating more events that are rooted in the Caribbean experience.
“I wrote a play called Who Diablesse about four Caribbean women who are all la Diablesse – protectors of women,” she says. “It’s about how the three elder members help the youngest member come to terms with her powers and responsibility. There was a performed reading of it that made me so proud.”
Now a theatre teacher, Luci says that she remains focused on young people. “I love working with young people because the creative energy they have is amazing,” she says. “I love creating safe spaces for kids, especially those living in a place where it can feel like creativity is not considered important.”
Talking about how she conducts her workshops, she says: “I try to help young people realise that they don’t have to be perfect. It takes courage to be creative. I run workshops on writing and I think my own youth helps them root it in the real. I don’t do Shakespeare unless we are reinterpreting it; I try to ground it in our Caribbean-ness. We have a rich Caribbean heritage and we have to hold on to it.
I love inspiring young people. At the NIFCA summer camp I taught them about Caribbean folklore, and I could see the young people blossom while learning about their history.” Luci continues to teach, and her work can be seen around the region in 2018.
• www.facebook.com/luci.hammans; Twitter: @luciIsMe
Lois Oliver, Scientist
“It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it.”
The primary school science fair is crowded. Students chatter excitedly about their projects, and Lois Oliver bends down to speak to one ten-year-old girl. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she asks. The child responds gleefully, “I want to work in a store!” Lois’s brow furrows. “Don’t you want to be a scientist? An inventor? A mathematician?” “Girls don’t do that!” the girl replies confidently. “Yes. They. Do,” Lois insists – and explains the details of her job while other students gather around to listen. Lois knows that she is an example to young girls, helping them see who they can be, what they can achieve. She does not take that responsibility lightly.
“As a child I had a family member who was studying sciences,” she recalls. “I was young and didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I knew I wanted to do it too. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t.”
Lois studied biology and chemistry. Once she had her degree, she worked as a lab tech in a local brewery, then moved up to become a brewer, which is “part scientist, part artist,” says Lois. “You have to know the chemistry but also how the flavours will mix and create your final product.”
But Lois didn’t just want a job – she wanted a purpose. When she saw an opening for assistant director at the Caribbean Science Foundation, she knew she would be good at it: “Encouraging young people was definitely what I wanted to be doing.” She got the job and immediately began helping organise projects such as the annual Robotics Camp held in the summer holiday for young people aged 11 to 13. It had never been done in Barbados before, and enthusiasm was high. Both boys and girls applied and were accepted, defying the notion that science is a ‘boy thing’.
Lois also became involved in a scholarship programme called SPISE (Student Programme for Innovation in Science and Engineering), a four-week intensive workshop that trains young scientists. “We have alumni at Harvard, at MIT, at universities around the world,” Lois says. “We are very proud of our students.” Next on the agenda is a coding camp for young people, which will launch in 2018.
Lois has now left the Caribbean Science Foundation but still works to show how science is the way forward. “Everyone wants their child to be a doctor or a lawyer, but hospitals and law firms hire relatively few people. Science creates thousands of jobs. We can do that in the Caribbean if we train our young people to value science and innovation. I won’t stop working to make that happen.”
Allyson Benn, Blogger/Social Media Activist
“I know who I am and what I stand for.”
If you are online in Barbados you will have heard of Allyson ‘Artemis’ Benn. She is a woman with a big voice and a massive social media following, and she isn’t shy to tackle issues that most will only handle with kid gloves.
Standing nearly six feet tall, Allyson is an intimidating presence before a single word leaves her mouth. So when she decided to take on the cause of sexual harassment on the streets, her presence did not go unnoticed. A former adult entertainer, Allyson has often said that the only power people have over you is when you refuse to own your truth: “I know who I am and what I stand for; no one can shame me with my past. I am who I am and I like me.”
Allyson runs a blog/vlog, empowering women who are often seen as disposable by society. “Often people are only interested in protecting the ‘good’ women, the ‘respectable’ women. Women who are loud and ‘ghetto’ like me are often left to fend for ourselves because we don’t fit the image of women who need protection, yet we are also deserving of basic human respect.”
She is also interested in demystifying sexuality. “We refuse to talk about it, and we shame women who are brave enough to own their own bodies and not make their bodies playgrounds for men. We only seem to respect women who don’t talk back and who cater to misogynistic ideas of womanhood.”
Rihanna was initially condemned for declining her studio’s invitation to present herself as a sweet, innocent pop star, but her career skyrocketed when she took control of her own narrative. Allyson is making it safe for other women to do the same.