One week after resigning the post, Vakeesha John, former president of the youth arm of the main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), took to radio, presenting the party’s chief spokesperson, Lavern King, and central executive member, Clemroy “Bert” Francois, as the main reasons for quitting.
John, a 29-year-old educator who was dismissed under COVID-19 vaccine mandate, said on Hot 97 on Thursday that her resignation last week — which the party accepted — was not the first that she had submitted during her tenure, having first done so in February or March.
John was elected unopposed last November as president of the Young Democrats and threw in the towel last week. On radio on Thursday, she presented the NDP’s leadership as not sufficiently responsive to issues that she had raised in-house.
“… I even said in a meeting, nobody said anything when these things happen, but when other people like what I call the favourites, or the golden children of the party, offended, you will see the chairman jump in, ‘Oh, stop this; this is not appropriate’ and so forth’,” she said.
John, a Layou resident, was speaking of an incident in which she said that Francois, a host of the party’s radio programme, told her in the Central Executive’s WhatsApp chat that she was “mentally sick”.
She said that the party never dealt with the incident and she further complained about what she presented as efforts by NDP PRO, Lavern King, to thwart her candidacy last November and later frustrate her presidency.
When iWitness News contacted them separately on Thursday, neither party president, Godwin Friday, chairman, Daniel Cummings, nor King or Francois gave any substantive responses to John’s comments.
Friday, a lawyer, who has been an MP since March 2001, said he had heard some of John’s comments on the radio show.
“But I’m not going to discuss the internal matters and the back and forth and so forth — what discussions were held within the privacy of party meetings and so forth with individuals,” the opposition leader told iWitness News.
“Vakeesha was president of the [youth arm]. She was supported unanimously and she served for a time and for her own reasons she decided that she would resign,” Friday said.
“I accepted her resignation and I thanked her for her service and basically told her if there’s anything that we can do, or she can do for us in the future that will be open to that. And that’s how it stands.”
Cummings said he had not listened to John’s comment and might do so at some point but would not comment.
“The president has responded to her resignation in very cordial terms, straightforward terms and I don’t want to comment on it,” said Cummings, who is into his third consecutive five-year term as MP for West Kingstown.
Meanwhile, King, who has been PRO of the NDP since 2017, acknowledged John’s contribution to the party and wished her well.
“Miss John served the NDP for six months and within that time I thought that she made contributions that are valuable and I wish her all the best in future endeavours,” the NDP spokesperson told iWitness News.
“I wish her well and I look forward to the youth arm continuing to champion the cause of the NDP to get a new government into office so that we could have a better St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” King said.
“I myself will continue to work on behalf of the NDP because I believe that Dr. Friday’s leadership is what the country needs right now. I’m focused on working on the behalf of the party,” King told iWitness news.
And Francois said the party could respond, if it chooses.
“I think it is an issue that the party will have to deal with,” Francois told iWitness News.
In her comments on the radio show, John said a few months ago, the party’s central executive had a discussion about how to respond to the High Court ruling that the government was wrong in the manner in which it fired public sector workers who did not take a COVID-19 vaccine.
John said that while the NDP had opposed the mandate from the beginning, some of its members, including Francois, took a personal stance in support of vaccination.
She said that from a strategic standpoint she did not think that the members of the NDP who were in agreement with the mandate, “basically supporting the stance of the government”, should be strong front runners in celebrating the court victory.
She said there was an exchange between her and Francois in the chat, in which he sent voice notes about not being afraid of her.
“So, I had to let Bert know very early in the movie, that I am also not afraid of him. And, it was that kind of conversation where I automatically had to defend myself,” she said, adding that some members of the central executive called out Francois on the exchange.
“Now, I said, I am a part of the send home posse. I was fired. And I’m not going to let it be trivialised even by the NDP where people who are part of my oppression could now celebrate with us, because the script has been flipped.
“Now, Bert started to tell me how I’m mentally ill and all sorts of things are wrong with me,” John said, adding that she took his comments very seriously as she is somebody who does not make jokes about mental health and mental illnesses.
John said there are over 60 people in the central executive chat and she asked about the party’s stance on mental illness but received no response.
“Now to this day, no member of the leadership of the party has denounced that; nobody ever came out to say, Bert, this was improper, the party doesn’t tolerate this kind of discourse. Nothing like that.”
John said she reminded the NDP executive that a few years ago “there was a very big issue in the country where a young lady suffered what we call exploitation, and she had some mental health issues after and I reminded them that they were the front runner in this situation.
