Steve Weeks bids T&T goodbye

As the US celebrates its 241st birthday today, this American diplomat gets ready for new adventures

Ray Funk

Published: 

Monday, July 3, 2017

 

Steve Weeks, the outgoing public affairs officer for the US Embassy in T&T, has been a strong supporter of pan—he travelled across the country to hear steelbands, big and small, in their panyards, from Skiffle to Supernovas, and was involved in providing support for the three US steelbands that came for Pan Trinbago's groundbreaking International Conference of Pan (ICP): the Pan Coalition from Maine, Mosaic Steel Orchestra in Virginia and Brooklyn Steel Orchestra.

Steve Weeks came to his post in T&T after serving in embassies in Africa and the Middle East. With a background in the arts and cultural diplomacy, Weeks quickly became entranced with the rich culture of T&T. His mission was to strengthen existing bonds between the United States and T&T.

“Trinidad is so dynamic,” notes Weeks. “Americans can learn a lot from their ingenuity and desire for creative expression.”

Weeks’ job focus was aimed particularly at the diversification of the economy, development of the creative sector, equity in education (especially for young women), and security issues. While not immediately obvious, supporting culture, for Weeks, has been part of a holistic and comprehensive approach to the security agenda for the US Embassy’s diplomatic relations.

For example, partnering with programmes offering clear opportunities for at-risk youth empowers them to succeed, which thereby makes both countries more secure. With the funding of arts initiatives very limited, Weeks approached his role as developing ongoing partnerships with programmes that fit within the State Department’s mission, promote cross-cultural understanding, and develop ongoing relationships.

In particular, his focus was on programmes that acted as “social outreach tools, helping kids learn life skills, teamwork, building resilience, and self-esteem.”

To this end, Weeks has been more directly involved with programmes that foster Trinidad’s national instrument, the steelpan, than any other diplomat in the US Embassy in recent memory.

Weeks quickly became a regular presence at concerts and performances throughout Trinidad, including at UTT, NAPA, panyards, theatre, Kaiso Café, spoken word events, film screenings, Hosay, and other cultural events. Weeks sought to understand and enjoy T&T at every level. During Carnival, he participated in everything, including going to the panyards, getting up early for Canboulay, joining Etienne Charles on the road, walking the drag and attending Panorama Finals.

Weeks has been a strong supporter of pan—he travelled across the country to hear steelbands, big and small, in their panyards, from Skiffle to Supernovas. He got involved in providing support for the three US steelbands that came for Pan Trinbago’s groundbreaking International Conference of Pan (ICP): the Pan Coalition from Maine, Mosaic Steel Orchestra in Virginia and Brooklyn Steel Orchestra.

Dr Anthony Hailey from Mosaic Steel Orchestra has returned on a couple occasions, with embassy support, to work with Cordettes Steel Orchestra in Sangre Grande to help strengthen that band’s outreach in the community and to see ways that help his work in the United States.

“I see the positive propensity of pan on a daily basis working with disadvantaged youth in Virginia,” notes Hailey.

“Sharing my experiences and working with youth in Cordettes has had very positive results.” Through Week’s work, the US Embassy has also partnered with the Bocas Literary Festival to bring American authors here, especially ones that write about issues tied to the education agendas to reach historically under-served groups. With local support, Reginald Dwayne Betts, an American writer who had himself spent time incarcerated and turned his life around, travelled throughout Trinidad conducting writer’s workshops in the T&T prison system.

Bruce Paddington, director of the T&T Film Festival, was effusive in his praise of Weeks.

“Steve has been instrumental in recognising the importance of film and film culture and supporting the involvement of the American Embassy in the TTFF.”

“He has ensured that local audiences have had the opportunity to enjoy viewing a number of excellent and often thought-provoking American films, as well as having the chance to interact with a number of the filmmakers. Steve represents the best of America and we will miss him.”

Weeks found the work of local spoken word artists like 2 Cents and Roots Foundation inspiring. The embassy helped sponsor a tour by the group Girl Be Heard, vibrant performance poets from New York City focused on addressing all kinds of issues that young women face.

Their appearance in Trinidad drew such a positive response that the State Department has since partnered with the Two Cents movement to start the Girl Be Heard T&T Team, working out of Bishop’s Centenary College.

Weeks identified a strong opportunity to help with the Youth Musical Exchange programme developed under director Kwame Ryan at the Performing Arts Academy at UTT.

This partnership has resulted in American performers and students coming to give new performance workshops and create new works with UTT faculty and students.

As part of its effort to foster economic diversity, the US State Department’s Young Leaders of America Initiative has a target interest in young entrepreneurs. Among the Trinidadians who have participated are Brian Benoit, who runs the Diego Martin Pan Academy. Other notable examples include Dierdre Lee Kin and Dingole Ltd, who received a grant for their work developing virtual and augmented reality technology. In March of 2017, Dingole Ltd released their first version of Pan Jam, a virtual reality pan museum and virtual lead tenor steelpan.

In praise of Weeks, Deidre Lee Kin says: “Steve Weeks is a person who has had a very positive impact and influence on me. Without even knowing it, he has become one of my most respected mentors. He is a genuine guy who has a good heart and is very driven to help people. He understands the real sense of community and makes it a priority to support this in any way possible.”

The premiere cross-cultural education programme of the State Department is the Fulbright programme, providing support to both American scholars to go to other countries, and scholars in other countries to travel to the US. In recent years, the Fulbright programme has supported steelpan as well as the sciences and business. Akua Leith, who is music director of the National Steel Symphony, recently completed a master’s degree at Northern Illinois University with support from Fulbright. Dr Jeannine Remy, Senior Lecture at UWI, first came to Trinidad with a Fulbright. Malika Green, who leads steelbands for the Chicago Youth Symphony, is coming to Trinidad this fall on a multi-country Fulbright to research steelpan and education. Indeed, Dr Brian Copeland, UWI’s principal, had a Fulbright early in his career. Among his work supporting culture and public affairs, Weeks has worked extensively to support the Fulbright programme in his many postings.

The US Embassy also has a special commitment to the rights of the disabled. They have helped in creating and sponsoring workshops and worked on Trinidad’s passage of the UN resolution on the rights of the disabled. Two recent Fulbright US scholars - Jayne McGuire and Marge Yonkers - have both been disability specialists. For his part, Weeks has been involved with Caitlyn Kamminga at UTT in her work with the Consortium of Disabilities Organisation (CODO) and its the annual Music Festival for Persons with Disabilities.

The US Embassy has also provided support for Caitlyn Kamminga’s River of Freedom, a multimedia musical and art presentation on the Merikens and the Company Towns in Trinidad.

Steve Weeks approaches every assignment with boundless enthusiasm. His willingness to jump in, learn and support cultural and educational programmes at every level is inspiring. He has greatly benefitted the diplomatic and cultural relations between T&T and the United States by his work the past three years.

 

Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a current Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

Shawn FreitasComment