I had the pleasure of spending just over an hour with Dr. Asha Kambon, a woman who I have known for almost 10 years but never had the opportunity to have such a personal discourse. I found that her ideology was quite like my own and that despite the generation gap we were soul sisters. Kambon explained to me that she does not feel comfortable with the term leader and instead prefers to describe herself as someone who struggles to set and example that others can, if they choose, follow. She spoke of coming of age in the early 60s in North America during the height of the civil rights movement and how those experiences of extreme injustice compelled her into social action. She says that social justice has yet to be achieved and so her work continues. Dr. Kambon gave 20 years of service to UN ECLAC, specializing in research training of technocrats and government officials. During her time there she prepared many people for international conferences including the Global Conference on Women, guiding them on how to interface with international bodies and make significant contributions. For Kambon it wasn’t just a job, she took pride in ensuring that certain development issues were on the agenda and that the Caribbean could set its own pace. Kambon also remained grounded in the NGO sector, saying that this was critical in the struggle for social justice to work at the level of the people. Over the years she served in several organizations including NJAC, The Network of NGOs for the Advancement of Women and the Emancipation Support Committee. Kambon took me through the decades, recalling her time at CUNY in 1968 and how she took several modes of transportation to get to Harlem 2 or 3 times a week to teach black adults how to read. She said that work must be done quietly and consistently, engaging directly with people to make a real impact on their life. She affirms that life long commitment is necessary for advancing the process and you have to be in it for the long haul. She admits that in the early years of her return to Trinidad in the 1970s were difficult. She and her husband Khafra Kambon had given their whole lives to the movement and it was a slippery slope to avoid ending up on the streets themselves. After having 3 children she credits the encouragement of her husband in deciding to go back to school. She recalls that there were only 3 other women her age on the university campus at that time (UWI), and she was the only poor one. She said that the other women all came from rich families and that she must have seemed quite odd to them, sticking out like a sore thumb in all her home made clothes. The credits that Kambon received from CUNY 12 years earlier in anthropology were not accepted by UWI and she was told that her only option was to begin again. Kambon completed an economics degree in only 3 years, even though many of her peers didn’t believe that she could. During this time she also ran as an NJAC candidate, one of the only women to do so and returned to school the day after the party lost to prepare for final examinations. She said that she never expected the party to win but that their aim was to put new ideas on the agenda.
I was given the heads up by Kambon’s son that I needed to interview his mom quickly, because she was leaving for Ethiopia in a few days. This opportunity was what Kambon described as one of her dreams; to share knowledge with the people who really need it on the Continent. She says that these opportunities are extremely enriching as fieldwork allows her to get to know people and their challenges in a real way. She also expressed the hope that the emancipation process is soon institutionalized, as currently the institution is poor. Her plan is to introduce strategies that can allow the organization to grow and develop itself within a 3 to 5 year period. Kambon says that now she has officially retired from the UN, she has more time and energy to dedicate to that process.
Kambon notes that her notions of gender were instrumental in helping to achieve her goals. She says, “It never dawned on me that there were things I should do that men shouldn’t [and vice versa].” She says that during the civil rights movement the dogs that were released on people did not discriminate. She affectionately recalls how her husband diligently took care of the children when she returned to university, taking them to the beach on Sunday mornings and kite flying in the afternoon to allow her the study time she needed. She says that she and her partner of over 40 years spoke the language of equality and that all roles were shared, putting their ideals into practice. She pointed out that the board of directors of the Emancipation Support Committee are equally represented by men and women, each having a voice and participating fully. She also added with a deep sense of humility that it was she who developed the gender component of the assessment methodology of risk assessment used all around the world. She says that she has tried to implement gendered principles at both a personal and professional level and while she admits that she didn’t always have the theory, she started with the notion of equality.