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July 2024
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Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis, DTM (left) and Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper, DTM (right)

Leading The Bahamas

Two longtime Toastmasters steer the country's government.

By Paul Sterman

Over the years, Toastmasters members have made an impact in many professional arenas, including politics. Onetime members have included former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle and former Canadian Speaker of the House of Commons Geoff Regan.

But in the Toastmasters world, there has never been a situation quite like this. The current prime minister and deputy prime minister of The Bahamas are not only members—they’re longtime and accomplished members. Prime Minister Philip Davis, 71, has been a member for a total of over 40 years, one of the early members of the first club ever formed in The Bahamas. Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper, 52, has been a Toastmaster for nearly 35 years. Though both men haven’t been as involved in recent years because of their political duties, they were highly involved for many years; both served in club and District leadership roles and earned a Distinguished Toastmaster (DTM) award.

And both emphasize that their Toastmasters training was vital to their career accomplishments.

“It was a big factor in our success,” says Cooper. Possessing the skills to lead groups, listen to others, and persuade people through communication are all key elements in politics, he adds. “The ability to shape your language and your words to suit your audience has really been a gift that I would have only been able to learn as a result of my involvement in Toastmasters.”

“To listen, speak, and think is what Toastmasters teaches.”

—Bahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis, DTM

The prime minister praised the value of the program at a Toastmasters meeting. In June, his club, First Bahamas Branch of Toastmasters, in Nassau, honored its long list of Past Club Presidents. That includes Davis, who served as Club President in 1979.

The meeting culminated with Davis delivering a speech, in which he referred to Toastmasters as his “university.” It was a place that helped instill self-confidence and the fundamental skills to find professional success, he said. Besides flourishing in politics, Davis also forged a career as one of the country’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys.

“To listen, speak, and think is what Toastmasters teaches,” said the prime minister.

Bahamas Pride

Davis and Cooper, who head the country’s Progressive Liberal Party, were elected to their current positions in September 2021. For Toastmasters in The Bahamas, it is a point of great pride to have two of their own leading the government. And that pride extends to the recently announced news that the country’s capital, Nassau, has been chosen as the site of the 2023 International Convention.

“ManBahamas Prime Minister Philip Davis speaks at a club meeting of the First Bahamas Branch of Toastmasters in Nassau. Photo by Anthony Longley, DTM

“The Bahamas’ top two political leaders are actual Toastmasters members who served not only as club officers but as District officers,” enthuses Verna Bonaby, DTM, a member of several Bahamas clubs and Club Growth Director for District 47 (Southeast Florida and The Bahamas). “I am especially proud that the prime minister, the Honorable Philip Davis, takes every opportunity to speak to the impact that the Toastmasters program had on his personal growth and development as a young, up-and-coming professional, and encourages persons to join the organization.”

Michael Cooper, DTM, a cousin of Chester Cooper’s and a member in The Bahamas for more than 40 years, says, “It certainly makes me feel good to know that the country is being led by Toastmasters.”

When he and Davis took office last year, says Deputy Prime Minister Cooper, “it was a moment of great pride for us, but also for other Toastmasters, who recognized that this truly was the place we got our start in terms of communication, public speaking, and leadership, and I think that is celebrated.”

A Legal Star

Davis became so successful as a defense attorney that he holds the title of “KC” (King’s Counsel), one of the highest honors that a solicitor in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries can attain. (Once a British colony, The Bahamas—an archipelago of nearly 700 islands and cays—is now an independent Commonwealth country.) Davis was also appointed as a magistrate, a position similar to a judge.

He first entered the field of politics in 1992, when he was elected a member of the country’s Parliament, representing Cat Island, Rum Cay, and San Salvador, all small islands in the central Bahamas. He became leader of the Progressive Liberal Party in 2017.

The aforementioned Michael Cooper, who has known Davis for many years, says one of the prime minister’s most impressive skills is how attentive and perceptive he is.

“He’s a very, very good listener—one of the best listeners I’ve ever known,” he says.

