"A calabash is a vessel that holds a resource. It's also a resource in itself. Every human being is a calabash, in that we hold the resource to empower someone else." The Calabash Consortium was founded in New York two years ago by a group of concerned youth from throughout the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, St. Lucia, Barbados and T&T. "We recognised there was a huge need to empower young people," says founder, Geoff Cooper. "The organisations currently on the ground are either so archaic or didn't engage young people in the way we thought young people needed to be engaged." The fledgling group relies on Cooper's ten years of experience in youth development, his work in HIV/AIDS education and the use of art and drama for social education. They also benefit from the knowledge he gleaned working in sport development at the United Nations. Cooper is currently a consultant accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers in NY. "The name wasn't even finalised, then," he said, but they were clear on what they wanted to achieve. They decided to focus first on the development of young women, because, surprisingly, it was easier. "The infrastructure was already in place," he explains. "There were already many organisations engaging young women. Mailing lists were easier to come by. Sponsors and donors were more open to focusing on young women."
Their first endeavours were what they called "Possibility-oriented workshops", in which they urged high school students to think of their lives as a journey which they needed to plan and set goals for. They moved on to hosting Brighter Day summer camps and then to their Young Women's Education and Exposure Programme (YWEEP) consortiums. YWEEP is now in its second year. The two-day symposium, held in July at the Cascadia Hotel, was open to young women aged 13-25, from secondary schools, NGOs, institutions and government bodies. This year's theme was "Cultivating passion, potential and power-unleashing greatness". During the Girl Talk session, prominent local businesswoman such as Danielle Dieffenthaller, Karen Hunter, Neysha Soodeen, Donna Chin Lee and Debra Maillard led a panel discussion on the secrets to empowerment. "The girls were taught to recognize their worth, their potential, and their vale to society."
Participants learned the value of networking, and panelists Senator Lyndira Oudit, Dr. Linda Baboolal, Leslie Ann St. John and Kerry-Ann Barett opened their eyes to the secrets of climbing the leadership ladder. Budgeting, job-seeking and creation, entrepreneurship and self branding were also on the agenda.
Shanna Phillip, co-event chair of the symposium, believes that the information shared must be transferred in a manner that will captivate their young targets. "The symposium gives young women hope, especially girls who may not have seen success in their lives, or who feel that successful women have been given everything, education or funds that weren't readily available to them. They meet successful women who may not have come from the background they expected them to have come from. They think, 'Hey, she did it; I can do it too.'"
Two YWEEP attendees agree. Frances-Ann Craig was so enthralled by last year's event that she returned this year...with about seven or eight friends in tow. She was most encouraged by the struggles these successful local icons admitted to having been through on their journey. Infused by the calabash spirit, she feels compelled to volunteer her services at future events. "I know I have a lot of skills and talents to offer," she says confidently. "And in helping them I'll be making the world a better place." Having been invited by a friend last year, Christine Franklin returned for a second portion of hope and knowledge. "A young woman might have no role models or mentors, could look at the TV and see someone like our Prime Minister, see her in office, but not understand what it took for her to get there. It's important for people to know their trials and tribulations. It's important to be able to say, 'okay, I failed, but this is what I have to do to get back up.'" Calabash hosted a Young Men's Education and Empowerment YMEE initiative on the 20th of August. "The calabash model is a true lifestyle," Cooper explains. "If we can encourage young people throughout the Caribbean to see themselves as a vessel, their perspective of the world will change. Giving isn't about money or material wealth. Sometimes just a story you have can empower somebody. Sometimes it's just encouragement and upliftment."