By Sam Bojarski
In her early teenage years, Michele Alexandre witnessed upheaval in Haiti, after the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986. It was a time of instability, violence and human rights abuses.
Moving to Brooklyn in 1990 at the age of 15 opened new doors for Alexandre, including the chance to better herself through education. But injustice was persistent in American society, too.
“In the ‘90s in Brooklyn, Haitians were pariahs and were labeled as carriers of HIV and AIDS. We were constantly jumped on and singled out as less than, and that was kind of symptomatic of the way in which many poor Black folks were treated,” Alexandre said.
Witnessing these injustices and how they intersect with the law would spark Alexandre’s interest in legal scholarship. Since receiving her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 2000, her career has included a long string of works and accomplishments. She now serves as dean at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Florida, becoming the first Black person to hold the position in June 2019.
The teachers she had, from high school through her law school years, inspired her to teach others. While attending Prospect Heights High School her teachers, some of whom were Haitian themselves, took her under their wing, paying for her to attend the school prom and inviting her to an after-school book club, which improved her English skills.
“They really put the bug in me because they changed my life, and I wanted to change others’ lives as well,” said Alexandre, 44, who lives in Florida with her five-year-old daughter.
Michele’s younger brother, Emmanuel Alexandre Jr., attended Prospect Heights High School with his sister after the two siblings and their mother settled in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Emmanuel has looked up to his sister since they were children, but especially as he has grown older.
“She’s always been the smartest, she’s always been the first of the class, even (in) Haiti,” he said, amid fond laughter. In Haiti, Emmanuel recalled, Michele was one of the best French speakers in school.
She would go on to graduate near the top of her class at Prospect Heights High School and later became Colgate University’s first Black valedictorian.
From a young age, Michele brought a high level of intellectual depth and analysis to conversations about complex topics, like inequality. But she has always found a way to fight for change, seeing education as a means to better herself and the world.
During a time when Haitians were stigmatized as AIDS carriers, Emmanuel also said, Michele served as president of Prospect Heights High School’s Haitian club.
“Another thing that fascinated me about my sister is her willingness to enter the paradigm … and create change within that paradigm,” said Emmanuel, 43.
Prior to arriving at Stetson, Michele taught at University of Mississippi School of Law, as an associate professor. While there, she authored two books: “Sexploitation: Sexual Profiling and the Illusion of Gender” and “The New Frontiers of Civil Rights Litigation.”
She became a main organizer of the Race and Sustainability Conference, which convenes participants to find solutions to conditions faced by marginalized communities. Michele has also engaged small farmers in Mississippi’s Delta region, working on issues of economic independence and sustainability.
As a practicing attorney after law school, Michele worked on the Black Farmers Lawsuit, when Black farmers challenged the administration of USDA farm programs. Her involvement in this suit later inspired her work with Delta farmers.
Ellen Podgor, a professor of law at Stetson who specializes in white collar crime, said Michele Alexandre’s scholarship, particularly in the areas of civil rights and racial inequities, adds prestige to the school.
“She writes in an area that is crucially important today. And with that, I think she brings a level that really enhances the law school. Her style and warmth are just spectacular, and from the perspective of a faculty member, it’s a very welcoming atmosphere,” Podgor said.
Michele sees her mission as one of service, primarily through education. Stetson College of Law also serves the community by holding pro-bono legal clinics, as well as by training law enforcement and public defenders.
Just over a month ago, the school entered into a Consortium for Racial Justice with 11 other Florida law schools, to assist community organizations fighting for policy reform.
“The collaborative approach that she’s using with other law schools, I think that’s just great, and second, what we’re collaborating on. And you know, that’s where the law school ought to be right now,” said Podgor.
As Michele sees it, the school’s mission is “not just to educate the students here, while that is very important, but it’s also to arm the students with the tools to educate the entire society, and to use law as a tool for society. So that old classification of law as a tool for social engineering is very true,” Michele said.
Her brother Emmanuel, who works at the CUNY Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, described education as the greatest gift their parents gave them. It’s also a means through which Michele has changed the world around her.
“I think that is a very important philosophy, and it’s very empowering because, you know, as a young man, black man, growing up here in the United States, these are the things that I think about,” he said. “How do you move forward in a system that is basically … unequal? Do you try to persevere through the system, or do you stay outside of it?”
While Michele emerged from Colgate knowing that she wanted to teach, following a mentor’s suggestion to attend law school ended up being the best decision she ever made. Her practice and scholarship in the law has allowed her to pursue a career that combines community service, policy work and educating the next generation of lawyers.
“That has been the dream of my life, it is not easy, as with any job, but it gives me joy. And every interaction I have with staff faculty, students and community members, it shows the possibility of human connection and the change that happens,” Michele said.