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A Phenomenon Beckons
How do you define success when you are a Caribbean Canadian adolescent, reared by a mother who was born in the West Indies but moved to Canada in search of improved quality of life? How is that definition shaped by family, ethnic identity, education, and expectations? How is that developed over time?
My first awareness of my own minority status came when I enrolled in college in the United States. In Jamaica, the country of my birth, status was more a matter of class than it was of race. Our island's motto celebrated the rhetoric of diversity: Out of many, one people. I was a member of the privileged class. Behind me stood at least two generations of educated middle-class foreparents and ones who were perceived to have more than a modicum of wealthin properties and possessions (Anderson, 1993). My ascribed status naturally influenced my worldview.
It was not until I flew over the Caribbean Sea and landed in this country, that I realized that privilege was not so much a matter of class as it was of having a role model for success; a model such as the one I had hadup close and personal. My sense of privilege had been shaped primarily by the success stories of my grandmother-the-teacher as told to me by my mother. These were stories that just about everyone we knew had heard or lived.
In this country no one knew who I was, a phenomenon which was as threatening as it was exciting. For the first time, I experienced the barriers to achievement that I had read about. It no longer seemed possible to follow the footsteps that my grandmother and mother had trod. The rules of the game had changed with location. It seemed to me that I had been marginalized by the norms of a new society. For the most part, the social climate was benign, but there were times when such questions as "When are you going back to your country?" seemed malevolent.
I remembered that someone had asked that of my grandmother. The question was asked only once. My grandmother had been a legend in her own time. Born in what was then British Guiana of an English colonialist father and a French-Amerindian mother, she grew up on the banks of the Demarara River with the gift of story telling and a passion for learning a passion that led her to Pacific Union College in northern California at the turn of the century, sponsored by missionaries who saw in her the seeds of success and sent her abroad to have them nurtured.
Her plan had been to go to India as a missionary, but World War I broke out almost as soon as she graduated. Single women were not allowed to travel far afield during the War. Stymied but not stifled, she resorted to Plan B. She traveled across the country by train, and across the sea by ship to Jamaica to teach at what is now West Indies College.
Clearly, or so the stories go, she was an excellent educator with a passion for surmounting difficulties. There were no textbooks. She used her memory and elocution to create an oral tradition of texts. Faculty meetings were boring. She admittedly created conflict to "spice up" the proceedings and generate nontraditional alternatives to the problems under discussion. Marriage was not permitted during the school year. She and her student fiancé eloped to be married in a limestone cave, announcing their marriage from separate residences only when the school year ended.
As the biological clock moved to "shut-down time," as she described it, they had their only childmy mother. Nevertheless, my grandmother taught with the infant in a basket in a corner of the classroom. The stories about her were as riveting as fairy tales but even more powerful. The framework of truth on which the stories were spread was built by scores of her students, women and men whom I knew and respected. As her granddaughter, I was indeed privileged. She had been a wonderful role model to them, and to me.
Whatever I dreamed of becoming, I could be, my mother and grandmother had told me. I believed them both. They had done it; so would I. Mine was an awesome birthright even though it was sometimes difficult to live with a legendas I found out when she moved in with uswhose success was almost mythical!
Context-Dependent Significance of the Study
"I'm Not Like That!"
In college I selected the traditional female occupation: elementary
school teaching. But in my student teaching quarter, I decided
that my strength lay in interacting with upper grades. I completed
a bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, English and History,
but I was not bonded to any of those majors. "You're too
young," my advisors informed me. I had not yet reached what
was then the age of majority. "You need more education."
I was happy to comply. Doing graduate work in counseling seemed
interesting. I completed my first master's degree. By then I was
ready to face the world, intent on becoming a success at whatever
University degrees in hand I moved to Canada, the country of my citizenship and of immigrants. I discovered through the media and personal encounters that Caribbean Canadians were clumped together at the bottom of the totem pole. My ethnic identity was now supposed to affect my position in the stratification hierarchy and, by implication, my journey to success.
In the university libraries in which I sought to find answers to my dilemma, the distinction was more clearly defined. Middle-class Caribbean Canadians could cope in their new world if they used education as a personal conveyor towards their dreams of success. The congruence between their home environment and school-oriented tasks
would facilitate that journey. Working-class immigrants from the Third World, however, were excluded from established Canadian society and implicitly from dreams of success by their language and/or skin color (Endicott & Thomas, 1979). This exclusion would persist until length of residence in the country exceeded 10 years, or a change in socio-economic status or educational level was experienced (Goldlust & Richmond, 1977). In my mind, the rhetoric and the praxis did not intersect.
