By Bianca Silva
If there’s a word that describes international human rights lawyer Cassandre Theano, it’s tenacious. Her desire to make positive change in society is clear. Born in New York and raised in Haiti, Theano grew up witnessing the injustices being committed firsthand and seeing people not have the ability to fight back.
Pursuing a career in the legal field as a result was a natural path for her. As an international human rights lawyer and advocate, she focuses on women’s rights and citizenship rights. Theano speaks to The Haitian Times on the work that’s shaped her into the person she is today.
What inspired you to focus on human rights within the legal field?
I don’t know when it exactly crystallized for me, but it was very early. I’d say probably between 14 and 16 years old, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer and I knew I wanted to particularly practice human rights law. I was living in Haiti at the time and one of the things that always struck me was that no matter what kind of harm you were subject to, in Haiti in particular, there was no remedy. You couldn’t necessarily turn to the police or go to court or anything of the sort. It was kind of like the “wild wild west” in terms of things that happened to you. For instance, if somebody decided your home or land was actually theirs, very often, people would walk away from that because if you decided to pursue it, to fight it and stand your ground, you’d literally be putting your life in danger. That always puzzled me and I kept thinking about how people’s basic human rights were not respected. That was the norm.
For me, the absence of the rule of law interestingly in my country made me want to practice something that had a very direct effect on how people’s rights are valued. When I moved to the United States, which happened when I was 17, I realized that the problems that I felt were so inherent to Haiti oftentimes weren’t. People here who are of a lower socioeconomic status also experience those same issues. So there was a kind of continuation in terms of abuses committed against certain people. For me, human rights law was a bridge. It was something that I could practice in Haiti, the U.S. and internationally; so I thought it was most relevant to the things that mattered to me and I was passionate about. I have since worked all across West and East Africa, in Haiti, and in the Dominican Republic to vindicate the rights of the vulnerable.
What are you currently focusing on at the moment?
I am part of this organization called In Cultured Company that conducts trainings that bring together Haitians and Dominicans to heal the divide that is so pervasive within our communities. We have very difficult conversations in an intimate way so we’re really honest and confront the things that lead to the discriminatory policies that [not only] affect Dominicans of Haitian descent, but black bodies in the Dominican Republic.
After representing stateless people before the regional courts in Latin America and Africa, I was inspired by the limitations of litigation to change the hearts and minds of people. The series of workshops and conversations In Cultured Company hosts, aims to build bridges where others have created barriers. We talk about how the “Haiti problem” as it is referred to in the Dominican Republic is a scapegoat for corruption, inequality, poverty, injustice. We talk about revisionist history and how the political elites on both sides of the island benefit from the status quo. We tackle stereotypes and arm our participants with tools to have these conversations within their families, with other friends.
This year, I will be branching out and teaching a course on international human rights law at Columbia Law School.
Can you recall an experience in your career that you thought was particularly challenging whether it’s a case or you thought, ‘I have this argument but the outcome is not going to be so positive?
The Dominican case is an interesting one because as a lawyer, the law is kind of supreme but you also know that the law is often flawed. I recall when the Dominican Republic decided in 2014 that they were going to create a new process so people who were made stateless could get their citizenship back. We were already in litigation challenging the denationalization, so many thought that now that this new law was introduced, our litigation was moot. And because it was based in law, it was right.
However, that process established by the law was incredibly flawed and because they had already changed the constitution at that point, everybody was like: “Well, the constitution says this so therefore, you know, that’s the law and we must follow it even though the law was wrong.” It’s very hard for people to switch that mindset. Just because it’s a law doesn’t mean it’s just. Justice and law are very different things and I think that’s always a very difficult thing to get people to understand. Even people on the Haitian side and supporters of the stateless were thinking: “That’s their law, that’s their constitution, they can do that.”
That’s a conundrum that you face a lot and I think often because I’m a lawyer, people wonder: “But how could you not back that up, you’re a lawyer” and I say: “Yes I’m a lawyer, but you know ‘separate but equal’ was a thing in the U.S. and we had to challenge that in order to say that no, there is a problem there, that is flawed reasoning, that is unjust.” I think that’s one of the big challenges, getting people to stop equating law with justice.
Another challenge is international human rights law (where most cases are being brought against a government) is that governments are incredibly savvy so they know how to control the narrative in a way that human rights organizations have not yet figured out how to outsmart them. A lot of times, we’re basically reacting to what a government is doing so we’re letting them set the narrative. We should always try to be two steps ahead, and be the narrative setters instead of constantly reacting.
You’re currently an ambassador of the SheBuilds Global Initiative. How did that happen?
I was selected to lead the NYC chapter by SheBuilds founder Shaina Silva whom I’ve known for a long time. I think it’s a combination of things. I know a lot of people in the Haitian Diaspora and in New York. I remain very connected to Haiti. I am often talking with other Haitian professionals how we can raise our profile but also, link back to things that are in important in Haiti. A lot of initiatives that focus on the Diaspora only focus on the Diaspora and they don’t turn their gaze back to the home country. I think one of the things that is really special about SheBuilds is that we have a NY chapter, we have a Boston chapter but we also have chapters in Haiti. This is a conversation that is not just happening in the U.S. and Europe, itis linking back to women in the country.
SheBuilds is a community platform that exists to empower and connect women built around three ideas: amplifying their voices, building connections and fostering engagement. By having these conversations within each of our communities and then connecting back to one another, we’re starting to create a platform that did not exist. And it’s for us by us. If nobody is going to give us this platform, we’re going to make it for ourselves and that’s literally what we did.
SheBuilds recently joined forces with @impacthubportauprince on their ZEL entrepreneurship development program backed by Facebook. Through this partnership, we aim to ensure that 50 percent of the participants selected will be women. The deadline is January 22 and more information can be found at kaytita.org/ZEL.
What advice do you have for Haitians and Haitian Americans who want to make a difference?
Be open – have a listening ear and also be very humble. I say open and humble because they’re kind of two sides of the same coin. Oftentimes, in the Diaspora, we think that we have so many answers,that we understand things [happening in Haiti]. I think it’s important to really listen. Listen to people on the ground, listen to people here, listen to opposing views because that’s how you learn. That’s how you figure out: “okay, this is a recurring theme and I need to follow this path.”
I also think letting go of your own assumptions of what is needed and just taking the time to listen to the noise around you is really important, and then the humility part is exactly that; not thinking that you have all the answers. There are amazing people doing amazing things in Haiti with very little resources. If you go there and you’re like: “oh my God, I’m coming with the all the answers” you’re not going to be well-received with reason. But if you go there with a partnership mentality, I think that will take you much further.
At the end of the day, you have something to offer, they have something to offer – try to see where there is that symbiosis. Try to see where you can enhance each other’s unique gifts. That’s how you can really create something that has impact.