By FELICITY DARVILLE
I’m always impressed when I learn about Bahamians doing big things in other parts of the world. It reminds me of how great we are as a people, even though we come from a small archipelago, sometimes represented as just a dot on a map. I am especially proud when those accomplishments come from someone I know - in this case, my cousin Clair. She is located in New Orleans, one of the hotbeds of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. But her work there is so important that even in the midst of chaos, her critical role in assisting marginalised groups is making a big difference.
Clair moved to New Orleans in late 2019 to take on the position of Assistant Vice President of Talent Development at the New Orleans Business Alliance. She moved to the Big Easy with nine years of experience in the non-profit sector under her belt. Her specialty is workforce development and mental health and most recently, she has been focusing on the intersection of racial equity and workforce development. Here, she has found her space to shine. Clair works in partnership with the City’s Workforce Development Office and is responsible for developing and leading the implementation of the Talent and Workforce Development Strategy with the use of a racial equity lens. She helps establish best practices that will make changes on a policy level, meaning the effects of her work can hopefully be felt for generations to come.
“I kind of fell into this work and I love it dearly,” she said.
“I am creating and designing training programmes and helping people looking for new career opportunities. This helps them meet their hopes and aspirations, so they have a chance to advance and have economic mobility. It’s a work I hope to bring home to The Bahamas one day and help develop the talent, the culture and prosperity we have there.”
The New Orleans Business Alliance implemented a career readiness curriculum which was created in New York and has affiliate sites throughout the US. Clair’s work involves working closely with four NGOs dedicated to helping marginalised groups get connected to opportunity. She helps these groups adopt the curriculum and have true fidelity to the model that is working throughout the country. In addition, she works with the New Orleans Workforce Development Board to establish best practices – all with a racial equality focus.
“The state of Louisiana is still, in many ways segregated... the home of separate but equal and many of these practices are still embedded in the state’s policy, even if not intentionally” she explained.
“The challenge is, when you look at the outcomes for coloured people, especially African Americans across the United States, the outcomes are racialised. Health outcomes, wealth, housing, educational and employment outcomes. The wage disparity is still very big. For example, in industries such as finance, construction and manufacturing, white workers are still earning twice as much or more than black workers.
“The use of racial equality lines in talent workforce development is critical is to closing racial gaps, as well as wealth, gender and age gaps, to allow them to advance and have true economic mobility. This will allow people to own homes, send their children to private schools if they wish, pay for college and have access to loans to start their own businesses. This work is about wealth - to help coloured communities - especially black communities build wealth - and that cannot happen if huge disparities exist in their places of employment or if they are concentrated in low wage jobs.
“We have to challenge employers and business owners to look at their human resource policies and hiring practices to see how they are negatively impacting groups of colour while advantaging white people.”
The COVID-19 lockdown has affected New Orleans in similar ways as it has affected The Bahamas. Both touristic destinations, workers affiliated with the industry have found themselves at home at a time when they usually expect an increase in work.
Clair pointed out that eight percent of the workforce there are “gig workers” such as musicians and artists. She has been working feverishly with her colleagues at the New Orleans Business Alliance to help this group of people. Thus far, over $640,000 has been raised; over 1,600 people have applied and once approved, each will receive $500 in assistance. Meantime, the alliance is working to help the unemployed and other groups affected by the crisis. She is also helping to figure out how to help those with technological needs. Many people, she said, relied on the libraries for internet usage. Therefore, as schools go online and some businesses have found ways to move their work to the internet, many are left without that kind of resourceful connectivity.
Being in New Orleans, in some ways, has Clair feeling right at home. She is an avid lover of Junkanoo and she loves to introduce this Bahamian cultural pass-time to her friends and family members in America. New Orleans, a place of culture, music and food, is a welcome new home for her and her husband, Matthew, along with their daughters Maya, Sarah and Madison.
Clair moved to America at the age of 13 after the passing of her mother, Sandra Gibson. She went to live with her sister, Domonique Foulkes-Johnson, who was doing her residency as a doctor at the time. She is currently the medical director of a hospital in Maryland. Clair had attended St John’s College all her life before leaving for the US. Since then, she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Clark Atlanta University and a Master’s degree in Community Counselling from Argosy University. She is a Nationally Certified Counsellor (NCC) and a Licensed Clinical Professional Counsellor (LCPC) in the state of Maryland. Prior to her role at the New Orleans Business Alliance, she was the workforce strategist at a public foundation in Baltimore. Her portfolio focused on supporting the upward mobility of black/African American residents through grant making as well as providing technical assistance and capacity building support to those committed to advancing racial equity in workforce development.
In addition to all that, Clair decided to start her own consulting and counselling company, Sandra Grace, LLC. The company is named in honour of her mother and grandmother, two well-known and respected women in Bahamian society. Sandra was an executive secretary at Breezes Hotel. Her mother Grace Gibson was a switchboard operator, affectionately called “GG”. She was responsible for raising many children who were not her own at her home on the corner of Infant View Road and Nassau Street. Her biological son, Brian “Baldie” Gibson, was a giant in Junkanoo. He and Clair’s aunt Eloise “Lala” Edwards are also deceased, but Clair has found a way to turn all the pain of the loss of her loved ones into prosperity. It’s a gift she intends to share be counselling others through her company.
“I have been fortunate to stumble into a work that is my calling, she said. “And not only stumble into a work, but into an industry that is helping to connect the disenfranchised to job and career opportunities, while also helping with their mental health.
“I really care about communities not being treated unjustly and not being disadvantaged. I want to help people understand how to navigate the challenges and barriers in life and help people be successful in their individual journeys. My faith in God is my inspiration and in some ways, my life is one of trial for triumph.”
She was quite young when her father, Brendon Watson, well known Rotarian and construction developer told her to find a hobby and make it a career. As she grew, she saw how much passion he had for the construction industry and how it allowed him to do something he really loved… and that’s how she wanted to live her life as well. My mother, her aunt Agatha, stepped in to continue to provide her with motherly love and she said she is thankful to be a part of a family with such rich Bahamian history, who love and share with each other. Bahamians, she said, are people who are so comfortable in their own skin, who “know who they are and who love to have fun and celebrate with family – much like the people of New Orleans”.
“I have fallen into the thing I love to do every single day – supporting people who are unemployed or marginalised… people who have no voice,” she said.
“It all ties neatly to my faith and the command to help the oppressed. This is bigger than myself. It is mission, it is purpose, it is God’s work.”