By Sam Bojarski
Vanessa Joseph remembers the day that then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump visited Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. While a small group of people attended Trump’s meeting, the current president claimed he would be the Haitian community’s “biggest champion.”
Years into Trump’s presidency, Haitians in the United States have witnessed the destructive rhetoric and policy proposals, including an attempt to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
“So there was a lot of need for us to look at, well, what does it mean for candidates to genuinely remain accountable to this community, to this electorate, this group of electorates, in a true sense, and what does that look like?” said Joseph, an elected city clerk for North Miami.
Joseph and about a dozen other Haitian Americans comprise the board of a political advocacy group formed in June, the Haitian American Voter Empowerment (HAVE) Coalition. The group has tasked itself with informing voters and crafting a set of policy priorities for the Haitian diaspora, which has not yet wielded its political power in a unified way.
The board includes elected officials in South Florida, like Joseph and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime, as well as civil society leaders from other states, including New York and Massachusetts. Thus far, HAVE comprises about 50 members, who will engage voters and promote voter registration, two of the organization’s major goals.
Most of HAVE’s initial efforts will focus on Florida, where the organization has the strongest presence. But HAVE eventually plans to grow and extend its voter engagement efforts to other states.
“Part of that strategy includes media outreach, because we know a lot of our people get their information from the radio. We also want to cover digital outreach, so being present on social media,” Joseph also said.
On Aug. 15 at 6:30 p.m., HAVE will host its first fundraiser, a livestream event on the organization’s Facebook page, featuring the comedian Success Jr as the emcee. Ms. Joseph, Commissioner Monestime, and Florida state representative Dotie Joseph are currently slated as speakers for the event.
The Haitian population in South Florida has been growing for decades, with more than 80,000 Haitians residing in Miami-Dade County alone. While Haitians have been elected to local government and the state legislature, the community has not yet been able to use its political power to make a lasting impact on national issues like immigration reform.
“In actuality we’re talking about a couple of elected officials here and there who really haven’t been able to make a big difference with Haitian issues just yet,” said Sean Foreman, chair of the history and political science department at Barry University, in Miami Shores.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic that has caused widespread unemployment, the needs of the Haitian community intersect with those of other residents. Local elections in Florida, in addition to national races, can have a significant bearing on people’s livelihoods.
This year, seven seats are up for reelection in the Miami-Dade county commission, which has the power to allocate funding for rental assistance and other programs.
“People in this global pandemic are losing their jobs on a daily basis. Haitians tend to work in the hospitality industry, so they’ve definitely been hit very hard,” said Francesca Menes, a Haitian American and board chair of The Black Collective, a Miami-based organization tasked with promoting an agenda of empowerment for Black communities.
While groups like the Haitian American Professionals Coalition, Democratic Haitan American Caucus of Florida and others represent different sectors of the Haitian community, they have not promoted an agenda that unifies the diaspora.
“You have all of these different groups that literally run the issue line based on their organization and how they’ve constructed it,” said Menes, who added that community members at the grassroots level have not consistently been included in organizing efforts.
In past elections, votes have been divided between Haitian candidates, who articulated different agendas. For example, in the 2010 election that ultimately sent current District 24 representative Frederica Wilson to the U.S. House, the five Haitian American candidates in the Democratic primary splintered the vote. However, they captured more votes in total than Wilson, who earned 35 percent of the vote, a plurality.
According to Joseph, HAVE aims to tackle the highly ambitious goal of engaging voters at the grassroots level. “We really want to invest in voter engagement in various communities across the United States,” she added.
Speaking about the political priorities of HAVE, board member Daniel Eugene said Haitians have been establishing themselves in America for more than 40 years. Diaspora members should now press for priorities beyond immigration reform and focus on expanding economic opportunities for the Haitian community, said Eugene, a Miami resident who works in health services and serves as South Florida coordinator for the American and Haitian Economic Alliance for Development (AHEAD).
While board members are currently conceptualizing a complete list of policy priorities, Joseph said this information will eventually be published on the organization’s website. As of Aug. 11, she did not have a specific date for when priorities would be finalized.
Immigration issues, like having a pathway to citizenship for those living in the U.S. without documentation, will still be a major concern.
“We also certainly want to see the economic development and strengthening of our community, among other things … we have a policy committee who’s actively working on developing those policy priorities,” Joseph said.
In addition to engaging voters through media, as well as in-person meetings when it is safe to do so, HAVE members will make their presence felt on Election Day this November, in South Florida neighborhoods with large Haitian populations. These Election Day engagement efforts could serve as a foundation for the future.
“We want to be at those precincts ensuring voter protection, making sure that folks know where to go, how to properly fill in their ballots and things like that,” Joseph said.