NGO activity in Guyana: The Georgetown Toastmasters Club By Cecilia McAlmont
Stabroek News
May 17, 2001

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Guyana has always had a number of debating clubs and literary and debating societies, all concerned with speaking before an audience. However, it was not until 1959, that the Georgetown Toastmasters Club came into existence with the specific purpose of training people in Public Speaking. Its founder was Mr. Derek Adamson who, during a five-year sojourn in Canada, had been a member of a Toastmasters Club. He returned home in September 1958 eager to share the benefits to be accrued from being a toastmaster. The first meeting was held at the Woodbine Hotel on March 18, 1959 and the club received its charter in June of that year from Toastmasters International. Toastmasters International itself was started in 1904, by Ralph Smedley, Education Director of the YMCA in Bloomington, USA as a public-speaking club for teenage boys.

However, the idea did not really take off until 1924 when he started a club in Santa Anna, California in October with boys from the YMCA and local businessmen. Smedley, its founder, saw the Toastmasters Club as "a voluntary association of people who desire to gain facility in the art of communication". Today, Toastmasters International sees its mission as making effective oral communication a worldwide reality.

Structure and financing
As a member of Toastmasters International, the George-town Toastmasters Club is guided by that organisation's constitution in its organisation and in the execution of its objectives. The organisation is administered by an Executive that consists of a President and Educational, Administrative, Membership and Public Relations Vice-Presidents (these last two being relatively new positions). There is also a Secretary, a Treasurer, an Assistant Secretary Treasurer, a Sergeant-at-Arms and Past President. All officials except the President can be elected to the same position for two consecutive years. Until two years ago, elections were held annually. Now, they are held biennially but the same members are eligible for re-election. The organisation also has a Patron. The last three have been the Chancellor of the Judiciary.
The Georgetown Toast-masters club receives no financial assistance from the international body and its financial sustainability is entirely dependent on the fund-raising activities of its members. These include funds raised through the Speech Craft courses and seminars it runs for public and private sector entities. Each member is also required to pay a local fee.

A person is usually inducted as a member into the club after three visits. After the induction, a New Member fee and membership dues have to be paid. Thereafter, members are required to pay their dues to Toastmasters International on a semi-annual basis. With the first payment to Toast-masters International, they receive a kit with educational materials, including details on the ten speeches that have to be completed in order to become a "Competent Toast-master" or CTM.

The CTM is the first level of attainment in the Toast-masters Club. This process might take several years depending on the individual. Each new toastmaster has a coach/mentor. Each of the ten speeches, starting with "The Icebreaker", is evaluated on its opening, body and conclusion. Only on satisfactory completion is the toastmaster permitted to move on to the next. With each of the nine additional speeches, a different aspect of effective communication is added. It culminates with a final speech called "Inspire your Audience". This project brings together all the elements of a great speech.

Becoming a CTM also involves participation in the other activities of the club. These include serving on the Executive, participating in leadership and outreach programmes, and acting as a functionary - Topic Master, General Evaluator, Timer, Toastmaster-of-the Evening. The highest award in Toast-masters International is "The Distinguished Toastmaster". However, along the way, there are many awards and certificates that can be earned.

From the very beginning of the club's existence, members were provided with courses in speech training, parliamentary exercises and leadership techniques. They also participated in, and benefited from, Prepared Speech, Impromptu Speech, Evaluation and Parliamentary Procedure exercises. These are still important features of the club's activities for its membership.

Other activities of the club
In addition to its main purpose of developing and honing the communication skills of its members, the George-town Toastmasters Club has always been involved in outreach and community activities. Indeed, this is one of the requirements of becoming a CTM. In the first decades of its existence, the club introduced annual Speech Craft Courses. It participated in seminars run by organisations like the AEA and the Muslim Youth Organisation. In 1969, it held its first joint meeting with the Georgetown Toast-mistress Club that had been formed three years previously. By the end of its first decade of existence, it had started a branch in McKenzie (now Linden) and run seminars on the west and east coasts of Demerara. In the early years, there was also a Youth Leadership Committee that ran youth leadership courses and went into schools to organise debating societies. However, one of the most significant aspects of its community programmes was its supervision of the Communications Course run by the Critchlow Labour College. During the difficult times of the 1970's and 1980's many of these activities became dormant, but are once again being reintroduced.

Women in the Georgetown Toastmasters Club
Like the rest of Guyana, the decade of the 1990s ushered in significant changes for the Georgetown Toastmasters Club. The most significant of these was the predominance of women in its decision-making. Currently, women constitute 59% or 13 of its 22 active members while 75%, of its executive, including the President and three Vice-Presidents, are women. This was not the case even 20 years ago. Following changes made to the constitution of Toast-masters International, the Georgetown Toastmasters club opened its doors to women in the second half of the 1970s. By 1979 at least four women were members, one of whom, Ms Cicely Kellman, still is.

With the entry of women into the club, many of the male members declined to serve as Secretary, since in their perception that office was more suited to a woman. However, they supported women for positions on the Executive. Often when men left the club, the newly inducted Toastmasters were women. In 1989, Toastmaster Joan Swami became the first woman to be elected President of the club. Since then, no less than five women have been Presidents. Additionally, women have served in all the executive positions. Currently there are four women toastmasters who are CTMs.

Almost every job advertisement one reads in the newspapers these days, requires that the applicants possess good, if not excellent, oral and written communication skills. From what we hear, read and see in the electronic and other media, these accomplishments seem sadly lacking at all levels. Given its mission "to provide a supportive and positive learning environment in which every member has an opportunity to develop communication and leadership skills... ", the Georgetown Toastmasters Club can certainly play a role in changing that embarrassing state of affairs. Unfortunately, the activities of the club are confined to the city and its few attempts at expanding outside of the city have been short-lived. Its Executive is quite aware of this shortcoming, but like so many organisations, it is hamstrung by its lack of resources.

In the short term, it plans to resuscitate its community activities, especially taking its one-day seminar on "the rudiments of effective communication" to other Secondary Schools. With networking and support from other NGOs, this could be a start in an attempt at reversing the alarming trend of poor communications that has almost become the norm in our society.