Get to know Portia Simpson Miller

Michael Kowaleski

Photo courtesy of | Lafayette Communications

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller will be the 179th Commencement speaker. (Photo courtesy of Lafayette Communications)
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller will be the 179th Commencement speaker. (Photo courtesy of Lafayette Communications)

Last Monday, the principal speaker of Lafayette’s 179th Commencement was announced: Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller.

Business Insider included her on their list of “The Most Notable College Commencement Speakers of 2014” and Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people of 2012. The Lafayette sat down with Lafayette African & Caribbean Students Association president and Jamaican native Anna-Lisa Ashman ’16 to compile a shorthand guide to the Prime Minister.

 

Portia Simpson Miller is the first female prime minister of Jamaica. “She’s someone you can look up to,” Ashman said. “She’s earned this by proving that she’s not going to let everyone else win just because she’s a woman. It’s something you can admire.”

Lafayette president Alison Byerly recognized parallels between herself and Simpson Miller. “My understanding from her office is she’s pleased to be speaking at the commencement of a school whose president is also a first female president,” Byerly said. “It was something we thought about at both ends, and it’ll be a nice topic of conversation when I have the pleasure of meeting her.”

She’s a gay rights advocate. This is an especially courageous position given Jamaica’s reputation for violent discrimination against homosexual individuals. “Jamaica has a reputation for being a homophobic country,” Ashman said. “This shows that she’s more forward thinking, that she’s considering what’s going on in the world around her. She challenges her own beliefs.”

She originates from the working class and has earned the nickname “Sister P.” Simpson Miller was born in what she describes as “deep rural Jamaica,” and started her political career in 1974 in local government. Two years later, she was elected to Jamaican Parliament. “Because of that, she has a unique perspective and she can relate to the people a lot better,” Ashman said. “She’s in charge of everything, but she knows what the people are thinking.”

Simpson Miller is widely recognized for focusing on empowerment for marginalized individuals and uniting classes with the goal of addressing economic underdevelopment.

Jamaica, like the rest of the world, has a high unemployment rate and is recovering from a drug scandal that forced Simpson Miller’s predecessors out of power.

She’s moving to break away from Britain to solidify Jamaica’s independence. Despite earning its independence from British colonial rule in the 1960s, Queen Elizabeth II still remains the head of state. Simpson Miller wants to solidify the transition by following former colonies such as Trinidad & Tobago and becoming a republic. “I am a fan of the Queen,” Simpson Miller told Time in 2012. “We could remain a member of the [British] Commonwealth. But the time has come.”

She has much to offer Lafayette’s Class of 2014. Said Ashman: “What [Simpson Miller] can bring to the school is that no matter where you are, there will be hardships. When she brings her story, she brings a story of trial, but she also brings a story of standing against the norm…there are trials that you have to go through. You can start out as a privileged kid and still have trials. You don’t have to be the poorest kid from the slums. Everyone has to go through that. How do you not let it overtake you? She can really bring that into perspective on an international level, but also a personal level.”

Simpson Miller will also receive an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree in addition to her speech, which will be held May 24.