BIJ1 candidate Lysanne Charles: address colonial elephant in room

Saba – For Lysanne Charles (42), a poet, songwriter and activist, born and raised in Saba, participating in the upcoming Dutch parliamentary elections on the BIJ1 slate was an easy decision. “Since coming back to Saba four years ago and observing some of what has been happening on the island in terms of politics and government, I have been wondering how to get my ideas to a next level. BIJ1 provides me that opportunity.”

BIJ1, the acronym in Dutch which translates into ‘together,’ has several candidates of Caribbean origin on the slate for the March 17 Second Chamber elections. Party leader Sylvana Simons is from Suriname and number two on the slate is Quinsy Gario of St. Maarten/Curaçao descent. Charles is number 13.

“BIJ1 included Caribbean candidates from the onset. The party dedicates a lot of attention to the Caribbean part of the kingdom in its party programme and addresses the issues that our people face in the Netherlands and on the islands. To me that was a real show of equality and mutual respect. I believe in the BIJ1 platform. I am an activist at heart, always defending the underdogs and marginalised. BIJ1 allowed and encouraged candidates who are activists from all of those groups to actually help in drafting the various sections and listened to them,” said Charles, who is the only candidate from Saba in these elections.

Creating equality

Charles shares the issues that are important to BIJ1, such as the deconstructing of the colonial legacy which continues to impact kingdom relations, climate change, the eradicating of poverty and racism, proper guidance for (Dutch Caribbean) students and also women’s rights, black and brown persons’ rights, LGBTQ rights, homeless persons’ rights and more. “If you listen to our party leader Sylvana Simons, it is really about creating equality, inclusivity and access for all these groups. It is not true that BIJ1 is only about addressing racism. The party has a full programme that touches on many areas that are important to us and offers concrete solutions for progress.”

According to Charles, there is much work to be done in the relations between the islands and the Netherlands. “What is mainly wrong in this relationship is that we haven’t ever gone back to determine why we are even in this relationship or rather how we got here. The Netherlands has been really good in not going into this matter and the islands and islanders in the diaspora didn’t really push for it, but for the last years have been doing so. And this is something that we need to tackle, because the origins of this relationship continue to speak, in so many ways, to how we relate to each other as governments and as people and how the various governments and community stakeholders are allowed to have voice in the decision-making process,” she said. 

Diverse makeup

Many in the Netherlands are steeped in the idea that both the Netherlands and the kingdom is a mono-culture that looks and speaks in only one way, while it is not so. “It is a diverse makeup actually and has been that way for centuries” she said, referring to the fact that one quarter of the Dutch population has a parent who is not born in the Netherlands and that the Netherlands has always had port cities which thrived on diversity.

For that reason, Charles also doesn’t campaign in Dutch, but in the mother tongue of Saba, which is English. “If we take it one step further and say that the Netherlands is the dominant factor in the kingdom constellation, knowing that decisions that are taken in The Hague affect all islands, we should ensure that information is transmitted in a way that is understandable to everyone. You have to make it about including all people. Only then can we talk about equality and relations that are steeped in mutual respect,” said Charles.  

Fundamental discussion

The Caribbean contributed a great deal of wealth to the Netherlands during the colonial times and continues to offer a lot to the Netherlands in terms of geographic position and access to various western hemisphere and small island states political conversations. That is something that requires a fundamental discussion. “We inherited this constellation, and it is something that we need to address, in all honesty and openness and not from point of views of victim and victors, but as heirs to this legacy who want to do something to create a more equal reality.”

Some people in the Caribbean Netherlands, including Sabans, have concerns about the islands being recolonised, she noted. “They are of the opinion that the local authority of their leaders has eroded and that the Netherlands and European Dutch bureaucrats have more say than they do,” she said.

Colonial elephant

“In some instances, they are correct, in others perhaps not, but I do think that we need to, together, address the colonial elephant in the room and its legacy and talk about how we can come to a playing field that is beneficial for all of us. For me, that is not being anti-Dutch, but simply being anti-colonial. There is a difference the two, because in principle I’m Dutch, because of the Dutch nationality. What I am is anti-oppression, anti-dominance and anti-inequality.”

Colonialism is about the domination of one group over the other and it is a complex issue. “It is something that we have to tackle together. People are afraid to have this conversation, because they feel that they will be made to feel guilty for things they had no role in. However, it is not about blaming, but about dismantling the structures that make the kingdom a less safe, less equal place for marginalised people whether that is based on able-bodied vs less-abled bodied, male vs female, Caribbean vs European, educated vs uneducated, poor vs wealthy, black and brown vs white. It is about equality, justice and the well-being of persons.”

If elected, Charles has several priorities: “Advocate that more of a voice is returned to the local governments and populations in the decisions that are made whereby the effects on the island and its people are taken into better consideration. And, involve islanders more in the Dutch government financed projects that are executed on the islands.”

Strong opposition

Charles said the objective of BIJ1 was not to get into the Dutch coalition, unlike most other political parties in the Netherlands. “We will be a strong opposition, asking the questions that are not being asked. Disrupting the established political system. BIJ1 is also about fighting homophobia, sexism, xenophobia. By putting the people central, it becomes an entirely different discussion. It needs to become, once again, more about the people of our country in the Second Chamber and not about politics for politics sake.”

Charles, who studied cultural anthropology and sociology at the University of Amsterdam and political science and mass communications at the University of North Carolina – Pembroke, said being an activist and poet has equipped her with unique skills to represent the people. “My experiences combined have made me even more aware of how important it is to bring people together to tackle solutions to their challenges. People bring with them all kinds of historical memory that can be coupled with new ideas to create people-centred solutions and I must say that being a poet and a creative writer has gifted me the creativity to imagine a different, better world for us all and that is what I want to work on and will continue to work on in politics and beyond.”

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