Torchbearers Youth Association’s 50 years of empowerment

Dear Editor,

I would like to thank the editor of this paper for affording me this space to write about the Torchbearers Youth Association, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this month.

The Torchbearers Youth Association (TYA) is the oldest youth political organization in The Bahamas. It is the youth arm of the Free National Movement (FNM).

The TYA first announced its existence at a TYA Youth march and rally to the Southern Recreation Grounds on the 1st September 1972, in the midst of the general election. There are no other political youth organizations and few youth organizations in The Bahamas that have celebrated 50 years of existence and service.

During those 50 years, many of today’s leaders have passed through the ranks of the TYA.

Of the 21 former Torchbearers’ presidents, only six entered front line politics.

We often hear about those six frontline politicians, but there are hundreds, if not thousands of people who have either been a member of, or worked with a member of the TYA.

All have contributed to the betterment of our country and throughout its 50 years of existence, the TYA has proven to be a net benefit to The Bahamas. As a result, it is my belief that this is something that should be celebrated by all.

My membership in the TYA and especially my two terms as president was a great learning experience. It is my hope that because of my experience, I have been granted the liberty to write about what I believe is an exciting story.

The story of the TYA is a story of empowerment. It is an example of what can happen when those in leadership choose to work with, help and empower young people.

After he and thousands of others crossed the Rubicon and stood up to Lynden Pindling, with years of political struggle behind them, a young Cecil Wallace-Whitfield is finally leader of a national party. He was in the first Majority Rule Government and was described by Michael Craton as a “dynamic new minister of education”.

Wallace-Whitfield was said to be an “on the ground” member of Parliament. He was connected to the people. As such, he and the FNM understood the importance of empowerment.

Before the TYA, there was no youth organization with voting rights or meaningful recognition in the constitution of a national political party.

At that time, many young people suffered under a system of “tokenism”.

Tokenism is loosely defined as the practice of making only symbolic efforts to do something. There is no real belief in, resources given to, or support offered to those who want to make real change.

Tokenism acknowledges an issue, seeks to silence it, but does nothing to resolve it. This is a torturous reality for those hoping to bring change. Many young people and women have suffered because of tokenism.

I visited the Department of Archives and searched as far back as the 1950s for documentation of an official political youth group that was constitutionally provided for in a political party.

I was unable to find any before the TYA. I did notice that there were a few youth organizations such as Unicomm and the Junior PLP with political affiliations to the progressive movement and the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP).

I spoke with the former governor general and former editor of the Bahamian Times, Sir Arthur Foulkes, about these groups. According to him, there were several youth groups, which had causes that were in common with the PLP.

However, he stated that none of those youth organizations had voting rights or formal recognition in the PLP’s constitution.

With a view to confirming this, I searched for previous PLP convention booklets. If an organization was constitutionally recognized and had voting rights, their delegates would be listed in this book, and they would surely have some involvement on the program. I found the PLP’s 1974 convention booklet.

The PLP Women’s Branch had great involvement on the program and its delegates were listed in the convention booklet.

I carefully scanned the booklet from front to back and there was no mention of any official PLP youth branch in this 1974 convention booklet. It is unlikely that an official youth organization would have been altogether forgotten or ignored during the six-day event. Any youth organization must have been formed after 1974.

Fortunately for us, there was another way. Wallace-Whitfield and the FNM acknowledged the power of political parties in determining the direction of a country.

At that time, they also seemed to recognize that young people are a vital part of every society and that there is no progress or future without them. So, true to Craton’s description, Wallace-Whitfield and his colleagues did something new and dynamic.

In September 1972, the FNM formed the TYA and gave it official recognition in the constitution with voting rights in the Central Council and at national conventions, the highest decision-making bodies of the party.

This had never been done before. Young people were finally seen as equals in the decision-making process. Shortly thereafter, other political parties followed suit and it has been the standard ever since.

After falling fatally ill, Wallace-Whitfield never went on to become prime minister. The TYA, a seed that he and his colleagues planted in 1972, would ultimately produce multiple candidates, organizers, campaigners, and supporters who helped to secure the FNM’s first general election victory in 1992.

Young people were empowered, and the country benefited as a result.

As we celebrate 50 years with the Torchbearers Youth Association, let us always remember that good things happen when we empower others.

— Carlyle Bethel

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