Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Michelle Fenty

The former first lady out of Washington DC


Photo by Jermaine Cruickshank Michelle Fenty's make-up by JauMark Pierre.

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Michelle Fenty and her husband former Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty.

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SHE almost slipped by without notice. Even in Port of Spain, some 2,173 miles away from Washington DC, it was impossible for Michelle Fenty to go unrecognised. Intimate but formal, the dinner party was exquisitely choreographed by US Ambassador Beatrice Wilkinson Welters. Staged at the ambassador's hilltop residence, it was a celebration of the next generation of great African American medical minds; a palatable production, full of human potential and great possibilities for the medical sciences; featur-ing some visiting young doctors, game changers, ready to play hardball with the American healthcare system. Fenty's work in the United States — as an advocate for women's health and wellness, breast cancer screening that's culturally appropriate and free for women of colour — made her a most appropriate guest. But the conversation never made its way round to her tenure as the president for the advisory board of the Capital Breast Care Centre in DC. Her husband, former DC mayor, Adrian Fenty, walked into the room and he blew her cover with his explosive smile.

The other first lady of Washington DC, as she was popularly known, had no choice but to reveal why they were in town. She wasn't here with him, he was here with her. Fenty, a long way from home, is now leading the local office of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). She arrived last month. "I want to do my part in advancing the developmental goals of Trinidad and Tobago. My family is from the Caribbean," she says to drive the point home that the region holds special meaning. Born in England, to Jamaican parents, she attributes her West Indian heritage to her strong sense of self. "My Caribbean ancestry gave me a sense of who I was as a person. My Jamaican parents instilled in me the importance of education, ethics and hard work, and the importance of supporting my family." Her British accent could play a trick or two on you. "I've always been exposed to two worlds. What makes me truly Jamaican is…what you see is what you get. I'm very transparent. My sense of humour is very British."

She's very comfortable in this environment. "The transition has been easy." It has been six days since we met at the dinner party. We're in her office, on Alexandra Street, in St Clair. She receives me as though we are longtime friends. She's warm like the sunshine that throws a spotlight over our conversation. "Making the move has been easy and the staff very helpful." While the physical move worked like a charm the psychological move is presenting minor challenges. "The emotional transition has been hard because my family hasn't moved. Emotionally, it is hard being away from my family." Her three kids came to visit recently. Her husband and two sons left, a few days ago. Her mom and baby girl stayed back for a few extra days but leave today. She's candid. She's willing to discuss anything and is not the least bit daunted by a few personal questions about being a high profile Washington wife and a political spouse.

"My husband was a politician for 21 years. His position required and meant that I had to support him in his role as mayor of DC. He had an obligation that extended to me. It was a wonderful experience." But being the mayor's wife was much more than a photo opportunity. There were some aspects she enjoyed and other parts she could have done without. "What I didn't like about the experience, if I'm being honest," she says but punctuates her sentences with a long pause. "I want to choose my words carefully," she assures me. "I'm trying to think how to say this diplomatically." Political correctness is a skill she has fine-tuned so well that it is almost impossible to tell if she changed her mind and switched her original thought for this one. "Being recognised in public," she continues with less alacrity. "I'm a very private person, a low-key person, and there's definitely a lot of exposure."

During her husband's tenure, the Washington press, called her "the seldom-seen wife." She laughs. "I kept a distinct separation between our political and private life. We had small children which meant one of us had to be home and my husband had an obligation." Politics, she reckons, could only stress your marriage if you allow it. "We've learned to keep it separate and we've been able to balance that separation well." She met her husband at Howard Law School. She was his mentor during his first year. She graduated and moved to New York City. They began dating long distance. "Just like the president and Michelle Obama," she laughs. "Yes, I was his mentor. But I got to know him like a person. He's a wonderful human being." They were married, in '97, when she returned to DC to study international comparative law at Georgetown University. "I've always had a career. I'm not the typical political spouse. I made a conscious decision to pursue my career objectives and to keep a separation between my professional life and his political life."

Often referred to as the "other Michelle" she credits Michelle Obama with providing a new kind of leadership for women. "We definitely met a few times and she is absolutely wonderful and truly an inspiration to women across the world." It is that kind of inspirational leadership she plans to bring to her job here in Trinidad. "The IDB is a wonderful partner to sow the development goals of Trinidad and Tobago. Assuming we are able to fulfill our objectives, progress will have a transformative feel. It is really important to the bank to help the people of Trinidad and Tobago transition its economy to a post hydrocarbon model." She has adjusted well and sits comfortably behind her executive desk, taking total control. "I'm influenced by all my experiences. I grew up, in Europe, to Caribbean parents. I have a home in Jamaica. I've lived in America more years than in England. Each place has helped shaped me. I carry a part of all those countries with me, where ever I go."