Student Profile: Elena Smith
The Belizean unions strike of 2005 brings back mixed memories for a graduate student, Elena Smith, who played a key role in the national uprising. She remembers police stationed outside her home, being shot at with rubber bullets, but also the virtue in fighting for educators.
“It was a dangerous time, but it was something we needed to do as teachers and as citizens,” said Ms. Smith.
As president of the Belize National Teachers’ Union -- Belize branch, Ms. Smith was on the front lines during the highly-publicized strike, rallying protestors and organizing demonstrations that called for better management of public funds. The month-long unrest ended with increased salaries for teachers, a stop on tax hikes, various financial reforms, and greater political involvement for unions.
“I strongly believe that showing the government what unions can do helped us succeed,” said Ms. Smith, who is earning her master’s in education as part of an exchange agreement between BSU and the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in Belize.
Ms. Smith’s contributions during the strike were not overlooked. In July 2005, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize honored her with an Outstanding Trade Unionist Award. Shortly after, the BNTU and Women’s Department of the Ministry of Human Development and Social Transformation bestowed on her an Outstanding Women Award for improving the lives of women in Belize.
Last year, Belize City designated an area where streets would be named after significant citizens. One is to be named after Ms. Smith for her outstanding union service -- fitting for a name that still resonates with citizens.
“Whenever you hear ‘Elena Smith’ you think about the union -- her name is synonymous with it,” said Joy Westby, another BSU graduate student from Belize, who is principal for a government school and knew Ms. Smith during the strike.
The 2005 unrest began with the initiative of Ms. Smith and other union leaders. In January that year, after the Belizean government announced its proposed national budget, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize called for a strike, railing against tax hikes, among other things. Ms. Smith took to the radio airwaves in Belize City and rallied fellow union members, educators and the public.
Protestors took to the streets, shouting their chant, “Reform, resign or be removed,” which Ms. Smith said was a message to the government. “You either reform the way you govern, resign, or we force you to leave office,” she said.
Eventually, the opposing sides decided on an 11-point agreement that focused on financial reform. And while the government did not resign, it fell to the opposition in the country’s 2007 election, which Ms. Smith said was an indirect consequence of the strike. “People believe this is a result of the union actions,” she said. “We pointed out what the government was doing with our funds and the public supported us.”
Ms. Smith is no longer president of the BNTU, but still works through issues with the union from her temporary home in the Great Hill Apartments on campus.
In order to return to the union and to her family in Belize next year, Ms. Smith has packed her schedule with six classes each semester. Tuesdays and Thursdays she’s at local elementary schools, doing what helps alleviate her homesickness: teaching children.
“Teaching makes me feel at home again,” she said. “When I’m in the classroom, I forget I’m in the states. Whatever problems I have disappear. There’s no time to think about missing your family or anything else. You focus on the children. That’s the joy of it.”
When she returns to her homeland, she expects to continue teaching and training teachers in literacy education, in which she is specializing. And should the ministry ask her to join their ranks, which is a rumor, Ms. Smith said she may just stick with teaching. “Personally, I’d prefer to go back to my classroom,” she said.
Ms. Smith was selected by BSU’s Edward W. Minnock Center for International Engagement to attend the next U.S. presidential inauguration. (Rob Matheson, ’07, G ’12, University Advancement)