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St. Kitts envoy: ‘My mom had no seat at the table’

St. Kitts envoy: ‘My mom had no seat at the table’
Ambassador Thelma Phillips-Browne of St. Kitts & Nevis gives a speech on climate change at a Washington, D.C., church gathering in 2019. Credit: SKN News

With just 54,000 inhabitants, St. Kitts & Nevis—barely twice the size of the District of Columbia—is the smallest independent sovereign nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Representing this tiny twin-island Caribbean federation in Washington is Ambassador Thelma Phillip-Browne, a doctor by profession who’s also an evangelist preacher and one of her country’s all-time champions in netball—a predominantly women’s sport similar to basketball that’s played exclusively throughout the British Commonwealth.

Ambassador Thelma Phillips-Browne of St. Kitts & Nevis.

“It’s a pleasure to serve,” the ambassador said of her diplomatic posting. “This isn’t something I was trained in, so I have to continuously be learning. You learn to work together.”

Phillip-Browne made her comments during a Feb. 22 webinar with Susan Sloan, moderator of the series “A Seat at the Table: Women in Global Leadership.” Women previously featured in the series—which is hosted by the World Trade Center Washington DC and the World Trade Center Dublin—include Ecuador’s ambassador, Ivonne A-Baki; Saudi Arabia’s ambassador, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud; and Capricia Marshall, former US chief of protocol.

This latest event marks the one-year anniversary of Sloan’s series, which examines the personal perspectives and experiences of former and current ambassadors, dignitaries and global business leaders who have made an impact in their respective careers and areas of expertise.

Sailboat at the Four Seasons Resort, Nevis. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice,” said author Nakeia Homer, whose quote has served as inspiration for Sloan, author of the 312-page book A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World.”

This year’s program continues with Florizelle Liser, CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa, on March 29, and Margery Kraus, founder and executive chair of APCO Worldwide, on April 26.

Young girl’s determination paid off

One of eight siblings, Phillip-Browne is certainly a success story now. Yet life was anything but easy growing up in Newtown, a hardscrabble district of Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts.

“My mom had no seat at the table. She brought all eight of her surviving children from 13 pregnancies into a house which was smaller than the room in which I’m now sitting. But she had that vision, like many of the women of her time. She sacrificed to ensure that her first son got into high school,” Phillip-Browne told Sloan during the one-hour program.

“My father bought into that vision and ensured that all the rest of us went to high school too. When my mom died, I was 11 and my older brother, who was 24, was put in charge of his five younger siblings,” said Phillip-Browne. “Often, we’d have to get up at 4 a.m. to cook, and sometimes, we’d fall asleep and burn the meals.”

View of houses in Ottley’s, a village north of Basseterre, St. Kitts. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Early on, the future diplomat told her brother she was thinking about becoming a nurse.

“He said to me, ‘if you want to be a nurse, why not a doctor?’ At that time, most doctors were men,” she recalled. “He was saying that to a young girl who had no role model as a doctor, and no background in science.”

But her hard work paid off, and Phillip-Browne graduated in 1978 with a medical degree from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. She did her public health training at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and also has a diploma in dermatology science from the Cardiff University School of Medicine in Wales.

From 1994 until her appointment in Washington, Phillip-Browne ran a private dermatology clinic, serving also during that time as the country’s chief medical officer.

Ambassador: ‘I was created this way for a purpose’

But there’s another aspect to her life, and that’s religion. Phillip-Browne is a devout Christian who in 2011 obtained a master’s degree in theology from Indiana’s Anderson University. A lay preacher and member of the Women of the Church of God, she’s also partnered with the local chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship and has hosted a morning devotional program on WINN-FM in St. Kitts.

And racism is a subject that comes up frequently—even in the English-speaking Caribbean, where the majority of inhabitants are descended from African slaves.

A plaque on Nevis marks the birthplace, in 1757, of American patriot Alexander Hamilton. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

“Discrimination is painful, especially when it refers to things you have no control over, like your gender or skin color,” said Phillip-Browne in describing the subtle racism that exists throughout the region.

“We in the Caribbean will never face inequality or have George Floyd moments, because most of us are black like me. But it is there, and below the radar to some extent,” she said. “As time went on, I understood that I was created that way—as a black woman. The creator knew what He was doing, and it was for a reason. And it wasn’t for me to be sidetracked by who I am, but to understand that I was created this way for a purpose.”

As such, Phillip-Browne is one of 40 female ambassadors currently posted to Washington—the highest number ever. Interestingly, five out of the 14 ambassadors here representing Caribbean Community (Caricom) member states are women—as are 50% of the ambassadors representing St. Kitts overseas.

Empathy: A commodity in short supply these days

Caricom, headquartered in Guyana, consists of 15 permanent members, including 14 independent countries and Montserrat, a British colony. These countries generally caucus together, with the US-Caricom relationship focused on four pillars: economic integration, foreign policy alignment, security and social development.

Yet it’s not always smooth sailing, Phillip-Browne pointed out.

“We have Caricom, but we are also individual sovereign countries, so sometimes there are little issues,” she said. “Right now, for example, some islands are aligned with China, and others with Taiwan. But by and large, we work together to find common ground on issues that affect us all.”

View of the Dutch-speaking island of St. Eustatius from St. Kitts. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

One of the most urgent crises affecting Caribbean nations is, of course, climate change. Rising seas threaten to devastate the coastlines of many smaller islands, spawning stronger, deadlier hurricanes in the near future while creating millions of climate refugees.

Another is the COVID-19 pandemic that’s devastated tourism—a mainstay throughout the region and particularly for St. Kitts, a popular cruise ship destination. Both these issues require empathy—a commodity now in particularly short supply in this male-dominated world.

“Do women make a difference in diffusing world conflict?” she mused, then answered in the affirmative. “Empathy is a quality that’s been steadily declining in our world, and that is what women bring to the table: an ability to empathize and put themselves in other people’s shoes.”

Asked by several participants what advice she’d give girls hoping to make a difference in the world, Phillips-Browne—who has two daughters, a son and two granddaughters—had this to say: “No matter what the obstacles, you can find a way to do it. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Remember, you are created for a special purpose. You alone can fill that slot. No one else can.”

An 18th-century cannon looks out over 38-acre Brimstone Hill Fortress on St. Kitts. (Photo by Larry Luxner)

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.