Poet and feminist Ashlee Burnett cried when she learned she had been chosen to represent TT as a member of the Women Deliver Young Leaders programme for 2020 to 2022. The 22-year-old is one of 300 selected from 5,600 applicants.
“I remember receiving the e-mail and immediately springing up from my desk screaming with tears running down my face. It meant a lot to be chosen for this prestigious programme. It’s an honour to be seen, to be appreciated, to be chosen to learn more and expand the endless possibilities to advance gender equality in the Caribbean,” Burnett told Newsday.
The Women Deliver organisation was formed in 2007 by global educator and maternal, reproductive, and sexual health advocate Jill W Sheffield. The organisation’s first conference in London in 2007 brought together 1,700 people to commit to reducing the maternal mortality rate, which was extremely high.
The Young Leaders programme was implemented in 2010, with the aim of providing young advocates with skills training and access to platforms for them to share their voices and experience. Since then, the programme has partnered with several organisations to reduce maternal mortality in Africa, created a private sector network, incubated a crowdfunding platform exclusively for women’s projects, gatecrashed the World Economic Forum in 2016, and launched humanitarian advocacy work, among other achievements.
The Young Leaders programme provides advocates with access to a digital university, a speakers bureau, grants, workshops, and attendance to the Women Deliver Conference, the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women. The next conference is scheduled to take place in 2022, at a yet to be chosen location.
Burnett said many of the programmes will take place virtually given the covid19 pandemic, but some speaking events are scheduled for 2021 and the hope is that they and the conference can be held in person.
She said advocates who are chosen must be committed to advancing gender equality through various avenues such as community organising, media, law, policy change.
“It doesn’t matter what level your activism and advocacy is at, the main thing is commitment and passion.”
She said she is looking forward to discovering how the programme will assist her in developing Feminitt, an NGO she launched to address and advance gender equality through social good, education and conversations through an intersectional Caribbean feminist lens, which recognises that the issues faced by women in the Caribbean are not related only to their gender, but also to their class, race, sexual orientation, social, educational and socio-economic standing and other factors.
“Being a part of this programme will allow me to learn best practices of running an organisation like this, provide me with the knowledge to educate Feminitt’s team, communities and ensure that vulnerable communities have support and access to various services. During the two years of WD, I plan to maximise my learning opportunities, ask for help, mentorship, apply for grants to get projects off the ground and contribute my knowledge and skills in every way possible.”
Burnett said she was drawn to the pursuit of gender equality due to her experiences in performance arts spaces in the Caribbean, where she was one of a few and often the only woman present.
“I’ve seen this through leadership, being the youngest and the first female president of the USC Speak, an open mic for discourse and performance at the University of the Southern Caribbean. During the three-and-a half years of my service to USC Speak, I had to ensure that I curated the performance lists to include women in the conversations.”
She said she has always seen the gender gap and difference in treatment throughout her engagement in various institutions.
“Seeing men repeat your ideas and be praised for it, after no one listened to you, isn’t just something you read in textbooks or see in movies. I’ve had my fair share of that experience. As I grew older and developed the language and knowledge, I made a vow to myself to create better spaces for me and everyone, one step at a time, to ensure that girls, women and persons of vulnerable groups have a seat at the table, always, and not just a token seat but one that is meaningful and can contribute in a big way to decision-making.”
Burnett is the current president of the TT chapter of Caribbean Women in Leadership (CIWil).
She was a former teaching assistant of the 2Cents Movement and was instrumental in highlighting the problems occurring within the group. She functions as the assistant slam coordinator of the Youth Speaks International Poetry Slam Festival at Brave New Voices, a youth art and advocacy group in the US.
She said she hopes to see several changes come about through her work and that of others like her.
“I hope to see more youth in leadership. For years, the youth of TT and around the world have been proving the type of impact and capabilities that we are equipped with to lead and bring about change. I hope to see more information disseminated in a palatable way to reach as many communities as possible. I hope to see more grassroots projects occur, where it doesn’t stop after grants, but rather, some form of community check-in where we keep working together in some way.
“I hope for better and accessible health care systems for everyone including queer folks. I hope we are able to hold each other accountable to improve areas of sexual and reproductive health and rights, contribute to the development and amendment of policies and laws, continue to raise awareness, but most importantly, educate those who do not have access to the resources we have. I hope to empower others and equip them with the tools to contribute to a better gender equal TT.”