Barack Obama is undoubtedly a great communicator! His discussion with a group of Young Caribbean Leaders, at a Town Hall Meeting, yesterday afternoon was a good example of his skills in engaging with diversity.
During his historic visit to Jamaica, en route to the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama, President Obama requested a meeting with young leaders to “hear their views”. I was honoured to have been invited to participate. With an over 3 hour waiting period (including a long security queue), Tessanne Chin and Agent Sasko helped to prepare a wonderful atmosphere for the President’s arrival from his meeting with the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) at the UWI Regional Headquarters.
On his arrival at the Assembly Hall of the UWI Mona, the Town Hall audience erupted in loud applause and screams of delight as he shook hands and waved to participants.
Check out clips from the Jamaica Gleaner’s YouTube video (published, 9th April, 2015), “Greetings Massive! Obama addresses Jamaican youths“. (You may even see a few familiar #5050Youth faces! :-))
The Town Hall began with a short statement by Obama in which he greeted the group in true Jamaican style; discussed his administration’s focus on partnership with youth, human rights and justice; and announced two very significant areas of support to youth development in the region. These are:
- A US$68 million programme of support for education, training and employment programmes for young people from marginalised communities and disadvantaged circumstances in Central America and the Caribbean.
- The new Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) which will provide up to 250 fellowship opportunities annually for young entrepreneurs and civil society activists from Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. The fellowships will offer mentorship, network-building and funding to advance businesses and ideas. The full programme will begin in 2016 but a pilot will begin this year with 24 entrepreneurs involved in technology-based initiatives. Click the name of the programme above for more information from the White House on this initiative.
These are great initiatives and #5050Youth hopes to be able to document the experiences of those who will be participating!
After his statement, there was a “Question and Answer” period in which Obama demonstrated a keenness to listen to and engage young leaders in frank discussion, on any issue. Taking off his jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves, he encouraged participants to pose questions with “no rules”. Students, entrepreneurs, civil society activists and academics used the opportunity to ask the President about inter alia:
- China’s influence and investment in the Caribbean region;
- The US immigration policies and implications for Caribbean people seeking to migrate;
- Managing mental stress as a leader;
- The changing Cuba-US relationship and implications for the Caribbean Community’s relationship with Cuba;
- Promoting social change and individual activism;
- The US federal perspective on the decriminalisation and legalisation of marijuana in Caribbean countries;
- His lessons-learnt from the 2009 Presidential Campaign; and
- Jamaica and Caribbean countries’ management of IMF structural adjustment programmes and issues of debt forgiveness.
In response to each question, even those which inappropriately sought to encourage him to advise Caribbean and other countries on their own policy decisions, President Obama demonstrated diplomatic aplomb and humility in advancing his ideas, without criticising others in an arrogant way. He shared his personal and professional experiences; what he has learned in policy-making and leadership; and his ideas on how we can all contribute to lasting positive social change and economic development, globally.
While some of those in the Assembly Hall were not as young as would have been expected and some of the young people were not, in fact, from the Caribbean; undoubtedly for all involved, it was a truly memorable experience!
For me, the occasion was one of excitement, education, inspiration and sober reflection. The priority given by President Obama to a discussion with young people – even with a tight schedule – is instructive. Isn’t it time for this kind of leadership in the Caribbean? Chairman of CARICOM, Prime Minister Perry Christie, apparently said, during the regional meeting with Obama, that the Community places great importance on better outcomes for youth as critical partners in sustainable development. However, when last have CARICOM Heads of Government engaged young leaders in discussion? Isn’t it time for better communication?
Watch the entire Young Leaders Town Hall with President Barack Obama on the White House You Tube Channel here: https://youtu.be/XwLjtyyVfEY (It starts around 58:00 minutes).