By Marina Hilaire-Bartlett, Executive Director, PSI Caribbean
It is a warm, rainy day in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. Dionne Guischard sits expectantly at her desk, earphones plugged in, and fashionably attired with her leopard print spectacles and popping purple lipstick. She is framed in the Skype background by vertical brown blinds, which contrast with her brightly colored blouse and infectious smile.
Dionne is the CEO of Families in Action (FIA), a local non-profit working to uplift individuals and families in Trinidad & Tobago for the past three decades. She has come right up the ranks, starting in 2002 as a temporary assistant, moving onto the Youth Education Coordinator position, and landing the post of CEO in 2016. “I went in kicking and screaming,” she says. Funding is a challenge for the critical work that needs to be done in Trinidad & Tobago. After a project is over, Dionne and her team must often start new projects (with new funding) from scratch. “Despite the work that begins, you know we have a five-year culture with these governments,” Dionne laments, noting the reality of having to start over and over again with critical interventions.
But this CEO is ready to face this hurdle head-on through partnerships, innovation and solid leadership. Dionne built her career on her passion for serving people at the front line through health promotion and outreach. But it was not necessarily an easy transition for her to enter the realm of management and organizational leadership. Even so, much of her life had already prepared her for such a significant task. Dionne completed her Master’s degree while pregnant with her now 8-year old daughter. Dionne was adamant about raising her daughter in the strong southern community setting of her childhood, Point Fortin. Moving to the north of the island for her education and employment, she desired to remain rooted in society and with those she served through her work at FIA.
The passion Dionne has for her work is undeniably infectious. Youth development and empowerment is at the heart of her work and a large part of the broader mandate of FIA, particularly when it comes to gender-based violence (GBV). In Trinidad and Tobago, GBV is widespread and considered a public health crisis. Apart from the cases that make news headlines, there are countless other killings, rapes and reported cases of abuse, as well as countless acts of violence that go unreported. While extreme acts of violence receive the most media attention, many more victims suffer from quieter acts of violence such as isolation from friends and family, withholding of financial resources and verbal and emotional abuse.
This reality did not go unnoticed by Dionne and her tenacious team at FIA. When she attended an event where a survivor of violence shared her story, she realized how many young women were in abusive relationships and didn’t know it. “About 98% of them just had no idea!” she said vehemently. “We had to do something”. Thus was the conception of “Girls Stand Up”, a youth-led, school-based movement of girls passionate about preventing and ending GBV. In collaboration with PSI, Dionne and her team were able to reach dozens of young women in various schools across Trinidad and Tobago. Although funding for the project has officially ended, Dionne is determined to continue the good work that was initiated through FIA’s partnership with PSI. Even more, she believes in the power of partnerships: “Strong relationships with people can get you almost anywhere” she says.
Dionne describes 2018 as “a year of hope”. Despite the many ills that plague Trinidadian society, she is sanguine in her belief that each citizen can do their part to make things better in their country, even in regard to GBV, which seems like an unconquerable beast. Dionne believes in a better T&T for her society, her daughter and herself. Just like her smile, her determination is infectious, and I, too am inspired to believe the same.