Tashia Grace Burris’ booming voice caught many by surprise when she was introduced on January 26 as the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP’s) candidate for Tobago West in the August 10 general election.
The party’s supporters were impressed by her passionate inaugural speech, which incorporated her love of family and a desire to see Tobago receive at least a ten per cent allocation from central government in the national budget.
“We (Tobago) ever get 6.5 (per cent). We ever get five per cent. Ent they (government) always giving we four per cent?” Burris, 35, had asked the crowd at the Montgomery Hard Court.
“So, we going and fight for ten per cent of the national budget because they cannot keep doing this. Tobago still has to be begging for development, begging for the right to do what we want to do for our people. This has got to stop now.”
Six months later, Burris’ desire for the island to receive a larger slice of the national pie still burns.
If anything, it has reinforced her resolve to lobby relentlessly for a significant increase in the allocation if she enters the Parliament as the Tobago West MP.
“The current budgetary allocation needs revision to reflect our current and future needs,” she argued in a Sunday Newsday interview.
Burris added the issue is linked directly to the pace at which the island develops.
“We have to do some serious introspection on where we are at. There is no vision to take the island forward.”
The mother of two, who works for a local oversight body, believes development is being approached in a piecemeal fashion and not tied to any overarching goal.
Burris said the legislation to grant Tobago greater autonomy, which is currently before a parliamentary joint select committee, is a case in point.
The long-standing issue, she said, must be addressed decisively.
“We are not in a position to achieve our highest potential because of a demonstrated lack of vision and leadership at the level of our elected officials.”
Burris believes the strength of the THA has eroded over the years, leading to an “uncomfortable relationship” between the assembly and central government.
“The people are seeing that successive governments have not given us more than the bare minimum allocation yearly. This speaks volumes.
“To the layman, it indicates a lack of trust in Tobago’s ability to govern itself and advance its own development in a sustainable and accountable manner.”
The young, dreadlocked politician argued Tobagonians need to elect leaders with the vision, skills and competencies required to truly advance the island’s development.
Burris stressed greater autonomy for Tobago is a must.
She said: “The party has articulated the position that we need to redefine our independence within the union of TT. That simply speaks to positioning Tobago to be able to sustain itself financially, to possess law-making powers and its full range of executive functions.
“My representation on these issues will hopefully bring to a conclusion the race that started with Mr (ANR) Robinson and Dr (Winston) Murray back in 1976. Tobagonians have been waiting for 44 years. It is my sincere hope that this is the finish line where this is concerned.”
Born in Canaan, Burris said politics has always been a part of her household.
She said her father, Gairy Burris, raised his six children to stand up for themselves and articulate issues.
“He made it his business to buy and read the newspapers everyday and I grew up seeing and hearing him express his own political views. The banter in my household sometimes reached fever pitch.”
The experience, she said, kindled her interest in politics at an early age but not at the party level.
Rather, Burris saw former Tobago-born independent senator Dr Eastlyn Mc Kenzie, known for her candour and folksy manner, as someone she could emulate at that time.
“I always wanted to maintain an independent view of what was happening around me. And I briefly wanted to become an independent senator because of her ability to call a spade a spade.”
Even now, she regards Mc Kenzie as a natural born storyteller with a sharp mind, wit and unquestionable integrity.
“She is the kind of representative I aspire to be.”
Burris revealed her decision to join the PDP was mainly to support her former Bishop’s High School classmate, deputy political leader Farley Augustine, in his bid for re-election in the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election, constitutionally due in January 2021.
Burris said she and Augustine were also members of the Tobago Youth Council.
The Speyside/L’Anse Fourmi/Parlatuvier representative is being positioned as the PDP’s choice for Chief Secretary if the party wins the THA election.
“I watched him grow and mature from our days in school to the man he has become now and it is my belief that he is the kind of leader required to advance Tobago’s development at this time.
“I am heartened he has been given the mandate to lead the fight for the THA by Mr (Watson) Duke.”
Burris believes the PDP is the only political party truly committed to building a better Tobago.
“I see a group of persons who are willing to stand up for themselves, at great personal sacrifice, in the face of daunting odds.
“I see bravery, tenacity, drive, passion and a deep love for Tobago emanating from the membership. This is what keeps me focused on the mission at hand.”
On the hustings, she claimed Tobago West constituents are dissatisfied with the quality of their representation.
Saying the constituents do not trust politicians, Burris claimed they are also disappointed with what has been passing for governance.
“They have not seen any real development on the island. Youths are being neglected. They have little hope that things will change in any real way but they are willing to give some new faces a chance.”Burris added while some constituents are hesitant they have admitted it is time for something different.
Still, juggling her career with parenthood and politics has been challenging for Burris, who holds a master’s in business administration with a specialisation in international marketing management (with distinction) from the Arthur Lok Jack Global School of Business.
“My life centered around my job and my children and now I had to open myself up to not just navigating through the politics and the public image, but treating with the needs of the people, especially those who felt invisible, unheard and unrepresented.”
She said this task is even more daunting because “there is a large degree of general mistrust for anyone representing a political party.
“People are generally used to getting bare minimum or nothing at all from elected representatives. Voter apathy is quite high. So, I have had to slowly re-educate and re-culture persons who I interact with on what true representation should look like.”
Burris is not without familial support.
She said while her 16-year-old son, Jaidyn, supports her wholeheartedly, “my daughter (Tatyanna) is still getting used to the idea of having to share her mommy with the world.”
Burris is a proud mother.
“My children are the parts of my heart and soul that walk outside my body. I had my son at 18 and it was important for me to establish the kind of relationship that was necessary to ensure that he never felt a lack of love.”
She is also deeply grateful to her parents for helping to raise her children.
Burris said her parenting style is a mixture of new school and old school.
“Foundation principles remain relevant to today. The need to instil manners, respect for all, faith in God and belief in oneself.”
Whatever the outcome in the August 10 general election, Burris has already declared herself a winner.
“The victory is in the journey and in this I have already won. My confidence lies in the fact that I have already accepted the outcome of this race and my focus is just running the best race that I can.”
Burris said her dream is to see Tobago become a first world destination.
“I want to live there. Tobago has three main advantages; its population size, the abundance of natural resources and our position in the Caribbean Sea. Our potential is limitless.
“We do not have to wait on Trinidad to achieve first world status. We can actually be an example to them and to our regional neighbours.”
Burris said Tobago has the potential to create the highest standard of living for its people.
“It takes vision, will and the right leaders at the right time to galvanise the support.
“Collectively, I believe we can create our piece of paradise in every way, shape and form and I believe that now is the time to do so.”