By Sam Bojarski and Larisa Karr
Even before major media networks called the presidential race for Democratic nominee Joe Biden, Haitian-Americans in South Florida were celebrating a likely victory.
“I think this will be a huge win for the community,” Santra Denis, founder of Avanse Ansamn, said about a Biden victory.
With Biden ahead in key swing states on Friday evening, volunteers at the Haitian Powerhouse in Miami planned to meet up that evening at their offices. Celebrations were also planned at the office, 8291 NE 2nd Ave., on Nov. 7, with Biden assured of victory.
By Saturday afternoon, Sandy Dorsainvil was nearly at a loss for words after finding out Biden had reached the 270 electoral votes needed for the presidency. Dorsainvil had introduced Biden during his campaign stop the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami just one month prior.
“Specifically for the Haitian community, I needed us to win, because I need them to understand that their vote does matter,” said Dorsainvil, who manages the center. “This is the first step to [Haitian-Americans] exercising all of their rights in this political system.”
Jubilation in the streets
Lynda Jean, who leads the Haitian-American Faith Based Network (HAFBN) in South Florida, was on a telephone prayer line at around 11:30 a.m., when her son texted her that Biden had won. She screamed in jubilation, and the other callers followed suit.
That joy would soon spill out into the streets, as Jean and others anticipated celebrations in Haitian communities throughout the day.
“We cannot stop them [from] staying home,” Jean said. “They’re going to come out and celebrate the victory.”
Likewise in Flatbush, Brooklyn, when news broke that Biden had reached 270 electoral votes, shouts of joy broke out as residents took the streets and shouted from their homes. Tenants hung out the windows of their apartments, shouting in celebration, as drivers on the streets below honked on their horns.
Sharifa Jones, of Flatbush, was one of hundreds who gathered in Grand Army Plaza to celebrate Biden’s victory. As music played and the crowd chanted “you are fired,” Jones criticized the nonchalance with which the Trump administration addressed the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would hope to God that an attempt is made to address the COVID situation,” said Jones, 40. “So many people have died, and it’s kind of hard to imagine that this actually happened here in the United States of America.”
Unity message resonates
Brooklyn restaurateur Jensen Desrosiers, who temporarily moved to South Florida to volunteer with the Haitian Powerhouse, said he hopes Biden can deliver on his message of uniting a divided country.
“That was his image with the public and they voted for him,” Desrosiers said. “So hopefully he will be able to quickly turn around the damages that have already been done to this country. We don’t know the depth of them right now.”
Berwick Augustin, of Miami, agreed that Biden needs to bring a divided country back together.
“This is a symbol of uniting this country, having a Black person and a white person working together for the good of the country,” said Augustin, 44. “It’s to send a message and to provide a plan where they’re working together for the people.”
Biden directly addressed the needs of Haitian-Americans as a candidate. In October, he released a list of policy priorities that included halting the Trump administration’s decision to end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, providing a pathway to citizenship for long-time TPS holders and halting deportations of the undocumented. Priorities also included implementing effective oversight of U.S. government funds directed to Haiti.
“Unlike Trump, I hope that he keeps his promises,” said Santcha Etienne, 39, of North Miami.
Halting deportations to Haiti and addressing climate change, which has already caused displacement in neighborhoods like Little Haiti, are among the changes Etienne said she hopes to see.
Lessons learned in Florida
Although Trump won Florida with 51% of the vote, Haitian-American advocates were excited about collaborating across counties to educate and mobilize Haitian communities.
For months, the Haitian Powerhouse in Little Haiti shared information on how to vote and organized door-to-door canvassing drives. During the early voting period, its volunteers drove voters to the polls. Volunteers have also worked to increase turnout among voters.
Still, more voter education work needs to be done in South Florida’s Haitian community. Going forward, the Democratic Party needs to reach out to voters more consistently, said Desrosiers. While the Democrats won Miami-Dade County, Biden captured about 7,000 fewer votes in the county than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Trump was also helped by a surge of 200,000 votes, many from Cuban-American voters.
“They need to engage early, and they should not wait for election time,” Desrosiers said. “We should be able to win with a sizable margin if we invest properly into the area.”
At the grassroots level, more education is needed to help Haitian voters who lack English proficiency complete their ballots. Too many voters also lack adequate transportation to vote at a polling station, Desrosiers said.
Avanse Ansanm, which educates Haitian-American millennials in South Florida, has also learned key lessons at the grassroots level. Prior to Election Day, the organization partnered with about 25 Haitian bakeries in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to hold pull-up voter education drives. The events were designed to share information on how to vote.
Going forward, Denis said she sees more opportunities for groups like hers to educate Haitian voters on how policies like the Affordable Care Act or a coronavirus stimulus package could impact their daily lives. Partnering with community institutions like churches or organizing town halls with local elected officials could also be part of the solution, she said.
“I think the work is really connecting the dots for everyday people,” said Denis. “We know that there’s so much work to do, and we really want to pivot into [asking] what does it look like for us to organize our communities and to connect what’s happening in government to everyone’s daily lives.”