A number of Haitians have made great political and professional strides in New York. However, does their success translate to a vibrant Haitian community?
In his latest column, Haitian Times publisher Garry Pierre-Pierre contrasts the individual success of those in the community with the overall strength of Haitians as a whole in New York, all the while questioning the efficacy of “self-proclaimed leaders” in the community.
By Garry Pierre-Pierre
As Haitians in the New York metro area begin celebrating Haitian Heritage month, we need to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are and where we need to be as a community.
Over the course of this month, there will be cultural events, political and academic pow wows that highlight our progress in the four decades since we’ve set up a stronghold in New York.
Politically, we’ve come a long way. Back in the day, we used to wonder whether we should invite elected officials to address the community. Now we’re fielding candidates of Haitian origins for public offices and throwing our support behind others. As a result, Haitian-Americans now hold several positions in the City Council and the Assembly.
Individually, we’ve done well. There are Haitians at all echelons of the private and public sector, trailblazing paths for the next generation. Few people know that New York City’s Finance Commissioner is Jacques Jiha, a Haitian American. The honcho at the Open Society Foundation is Patrick Gaspard. You guessed it, his parents are from Haiti. The list goes on and on. We should be proud of our achievements.
Communally, however, we’ve fallen far short of expectations. This is an area where we need to focus our energy to recruit and engage more people to build institutions and strengthen our community. While we have a cadre of professionals, the number of folks working in low paying jobs remains high. We need to fix that.
I hope that after the fiasco of the April 20 march, self-proclaimed Haitian leaders can have a frank introspection on their leadership skills vis-à-vis the community. One takeaway I hope they come up with is that they need to gauge the pulse of the community in terms of the needs and how they can galvanize the population.
The community appears adrift and while we have elected officials of Haitian ancestry, they have failed to create a visible cultural hub, a community center or legal assistance. Some attorneys have been holding immigration sessions to address the precarious legal status that Haitians face. But Haitians face other legal challenges that remain unmet. As a result, young Haitians — whose parents are unable to hire an attorney when they face the wrath of the law — are entering the criminal justice vortex at an alarming rate.
There are untold number of stories of Haitians who are being denied housing or are being charged exorbitant “broker’s fee” for finding an apartment. Again, there is no organization in the community that people can turn to for help. The existing mainstream organizations such as Legal Services and others don’t have ample Kreyol speakers on staff and there is no referral to them from Haitian community organizations. These issues and the myriad of others facing the community, have to be addressed and redressed.
Admittedly, there are no simple solutions. But we need to draft a roadmap to begin charting a way forward for sustained community growth. I call on elected officials to organize a State of the Haitian Community summit, bringing all stakeholders to assess what ails the community and come up with remedies.
I believe that for leaders to connect with people, they have to provide some tangible proof that they can deliver and find solutions to the problems besetting the average Haitian New Yorker. It means sometimes talking hard truth and convincing people that they should evolve with time.
For instance, while we boast of large number of Haitians living in Brooklyn and Queens, our real impact is limited because many of these residents are not citizens. For them, the thought of renouncing their Haitian citizenship is akin to treason. Being Haitian is at the core of their being.
But holding on to such emotional ties, belies a reality that is keeping us back. So I challenge the community leaders to take this task on and increase the number of Haitians eligible to vote.
Someone, preferably one of the elected officials or all of them, should reach out to the community organizations and clergy leaders and urge them to begin providing civic classes to the community. They need an explainer on how the United States, in general and New York, in particular, operate and what role Haitians are expected to play in their adopted land.
Much emphasis needs to be placed on the fact that the U.S. doesn’t function like Haiti. Here, citizen participation is important to get the resources they need. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. They need to understand that if they are American citizens, it’s easier for them to petition for their family to join them here.
They also need to understand that in the end, adopting American citizenship doesn’t make them less Haitian. It is simply adjusting to a reality that will benefit them and their family in the long run. No one can take away their Haitianess. That’s something ingrained in their psyche and no piece of paper can change that.
Once these classes are conducted, there should be resources available where people, particularly the elderly, can have assistance in filling out the citizenship application and study for the test.
Once these new Americans are minted, we should be ready to register them to vote and during election time, educate them on which candidates have their best interests at heart.
Once leaders have built a proven track record and gained credibility, they can mobilize people appropriately for a massive protest is called for.
Let me reemphasize that this is not easy. To execute properly the plan requires genuine dedication and a keen desire to see a strong Haitian community ready to make alliances with other ethnic groups with shared goals and ideals to advance their common issues.
Unless we make a commitment and set tangible goals as to where we want to be as a community, we will continue to be a group of people with some outstanding individual achievements with no community to speak of. It’s not too late. Haitian leaders can get their groove back. Happy Haitian Heritage month.