Fittingly, Davis conducted a listening exercise for the audience when he spoke at the June Toastmasters meeting.

A Distinguished Start

Deputy Prime Minister Cooper, pointing to the strong connections he made with other members over the years, says, “Toastmasters is family to me.” Quite literally: He joined as a young man at the urging of his brother and his cousin, both members. Toastmasters became his learning lab, helping him overcome what he acknowledges were many communication shortcomings. “This was really a safe place for me.”

“ManDeputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper makes a quip at a meeting of the Bahamas Parliament. Photo by Kemuel Stubbs

He embraced the program so quickly and intently that he achieved his DTM at 23 years old. He went on to become Club President of the Cable Beach West Toastmasters in Nassau and later served as an Area Governor.

Cooper, who also serves as Minister of Tourism and Aviation, was elected to Parliament in 2017, representing The Exumas (where he grew up) and Ragged Island. Before going into politics, he was President and CEO of BAF Financial & Insurance and Chairman and CEO of BAF Global Group. He was also a member of his company’s corporate Toastmasters club—BAF Stars.

Cooper says the skills he developed in Toastmasters helped him thrive in diverse settings, both in business and politics. For example, how to read an audience and respond effectively—like “understanding when I may have said something that needs further explanation,” he notes. “I may have said something that rubbed someone slightly the wrong way. An explanation [by me] usually follows. One of the skills you learn is certainly the ability to accept criticism. Evaluation is what they call it in Toastmasters. But the need to accept the evaluation and respond appropriately is also key in politics.”

“It was a moment of great pride for us, but also for other Toastmasters, who recognized that this truly was the place we got our start in terms of communication, public speaking, and leadership.”

—Deputy Prime Minister Chester Cooper, DTM

The deputy prime minister says public speaking doesn’t even faze him now. “I believe I have two speeches tomorrow and three the next day and two the next day. So it’s quite a frequent occurrence. What was once a big task [for me] or an event filled with fear and trepidation has become all in a day’s work.

“I think many politicians still struggle when they have to give a speech, but I think I’ve done it so much now that it’s become second nature.”

Interestingly, Deputy Prime Minister Cooper and Prime Minister Davis have different public speaking styles. The younger Cooper, who in his government position also communicates often on social media, has a high-energy, dynamic speaking approach. Davis, who possesses a deep, rumbling voice, projects a more subdued, stately quality as an orator.

The two “complement each other perfectly, in my opinion,” says Anthony Longley, DTM, a Toastmasters Past International Director and another longtime member of the First Bahamas Branch club. “They make a heck of a team!”

Helping Young People

Prime Minister Davis, also his country’s Minister of Finance, joined the First Bahamas Branch club in 1971, two years after it was officially chartered. (See page 17 to learn more about the club’s history.) He played an important role in helping The Bahamas become part of District 47 in 1973, and he served as a Division Governor in 1989.

He and his wife, Ann-Marie, hosted a Christmas party for the First Bahamas Branch club at their home for several years before the pandemic hit in 2020.

Mentoring young people has always been one of Davis’s top priorities. In its early years, the First Bahamas Branch started several Gavel Clubs in high schools.

“That was quite an effective way of [mentoring], helping young people engage in debate, public speaking, and what I call the qualities of leadership,” Davis says in a documentary about the club called Echoes of History.

Earlier this year, he gave the commencement speech at Middle Tennessee State University (whose president is from The Bahamas). The prime minister spoke to the college graduates about goals and aspirations, talking about his own background growing up around Cat Island, with a population of a few hundred.

“My grandparents were subsistence farmers, who were never taught to read or write,” said Davis. “My father was a fireman, my mother a domestic worker. When I was a young boy, people of my race, people like me, had no right[s] or ability to vote for their government, and certainly no right[s] to have a say in how the country was run. That I might grow up to become prime minister of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas was beyond their imagination. And probably beyond my imagination, too.

“But nothing should hold back the size and shape of your dreams.”


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