I had the great honor of meeting the legendary and international Haitian Singer/Superstar, Emeline Michel, at the “Voices from Haiti: Artists as Activists” Panel Discussion on Thursday, March 2, 2017. It was hosted by CUNY Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College.

I came across the event through social media, and I decided to go because I wanted to know how to use my gifts as a writer and make a contribution to the world. For a long time, I wondered what was the difference between an activist and an advocate. I wanted to learn more what it meant to be an “artist activist.”

An activist is defined as “a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change” whereas an advocate is defined as “a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.” No matter which label I fall under, I still have a desire to contribute to the betterment of my community, locally, nationally, and internationally.

This desire originated after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. Like most people, I felt helpless. News reports of death and displacement flooded the news channels. Everywhere I turned, people spoke about Haiti. Most commiserated with the unfortunate plight of the country, and donated millions of dollars to organizations.

A few years later, in 2015, there were news reports of Dominicans of Haitian descent being stripped of their nationality and facing threats of deportation. Social media posts of the inhumane treatments flooded my timeline. I came across this one video of a woman being harassed as her neighbors drove her out of the town. Rallies and protests took place across New York City. I even participated in a Haitian-Dominican Unity Press Rally held at Brooklyn Borough Hall. I felt that there was more to be done besides speeches and marches. I felt useless while hundreds of my brethren were facing uncertainty and shame every day.

Fast forward to 2016: Hurricane Matthew hit several countries in the Caribbean, leaving ruin in its wake. The northern parts of Haiti, particularly Jeremie, were terribly devastated. Three weeks later, on Monday, October 24, 2016, I received news that my grandfather passed way due to contracting pneumonia from the heavy rainfalls.

Again, that dark heavy cloud appeared; and, this time around, there was a sinking feeling in my heart that never seemed to go away. One question resurfaced: “What can I do?” I am not a lawyer; I am not a doctor, and, I’m not an architect. I can’t heal the sick, fight for the rights of the oppressed, and/or build houses for people. After the hurricane, many of my non-Haitian friends asked me, “Which organizations do you recommend?” I directed them to community-based organizations which I knew were consistently doing great work in Haiti throughout the year even when the cameras stopped rolling.

News of the hurricane and the death of my grandfather propelled me to seek ways in which I can help Haiti. I had to search deep within myself, and asked the questions:
“What am I good at? What can I do? What do I have?”

A few months later, after collaborating with a Dominican American artist, I published a children’s book entitled, “Haiti Is.” It chronicles my childhood memories of Haiti. I decided, in the first year of release, all proceeds from the sales of the book will go to two organizations who address the needs of the Haitian people. These organizations are Anseye Pou Ayiti and Yspaniola. Although I’m here in the USA, they are on the front lines of providing quality education and programs to the people in Haiti.

When I came across the event, “Voices from Haiti: Artists as Activists,” I cancelled everything I had planned to attend it. I grew up listening to the music of Emeline Michel. I had met her once several years ago, when she sat next to me one evening at a church in downtown Brooklyn. She was kind and gracious. Her presence was felt, but unannounced. I learned a lesson after that one encounter: “Always be humble.”

Other panelists included Régine Roumain, the Executive Director of Haiti Cultural Exchange; Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the founding Director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute; and, filmmaker and journalist Cassandre Thrasybule. The panelists shared their defining moment of realizing their gifts and using them to shed light and help solve issues.

Ms. Thrasybule said a profound statement that resonated with the old and young in the audience. She said, “For those blessed with a talent or gift, we have a responsibility to help the less fortunate.” When she said those words, I received the confirmation I needed to hear. It affirmed that my gift as a writer can be used to positively impact the world.

No matter who you are, or where you are from, you have a talent or a gift. Look at your environment, and ask yourself, “In what ways can I help?” The answer will surprise you. Although you can’t help everyone, you are making your corner of the world a better place. As soon as my children’s book was released, and when I understood that I wouldn’t get a dime from it in the first year, and that it will be directed towards two organizations, my perspective on life shifted. I realized that this life is not about us. To echo Ms. Thrasybule’s words, we have a responsibility. I now live by the motto, “When you transform your community, you transform yourself.”

Your life’s purpose is tied to a cause. To figure out your purpose, answer the following questions and take action.

1. What are your talents/gifts? What are you good at? What do you have?
2. Which issue would you like to address in your community?
3. How can you use your talents and gifts to help solve this issue?

Cindy Similien-Johnson is the founder of CSJ Media Publishing, and author of the bestselling e-cookbook series and popular cooking classes, "Cook Like A Haitian." She's also the founder of the women empowerment grassroots initiative, Goal Chic.

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