Jeffers, Audrey Layne
Jeffers, Audrey Layne
- Karene-Anne NathanielKarene-Anne NathanielThe University of the West Indies at St Augustine
Audrey Layne Jeffers (1898–1968) was an early feminist of African descent with a commitment to the advancement of Black women, education of girls, services to children with disabilities, and government responsibility for social welfare. She mobilized young women to form the Coterie of Social Workers in Trinidad that began a meal program for underprivileged school children in the 1920s, which shaped the National School Feeding Program that today offers free meals to all school students. This led to the establishment of other similar facilities in other parts of the country, as well as the opening of homes for dispossessed young women, the elderly, and the blind, and daycare facilities to help working women. These facilities form the backdrop for the practice of social work in the Caribbean. She was instrumental in the hosting of the first women’s conference which made numerous recommendations including equal opportunities for women and women in the police service. She was the first woman to be elected to local government, and later nominated to the legislative council by the governor. Jeffers was a champion for disadvantaged women and girls, but notably opened the door for women in politics in the English-speaking Caribbean.
In a review of the history of social work, two important observations may be made: (a) that the rise of the profession began in the urban societies of the West in the late 19th century; and (b) that early leaders were middle class female philanthropists with concern for the underprivileged in their respective societies. The origins of social work in the Caribbean follow a similar trajectory. The vestiges of colonization in the English-speaking Caribbean created wide socioeconomic disparities, ranging from the elite planter class and a colored upper middle class, to descendants of African slaves and indentured laborers living in impoverished conditions (Cambridge, 2012). In social contexts such as these, augmented by Christian ideology, philanthropic and charitable activities can be commonplace.
Audrey Layne Jeffers was posthumously given the title “Mother of Philanthropy” for Trinidad and Tobago (Cross-Lovelace, 2020). She was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1898 to upper middle class parents of African descent, and attended the then prestigious Tranquillity Girls’ School, one of the original model elementary schools after which other schools in Trinidad were patterned (Cambridge, 2012). At that time, Trinidad was a colony of the British Empire, and at the age of 15 she moved to England where she later completed a diploma in social sciences from Alexander College, North London. Her sense of civic duty was stimulated by the civil rights activities of West African students and other minority groups at that time. She was instrumental in the creation of the Union of Students of African Descent, an association of West Indian students advocating for social justice for Blacks in Britain (Cross-Lovelace, 2020). This organization later merged with other Black students’ associations, and subsequently grew into the League of Colored Peoples. When World War 1 broke out, she established a West African Soldiers’ Fund through which she generated donations from other West Indians to provide financial assistance to West African troops (Reddock, 2005).
Jeffers returned to Trinidad in 1920 and founded a prosperous junior school at Briarend, her family home in Woodbrook where she gained prominence as an exemplary teacher. Her zeal for social justice and sense of civic responsibility, combined with deep concern for the needs of disadvantaged children, prompted her to mobilize other young women. Together they formed the Coterie of Workers in 1921, eventually gaining renown as the Coterie of Social Workers—one of the most important women’s organizations in Trinidad (Cambridge, 2012).
The Coterie organized a number of fundraising activities at Briarend to support its philanthropic efforts. By 1926, the group was able to implement its plan to respond to the needs of poor school children by providing them with a free daily meal. The first “Breakfast Shed” was established in Newtown Port of Spain to supply free lunches to students, and in short order other facilities were set up in different parts of Trinidad and Tobago. Today, the Government’s National School Feeding Program, which is open to all elementary and secondary school students, is attributed to the determined efforts of this small group of philanthropic women (Cross-Lovelace, 2020). The Coterie also allowed Jeffers to integrate her feminist orientation, passion for women and children, and determination to elevate persons of African descent (Reddock, 2005). Her activism and philanthropy through the Coterie of Social Workers led to the establishment of homes for young women, elders, and blind persons, as well as nurseries and daycare centers (Clement, 2019).
In 1936, Ms. Jeffers was encouraged to get involved in politics because of her open denouncement of poverty and social injustice affecting Black communities, and successfully contested the Port of Spain Municipal Council elections. She became the first woman to sit on the council where, until then, positions were not open to women (Reddock, 2005). She was honored at the Negro Progress Convention in British Guiana in 1936 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the emancipation of slavery. Later that year the Coterie hosted a conference of West Indies and British Guiana Social Workers in Port of Spain, the first notable women’s conference in the Anglophone Caribbean. The conference generated recommendations for the establishment of scholarship programs for girls and a women’s police service, and expanded employment opportunities for educated Black women. Her contributions were recognized by the governor, and despite the fact that women were still debarred from political office, Sir Bede Clifford nominated her in 1946 as the first woman to sit on the Legislative Council (Cross-Lovelace, 2020). There was significant opposition to this but the governor’s nomination stood and she was able to serve.
In the wake of the social unrest in the colonies that prompted the investigation and report of the West India Royal Commission led by Guinness (1945), which highlighted the inhuman living conditions in the British colonies, Jeffers used her council position to advocate for the government to accept responsibility for social welfare, rather than expect private groups like the Coterie to bear this burden. The Coterie provided information to the Commission on, inter alia, the unequal educational and occupational conditions of women and girls and the need for greater social protection for women and children, which gained mixed public support. Additionally, by motivating communities to accept responsibility for assisting members in need, Jeffers helped craft the concept of “community care” (Cross-Lovelace, 2020). Jeffers had established her reputation in politics and again gained notoriety in 1947 as the first woman appointed to the Constitutional Reform Committee. She also later served as honorary consul for the Republic of Liberia.
Audrey Jeffers was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) in 1959 for her illustrious service and invaluable contributions. She left a legacy of women’s liberation, public welfare, philanthropy, and service to persons who were disadvantaged, disabled, and dispossessed, and paved the way for specialist training for working with disabilities and the social work profession in Trinidad and Tobago (Cambridge, 2012). She founded the local chapter of Soroptimist’s International to promote human rights and the status of women and girls in 1959 (Clement, 2019). She died in 1968 at the age of 70, and a year later was posthumously awarded the Chaconia Medal Gold for social service at the first national service awards ceremony for the newly independent Trinidad and Tobago (Cambridge, 2012). Audrey Layne Jeffers made an indelible mark in the history of West Indian politics, women’s rights, and social work; she has a highway in Port of Spain and a school for deaf children in the City of San Fernando, Trinidad named in her honor.
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