June Soomer: a voice for all | Backstory

As head of the Association of Caribbean States, appointed in 2016, St Lucian June Soomer keeps regional integration high on the agenda. She tells Shelly-Ann Inniss how her career as historian and diplomat prepared her for this trailblazing new role

June Soomer. Photo by Damien Luk Pat courtesy ACS

If you scan a boardroom, platform, or summit, her hair stands out. Not only is her bun quite tall, sometimes it’s the only mass of hair among the shaved or low haircuts worn by the men in her presence. Addressing an audience of press personnel, she speaks slowly, with authority and precision. Outspoken, intelligent, confident — that might be your initial impression. You’d never guess that Her Excellency Dr June Soomer is one of the shyest people you’ll ever come across.

Throughout her life, she’s been a world-changer, paving the way with many firsts, as she hiked up the stepping-stones to where she’s currently stationed as secretary-general of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). Soomer is the first woman to head the organisation, and despite being an introvert, she projects herself out of “necessity,” she says, to get the job done. In fact, when the nomination came for the position of secretary-general, Soomer was already personally acquainted with every prime minister and opposition leader among the ACS countries.

In one word, Soomer describes herself as “aware.” Growing up in St Lucia, her family was poor. Nevertheless, her mother made sure her family never suffered. Soomer is the seventh of eight siblings. Intense focus and determination were instilled in her from very young, adding to her inquisitive nature. What the average person might view as a significant accomplishment, she sees as just the next step.

Soomer was the first woman to graduate from the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies with a PhD in history, in the early 1990s; then the first women to serve as a CARICOM ambassador for St Lucia. In 2016, she was appointed the first woman secretary-general of the ACS, a four-year position; and in August this year she started a term of office as the chair of the UWI Open Campus Council. Simultaneously straddling two desks doesn’t inhibit this modern-day Renaissance woman. She’s also an author, amateur fashion designer, baker, and devoted cheerleader for her staff and colleagues. But being an aunt to her numerous nieces and nephews is her favourite role. How does she juggle her professional obligations, cook, enjoy her hobbies, balance her personal life, plus get a minimum of six hours sleep? “You find the time to do what’s important to you,” she says.

 

As secretary-general, Soomer is responsible for the development and maintenance of political relations and co-operation among ACS member and associate member states. Additionally, she’s expected to strengthen the institution and collaboration efforts between the ACS and third parties. Leading her diligent team of thirty-two, she strategically and efficiently navigates her charted course, to the best of her ability.

The ACS was founded in 1994, with the intention of promoting dialogue, co-operation, and co-ordination among all Caribbean countries. Fast-forward twenty-three years: it now has twenty-five member states, eleven associate member states, twenty-seven observer states, and the support of CARICOM and other international bodies. The ACS unites approximately 285 million people in the Caribbean region.

“Small countries sometimes feel lost in big arrangements, not understanding that everybody has a voice,” Soomer says. “The ACS gives everybody that voice. We function in bigger organisations like the United Nations, and people recognise that we have a vote, although we are small nations. But it is a vote, and it is recognised globally.” So in her first year on the job, she set out to revitalise the ACS.

One of the things Soomer believes the ACS was designed to do, but hasn’t, is ensure that every regional organisation works to maximise resources and bring the best benefits to the Caibbean. “I think that a lot of countries are over-saturated with regional integration, so they prefer to put their efforts into things that they recognise more, instead of investing in possibilities,” she says. Soomer believes the reason the ACS is a good example of co-operation is because it’s so different. “I think my job is harder because I have to work with the diversity that I have. I must also look at the differences and ensure that the policies that are placed in the countries are what the countries want, because they are different. I want all of the regional associations and organisations to meet and map out for the region’s success. That’s the best thing I can do.”

Of her many visits to the member and associated states, Belize resonates most. She was appointed secretary-general at the Intercessional Summit of CARICOM leaders there, but that isn’t why. Soomer believes Belize has tremendous expertise: in home-grown policies, their ability to include the population in decision-making, their focus on the environment, and on sustainable living. “We aspire to be a ‘united states,’ and if we go to Belize, we will better understand who we are. Our countries have so much more to offer. If only we realised our models haven’t done us justice,” she says.

Soomer has the power to ensure the ACS has world-class technical workers and proper co-ordination across its various portfolios. But how is her success really measured? Will the ACS be considered successful when average citizens feel the benefits in their lives? When disaster risk factors are reduced and properly managed? Or if trade, transport, tourism, and Caribbean Sea initiatives can function and be sustained efficiently and effectively using the region’s resources?

Cricket is in Soomer’s bones. She watches it, analyses it, and also writes about it. Her dream job is to one day run the West Indies Cricket Board. But her truest passion is history, and that’s what she aims to create. Like other powerful women, Soomer is sometimes challenged by disrespect, which she brushes off, pressing forward. “I am aware that I carry the weight of women from the past and women to come. If I don’t do this job well, people will say, we always knew that women couldn’t do it,” Soomer explains. And she rebukes such a possibility. If she ever writes a book on women and careers, she’ll title it Upgraded — the true metaphor for her life.

 

The Association of Caribbean States

Member states: Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela

Associate members: Aruba, Curaçao, France (on behalf of French Guiana and St Barthélemy), Guadeloupe, Martinique, the Netherlands (on behalf of Bonaire, Eustatius, and Saba), St Martin, Sint Maarten, Turks and Caicos