FAYOLA K J FRASER
“T obago first.” This ethos underscores the work of Dr Faith B Yisrael, the Deputy Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly (THA), and the Secretary of Health, Wellness & Social Protection in the THA. B Yisrael has spent approximately the last six years in the political sphere, faithfully dedicated to the service of the people of Tobago. An “introverted” politician, her personality is oxymoronic, as her work requires her to be a public figure, consistently interact with people and express herself on a public platform, while privately she considers herself considerably reserved.
B Yisrael hails from Belle Garden, Tobago, the same area she currently represents as an Assemblyman, which is where she went to both preschool and primary school. After attending Signal Hill Comprehensive, she received scholarship funding and went to the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania to pursue her BSc in Neuroscience. Neuroscience, a very divergent path from her eventual career, was her study of choice as she “always wanted to be a physician”. Neurosurgery specifically appealed to her, as she remembers during her childhood, the sole neurosurgeon in Tobago was going on vacation and an island-wide alert was raised, encouraging people to have an abundance of caution as no neurosurgeon would be available on island. Thinking this dependence on one surgeon was crazy, B Yisrael decided on her course of study to add to the numbers of practicing neurosurgeons in Tobago.
Upon completing her degree, B Yisrael “quickly realised neurosurgery and medicine weren’t for me”, and decided to instead hone in on Public Health. “I came to the understanding that although I was interested in health, I wanted to keep people healthy, not only deal with people who were already sick.” This led her to her Masters and Doctorate in Public Health as her goal was to conceive of and implement policies that would encourage prevention over cure. Noting that in T&T and the wider Caribbean, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases caused by lifestyle factors is extremely high, B Yisrael saw an opportunity to make a real impact in adapting the public health care system toward a better model.
After she returned to Tobago in 2007, she plunged into the public healthcare system, as a Public Health Specialist in the Tobago House of Assembly, Division of Health and Social Services. The quiet rumbles of politicking began not too long after as she knew that although she was providing sound technical advice, the politicians were the ones ultimately making final decisions. “I always liked politics,” B Yisrael recalls, “but there was no political organisation that represented my philosophy, until Mr (Watson) Duke came up with the Progressive Democratic Patriots (PDP) Party, and my philosophy aligned with them at the time”. She was encouraged by Mr Duke to contest a seat in 2017, and after what she described as a “crazy and exciting time”, she lost the seat by five votes. B Yisrael laughs as she remembers that people approached her after the election saying they were planning to vote, but didn’t get the chance. This narrow loss highlighted to her that all votes really do count.
The philosophy of the PDP that drew her in still rings true to B Yisrael today. “In this twin island state, we need to continue to fight for Tobago to be side by side with Trinidad,” she says, “the philosophy of the PDP was Tobago first and foremost, to get equality and then press forward”. A proud Tobagonian, through and through, she is devoted to pursuing the development agenda of the island. At present, she is responsible for the healthcare system, the Tobago Regional Health Authority. She sees it as not only a great challenge but a great responsibility, to develop and execute a system that works seamlessly for the population to the best of its ability.
Remembering one of the highlights of her career thus far makes B Yisrael chuckle. During late 2022 to early 2023, the healthcare system rolled out a cataract reduction programme, so that people who spent years on the waiting list for cataracts finally got the surgery done. When she walked into the facility where they did the programme, one of the gentlemen started singing out “I can see clearly now!” Aside from the hilarity of it, B Yisrael found it touching and heart-warming, the genuine gratitude and excitement of that moment. Many people approach her with thanks for her work, but she does not accept it as a compliment, because she considers it her job to serve, “a job I do without fear or favour”.
Her fearless spirit shines through in her advice to women. Describing the way women, and especially female politicians or women in the public eye are expected to “be married, or have a cookie cutter image”, she rejects those expectations. Encouraging other women to do the same, she calls for women to be their authentic selves, especially in the political space, “when we are genuinely ourselves we better represent the people who elected us”.
Dr Faith B Yisrael is a powerful woman, a leader and a trailblazer, committed to grappling with the challenges in the public service to bring Tobago forward. She is determined to surmount the traditional mentality that suggests certain things cannot be done or improved and leave a legacy of excellence. As one of the Women to Watch, B Yisrael will continue to lead in the political sphere with all eyes keenly focused on her brilliant work.