Interview with Dahlia Walker-Huntington, Esq. the Southern United States Representative for the Jamaican Diaspora Foundation Advisory Board.
There are approximately 2.5 million Jamaicans living abroad and send home about US$1 billion a year, which is just behind Jamaica’s top source for foreign income, tourism. In June 2004 the Jamaican government hosted a conference on the Jamaican Diaspora in an effort to deepen the country’s economic and political links with Jamaicans living abroad. At the end of the conference a seven-member advisory board was elected by 350 delegates to represent the Jamaican Diaspora in the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Last month Xavier Murphy interviewed the Southern US Representative on the advisory board, Dahlia Walker-Huntington, Esq.
Question: Recently you added the Diaspora conference in Jamaica and were voted as a representative. What were you thoughts on the conference?
Dahlia: I was impressed. The conference was well organized and started on time every day. All the delegates present left very optimistic. The government of Jamaica has taken a major step with this initiative and has really done a good job in getting it started. It was clear that the Jamaican Government did not see us just as people who send a monthly money transfer to Jamaica. They want us to be partners where we assist each other.
Q: What are some of the major initiatives that came out of the conference and how will they continue to get a message out to the community?
Dahlia: A few of the major initiatives that came out of the conference were:
1. The declaration of July 16th as the Jamaica Diaspora Day
2. There will be a bi-annual Jamaican Diaspora conference in Jamaica.
3. The establishment of a Jamaican Diaspora Foundation in Jamaica which will assure the continuation of the initiative regardless of the political party in power.
Q: Do you think it will make an impact on Jamaican Overseas?
There were 7 delegates elected to represent the Jamaican Diaspora. There where 3 delegates from the US, 2 for Canada and 2 for the UK. I will represent the Southern US. There will be a representative that represents the West and Mid-west of the USA and one that represents the North East.
I believe this initiative will make an impact on Jamaicans abroad but it will take some work. There is no magic wand that will fix many of the issues affecting the Diaspora in 6 months. It will take a cooperative effort between the community and the elected delegates. We meet with the Minister of State in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade every 6 months in Jamaica to discuss issues affecting the community.
We will get the message out to the community through monthly updates and also through the Diaspora website. Our website will serve as an information source to keep everyone updated and will have a multitude of information. The community will also play an important role in this process as they will need to work with us to assure the success of the initiatives.
Q: Many Jamaicans believe that to make an impact they must have the ability to vote. What are your thoughts on absentee balloting for Jamaican citizens who live abroad?
This is a complicated issue especially in the area of logistics. For example to vote in Jamaica you must have an address in a specific constituency. You basically vote by constituency. How would someone who is abroad vote without a Jamaican address or constituency. There needs to be a long term study to see the benefits of this and also the feasibility. I do not believe this is an issue that can be resolved easily as it has to be well thought out. The Jamaican voting system has made great strides over the years and is still improving.
Q: You were voted as a representative for the North American contingency at the end of the conference. What does the new position mean to you?
Jamaica and Jamaicans are near and dear to me. It is a great honor for me and I also think it is a great challenge. I am always up for a great challenge. I take pride in the opportunity to give back to the county that has molded me into who I am today. It is my goal to always to make a difference so that the next Generation is better off than mine.
Q: What are the duties of the position?
The positions are new and the government has tasked us to help them in defining many of the duties of the position. Currently the main role is to be an advisory from the Jamaican Diaspora to the Jamaican government, to provide information on the needs of the Diaspora and to look at opportunities that can assist us mutually. We will also organize the overseas community to benefit Jamaicans overseas and at home.
Q: What are some of the goals you hope to accomplish in this new position?
Some of the short terms goals I hope to accomplish are to work with local governments and trade organization here in the South East US to explore trade opportunities in Jamaica. I also would like to see an umbrella organization created to assist many of the Jamaica charity and alumni organization with many of the issues they face in their efforts to make an impact in Jamaica. For example shipping items is one of the issues many of these organizations have questions about. Many of these organizations are not aware that is important that they register with the consulate as they can assist them with many issues when dealing with Jamaica. I also see the need for a Jamaican Political Action committee within the near future. We have missed out this year in the presidential election. However, in the next 2 years there will be a congressional races and it is important that we make our voices heard and elect officials whose policies closely align with those of our community.
Q: I know many Jamaican feel alienated from Jamaica because they believe they have no say in the direction the country is going even thought they know they make a financial impact. How do you see Jamaicans abroad working through and other representatives to make their voice be heard?
The government does not see Jamaicans abroad as only sending a money transfer down each month. They believe that they are important to Jamaica and can make an impact. That was the whole purpose of the conference in June. Expressing concerns to the Jamaican Consulate office is very important. The Advisory Board is the opposite of the consulate. The Consulate represents Jamaica in the foreign countries, and the Diaspora Advisory Board represents people in the Diaspora to the Jamaican government. To be heard you must participate in community activities and educate yourself as to what the mechanisms are to make your voices heard.
Q: There is a large Jamaican community in the US, especially in South Florida, yet we are not seen as a major voting block like the Cuban-Americans in South Florida. Many will say it is the “Sleep Giant” syndrome as referred to by the Miami Herald many years ago to describe our power but lack of “togetherness”. Many may also say that we have not participated in political process in the USA like setting up lobby groups and mobilizing our nationals. What are your thoughts on this?
The consensus at the conference was that Political Action Committees and lobby groups are needed. There is no doubt as we move forward this initiative will be implemented. It will be a long process but it is in the works.
I believe we have come a long way in South Florida. We have 8 politically elected officials and quiet a few movers and shaker throughout the state who are impacting U.S. policy.
Q: Do you see the Jamaica Diaspora organization doing anything among those lines to mobilize Jamaican abroad to assist in influence foreign policy?
As I had mentioned earlier this will take a while but I believe we are making good progress. Yes this is the goal of a Political Action Committee (PAC) or a lobby group.
Q: Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to express to the Jamaicans.com site visitors world wide?
It is up to us all to make it a success as the Jamaican Government has made an investment in taking the first steps. Several major Jamaican corporations have also offered their resources to the success of the Jamaican Diaspora Foundation. We have an opportunity to help our homeland and the Diaspora. We must be open-minded and willing to work together. I make a plea to all Jamaicans to get involved.
MEMBERS OF THE ADVISORY BOARD ARE:
. Dr Harold Mignott
. Dr Lascelles Anderson
. Mrs. Dahlia Walker-Huntington, Esq.
. Phillip Mascoll
. Sharon Abrahams
. Paulette Simpson
. Travis Johnson