How was it then that Caribbean Canadians succeeded despite their relatively short stay in the country and the fact that they could afford neither the time nor expense for further education? Although the literature describing Caribbean Canadians (Bognar, 1976; Fram, 1977; Roth, 1976; Winks, 1971) flourished at that time, much of what was described as the West Indian experience was more often than not a hostile and rigid stereotype of the newly arrived working-class immigrant: belligerent, uneducated, and unresponsive to authority figures. The literature review garnered more questions. The recurring theme in my mind, after scanning the pages of the literature, was, I am not like that.
Professional Significance of the Study
My mind was in turmoil. Was I isolated in my difference? Was
I successful because of my middle-class status or my progress
into higher education? What did that mean for the success quotient
of those whose working-class mothers came to Canada to improve
the qualities of their lives? What did that concept mean for my
studentsat least 25% of whom were of West Indian heritage?
How was it that West Indian Canadians rated so high in self-esteem,
regardless of class or education (Akoodie, 1980)? What was the
essence of those things that made the difference? How could they
achieve their goals?
Eventually, I sought to untangle the dilemma festering in my soul with even more education. Consequently, in search of an Ed.D. in Counseling Psychology, I strove to find answers. Surveys, printed checklists, and questionnaires, however, did not help. The results were too much like the stimulus-response automation in some types of survey methodology that Mishler (1986) abhorred. The participants complained, "You are asking the wrong questions. They don't fit me. I am not like the people they describe in these tests."
I should have known better. They really were not like that. I had insider knowledge on that perspective. I stopped searching for a while until the nagging questions would not be stilled. Gradually, I began to realize that the roadblock I was facing was not a function of the content of the study. My problem was primarily a function of the methodology! Eventually, with a group of nine young Caribbean Canadian participants, I turned to the renowned methodology of the qualitative research traditionthe interview.
The purpose of this study is to trace the trajectories of success in Caribbean women. It aims to plot their achievement benchmarks, record their dreams for their future, and chart the internal changes they portray. As a backdrop for their success stories, three themes which recurred in their stories both in 1989 and in 1997 are explored: the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, the function of education, and God-reliance as mediators of success.
A secondary and more personal purpose for this search for understanding the success phenomenon is to bring to the attention of the world of educators the notion that
we are not all like the statistical disgraces which have been strewn around the literature in the past. I aim to begin to repair the damage caused by "socially constructed ignorance" (Reinharz, 1994, p. 42).
Mothers gladly allowed their teenage daughters to participate in my quest for meaning-making. "Help them [their teachers] to see", one participant's mother pleaded, "that we are not all like that [uneducated, unmotivated, with a propensity for delinquency]!" I toyed with ethnographic strategies. I had, after all, more than cursory access to the field. I had been to the homes of my participants, talked with their mothers, dined at their tables. But the fit was not exactly right. I was building rapport, but the data were sparse.
Secure in the traditions of the interview which strove for an objective stance, I sought to interrogate my research participants about themes of "be-ing." I set out to meet my respondents face to face with a battery of in-depth and semi-structured questions (Appendix A), eschewing the inventories my committee had suggested. As I honed my interviewing skills, I began to broaden the probes and lessen the number of questions in the protocol. After the first round of interviews, however, I began to sense the one-sidedness of the questions. I was mining the minds of my participants (Holstein & Gubrium, 1995). They had little or no say in the shape of the conversation. It was my conversation, my purpose. They were merely vessels to whom I expected straightforward access. My committee's enthusiasm dwindled, as did my participants'. So did mine. I shelved the project for almost a decade.
In 1997, I returned to the study with renewed interest, armed with an understanding of new qualitative methodologies and fortified by a new committee at a different university. For the second round of interviews, I adjusted my style to the design of the active, open-ended in-depth interview, "a politically correct dialogue where researcher and researched offer mutual understanding and support" (Atkinson & Silverman, 1997, p. 305). These interviews were collaborative to the core. The women
began to feel empowered to guide the dialogue, and comfortable asking their own questions. They pulled me into a dialogue which was a collaborative production of meaning.
Discovering that narrative is both method and phenomenon (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990), I also widened my focus to include more narrative inquiry. Familiarizing myself with the local knowledge (Geertz, 1973) of the success-development phenomenon, I explored the women's lived experiences and heard their voices as they gave their own explanations and shared their own stories. Mindful of the advice of the experts who had preceded me (Knapp, 1997; Mishler, 1986), I left room in the interviews for talk of mutual benefit. Finally, the fit was right. The research purpose, content and methodology were no longer in conflict with my worldview or personal strengths.
With my counseling background and my experience in both secondary and higher education, I hope to illuminate the path to meaning-making in young Caribbean Canadian women's success development.
Second, I hope to empower my participants to gain insight into their own lives, their own problems (Mishler, 1986). With my ear for story and my delight in writing, the next phase of the study was set in motion. Conveniently downsizing the population to three very articulate and now adult women, the study resumed in 1997.