“So, I asked, ‘Is it a case that you are different on mental health when it suits you? And then you have people here now referring to somebody, because the person’s opinion opposes their, … as mentally ill?’”
John said that even if she were mentally ill, “do you get to go around and throw this in people’s faces in such a derogatory manner?”
She said that a number of people called her and said Francois was “out of place and so on”.
John said the NDP probably did not appreciate that she “had more conversations in front of the Central Committee stating what’s on my mind than I had privately”.
She said that some members opted to start their meeting after the central executive meeting, doing so in private phone conversations with each other.
“I would say what I have to say there. So, I have that problem and it was never dealt with. And I kept it in my mind,” she said, referring to the exchange with Francois.
Regarding her issues with King, John said she and the NDP spokesperson are around the same age.
She said that while King is not a member of the Young Democrats, “it is refreshing to see her as a part of the executive. She’s the only young person on the executive and one of few women”.
John suggested that the rift between her and King started in 2021 when John’s sister commented on a programme that John hosted and on which King was a guest.
“And after the panel discussion, my sister made a comment on Facebook. And she basically criticised the PR saying you have a chance to talk about the plans of the NDP, but you sat on a panel for hours and you spoke about Ralph, Ralph, Ralph. And she said, ‘is that the party’s strategy going forward, that is poor’.”
John said that since then a number of people reached out to her saying she was attacking King and the NDP.
She said that when she decided to run for Young Dems president, she learnt that King “had made calls to several members of the central committee, asking them not to vote for me, telling them I shouldn’t be a part of the party”.
John said that was fine with her because that is how a democracy works, but she was “shocked” when a member of the Young Dems told her that she (the members) “was told not to vote for you”.
John claimed that King called people “because on the morning, people called and said, … ‘Are you still running? Lavern called me and she said, you’re not her candidate’ and so on”.
She said that another member of the Young Democrats told her that King has said how dare I run for Young Dems president after publicly criticising her on Facebook.
“Now, I found that to be laughable, because at the end of the day, whether or not I criticised the party or yourself two years ago, how can you now say how they come in the party?” John said, adding that the NDP is not someone’s house or kitchen so that people would need permission to enter.
John said that because she was aware of this, she “made every effort to start off on a very professional foot with Lavern”.
She said she asked King for suggestions when producing flyers.
“I kid you not, there is nothing that I put out to the public that was not sent to Lavern via email before it got to the media. Even before I shared in the Central Committee chat,” John said, adding that the party president had instructed her that all PR material must first pass through the PRO.
“And, after doing all of that, I would share these things. And I felt like there were delayed responses, deliberate attempts to frustrate, not just me, but the work of the Young Democrats.”
John said there were issues that went on for close to a month without being resolved, saying that some members of the executive did not have an issue with something until King mentioned it.
“Now the issues that I’ve been having with Lavern I’ve sent emails, I’ve sent queries, I’ve sent complaints. There was no member of the central executive who is surprised that I’m on this radio right now. Because I’ve said to them several times, I am complaining, and I’ve been met with silence,” John said.
“And it’s not just me. No. I’m going to be very frank, there are a number of people who won’t come out on the radio and say, there are a number of people who are experiencing issues with Lavern, where if they don’t have a good personal relationship, the things that their executive or the constituency is doing would not be shared on the NDP Facebook page.”
She said King would “give one set of rules to the woman’s arm because she’s cool with some members on that committee and when it comes to the Young Dems, we have completely different rules.”
John said neither she nor any member of the executive of the Young Democrats “is trying to get a big position.
“All we are trying to advocate for is proper inclusion, proper respect, actually listening to us, as you go on stage to say…”
She said that the NDP’s Hope rally, held in Georgetown last month was pitched as a youth rally
“And you know, the youth have a voice, the youth are part of the decision-making process. How can we sit by, watch the entire thing being planned after asking several times, ‘Well, what about the youth opinion on this rally? How can we add to it? What is our contribution?’
“You can’t say that you have made all the decisions for the youth. You side line the entire youth arm. You have one person making all the decisions, deciding what we will speak on, who will speak exactly what will be done and so on,” John said.
One of the hosts of the show told John that is how organisations work in the real world because they want to control the message.
John disagreed, saying that is “tokenism”.
Two young women, both of them younger than John — Alphina Jacobs, president of the South Central Windward division of the NDP youth arm and Chelsea Alexander, spokesperson for the Women’s Arm — addressed the rally, which political observers and social commentators regarded as a resounding success.