By M. Skye Holly
BROOKLYN, NY — On Aug. 24, a press conference was held on the courtyard of the Brooklyn College Library to officially recognize the establishment of the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Haitian Studies Institute. The Haitian Studies Institute (HSI) is a CUNY-wide research institute that will be permanently housed at Brooklyn College; it plans on becoming a leading institute on Haitian Studies within New York State and throughout the Haitian Diaspora.
HSI’s founding director is none other than internationally-recognized scholar/author Jean Eddy Saint Paul, Ph.D. The institute’s primary focus is to document, collect, and advance the scholarly work and practice of people of Haitian descent within the respective fields of academia and public policy. The CUNY-HSI will be a gathering place where the history of Haiti and its impact on American and world history is celebrated and protected. Saint Paul was welcomed onto the campus by an enthusiastic group of supporters, ranging from newly-appointed president of Brooklyn College Michelle J. Anderson to Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte (D-Brooklyn, 42nd District), Council Member Jumaane D. Williams (D-Brooklyn, 45th District), Peter Bernard, Consul General of Haiti, and New York City’s Commissioner of Finance Jacques Jiha.
Anderson warmly greeted the audience, remarking on how temperate the weather was.
“It feels [great] inside. This is a tremendous opportunity for the community and for Brooklyn College,” she said. Anderson noted that there were several thousand Haitian and Haitian-American students at Brooklyn College alone, not to mention faculty.
The largest population of Haitians in New York City reside in the borough of Brooklyn and Haitian-Creole is one of the top 5 languages spoken in New York City. As a center of the Haitian diaspora, Anderson said that she was “honored to serve” Haiti and HSI’s mission in this way.
Assembly Member Bichotte was proud to see the resolution finally pass after its proposal a few years ago.
“As soon as I was sworn into office, I began on resurrecting the idea of this institute,” Bichotte said. There were many talks over the years regarding its location, as HSI looked for a facility. When the notion came up of housing the HSI in the Bronx, Bichotte was adamant that it belonged in Brooklyn. She reached out to State Senator Kevin Parker, Council Member Williams, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and Assembly Member N. Nick Perry (D- Brooklyn, 58th District) for support.
“We believe that HSI belongs here. It’s home needed to be here, at Brooklyn College,” Bichotte said. “It was a fight, but it was a good fight. A fight Jumaane Williams and Yvette Clark actively participated in because they believed in this fight for the borough. That idea is a reality today. That idea has found a home.”
Saint Paul humbly addressed the audience and thanked the dignitaries in attendance who fought for the Haitian Studies Institute. Saint Paul warmly thanked CUNY, Brooklyn College and Mayor Bill De Blasio. He vowed, “to build up the image of Haiti, you can count on me,” he said in Haitian-Creole. Saint Paul, most recently a professor of politics and sociology at Mexico’s University of Guanajuato, plans to turn HSI into a world class research institute. He hopes to launch a digital library, cutting edge website and a visiting professorship.
Congresswoman Clarke said CUNY-HSI will be seen as a “mecca” and it will connect “directly to Haiti, and the diaspora in Paris, in Africa, in a unique way.”
Alumni, students, faculty and other guests were also present for the innovative occasion. Council Member Williams, Consul General Bernard, and Kimberly Jean-Pierre, the first Haitian-American State Assemblywoman in Suffolk County, NY were some of the proud alumni in attendance.
Williams challenged the old adage “Brooklyn College is the poor man’s Harvard,” with a saying of his own.
“Harvard is the rich man’s Brooklyn College,” Williams said. He recalled growing up in Brooklyn at a time when being of Haitian or African descent was considered a taboo, and after Haitians continued to grow and contribute to society, they made a name for their themselves and earned respect.
“Many didn’t know that Haiti had a culture,” he said. “The things said about Haitians were despicable.”
While Williams said the community should not ignore the plight faced by many in Haiti today, particularly after the 2010 earthquake when people were left with shattered lives and failed humanitarian promises, he pointed out that the diaspora can do what they can with what they have.
“Brooklyn College has birthed a lot of leaders,” Assemblywoman Jean-Pierre said. “Brooklyn College is the trailblazer that will be the model for other colleges and universities.”
Rev. Jean Albert Rejouis traveled from Long Island to attend the press conference because he agreed. A 1987 graduate of Brooklyn College, he said “I’m here because I always thought of how Brooklyn College has so many Haitians-professors, students, an they should have something like this. Puerto Ricans have it, Dominicans. Why not Haitians?”
Ron Howell, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College, and a journalist for the NY Daily News was raised in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and also calls Brooklyn College his alma mater. He said that he is full of hope for the Haitian Studies Institute.
“I have the highest of hopes for the institute. This is the birth of a new institute, and our eyes have to be on it to ensure it continues in the pursuit of truth, and on behalf of the people it represents,” Powell said.
“This is a momentous occasion,” Ricot Dupuy, Director of Radio Soleil NY said. “The Haitian story needs to be told. Haitian history is world history.”