The Research Questions
This study portrays the experiences of success while seeking
to answer the following research questions:
What is the essence of success for young Caribbean Canadian women?
What are the benchmarks to progress in the developmental journey that they storied?
What support did they garner in their search for success?
Hazards to Watch For: Delimitations of the Study
When doing research, there are several questions to consider.
Luisa Passerini notes one: "Unlike the reassuring Truth of
the scientific ideal, the truth of personal narratives are neither
open to proof nor self-evident" (cited in Personal Narratives
Group, 1989, p. 261). It is as we interpret them and shape them
to the worldviews that engendered them that we find meaning in
the stories. At times the meaning may jar our sensibilities as
interpreters outside the story, but we are mindful that personal
involvement through story is the condition under which people
come to know each other (Oakley, 1981).
The delimitation of this study is defined, in part, by the selection of participants for the study. In 1989, nine young women were chosen on the basis of their fit with four criteria noted below:
1. Caribbean Canadian adolescents whose mothers were born and raised in countries circled by the Caribbean Sea
2. Attendance at a common, private high school where classmates and teachers viewed them as successful
3. Affiliation with the same Protestant religious denomination
4. Maternal permission to participate in the study
In 1997, the three women who agreed to continue the study were a convenience sample. The selection of three of the original nine was primarily on the basis of their geographic accessibility to me, and their proximity to each other. All three now reside in cities within a 250-mile radius of the same international airport.
The representation of experience in narrative is always ambiguous.
Researchers do not have direct access to another's experience (Reissman, 1993) and are neither neutral nor objective representers of the world which the stories describe (Peller, 1987). Although this study may give voice to previously silenced or marginalized groups of women (Gilligan, 1982), representational considerations cannot be ignored. The study hears voices, and records and interprets them (Silverman, 1993) from my perspective. The purpose of this study, therefore, is to better understand the contextual confluence of external events and internal realities that characterize the social trajectories of success for these three young women.
Binoculars for the Journey: Definition of Terms
Acclaiming mode: Positive discursive strategy often used in
Bi-dialectic: The ability to use dialect as well as a language as a medium of expression.
Caribbean Canadian: A Canadian citizen with familial roots in the West Indies or Guyana (Goldlust & Richmond, 1977).
Cover story: A story told to veil disconcerting truths.
Disclaiming mode: Strategy used to downplay the celebratory aspects of one's success story (Benoit, 1997).
Listening dangerously: A barrier in the communication process in which the message received is girded with the listener's previous beliefs (Rasi, 1997).
Member check: A process in which the rhetor reviews the interview transcript for accuracy and palatability. Alternatives in language or interpretation may be provided by the participant (Stake, 1995).
Metaphor: A vivid word picture which juxtaposes two dissimilar objects, thus bringing clarity to the idea being discussed.
Polylogue: A conversation involving multiple speakers.
Retrospective musing: A process often used in self-told storying through which a narrative is recounted from a later point in time (Peshkin, 1978).
Revisionist mode: A strategy for modifying story with the intent of making it more accurate or palatable.
School story: A narrative told within the context of a school. It is not restricted to any educational level.
Seed story: A childhood story which, in retrospect, functions as the prologue of a woman's life story, and frequently develops into the metaphor of her life.
Story: A meaningful pattern of events (Rainer, 1997) laden with context, action, and at least one actor. For the purpose of this work, story is also used as a verb.
Success: The attainment of an object, according to one's desire (The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 1919, p. 77).
Success story: A tale usually told in the acclaiming mode, celebrating accomplishment and/or the achievement of a personal goal.
The presentation of this study is organized into eight chapters.
Chapter 1 sets the scene for the study, describing the rationale
and context. It lists the research questions around which the
study revolves. Chapter 2 tells the story of success found in
the field of scholarly research as it was culled from a survey
of various social science and educational journal articles, texts,
and dissertations. Chapter 3 describes the collaborative in-depth
interviews, portraiture and narrative inquirymethodologies
used to collect the data. It also describes the cross-case method
of analyzing the data, and three alternate forms of representationthe
poetic transcription, the playlet, and graphic imageswhich
are used to synthesize and interpret the data.
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 are case study portraits. Chapter 4 is a portrait presentation of Jade. Eboni is the subject of chapter 5. A narrativized portrait of Silver is presented in chapter 6. Each of these chapters concludes with a poetic transcription of the woman's story which highlights in free verse the salient features of her story.
Chapter 7 analyzes the findings of the cross-case analysis of the three cases under study. It lends further interpretation to the study and concludes with poetic, dramaturgical, and graphic syntheses of the recurring themes of the composites of all three rhetors' stories.
Finally, chapter 8 discusses the implications of the findings for the field of education, the field of qualitative research, and the researcher herself.