By Larisa Karr
Growing up in the quaint village of Cazale, Haiti, Charnette Frederic’s parents always put education first for their family. Later, when she gave birth to her son in Irvington, New Jersey, she sought to put his education needs first too.
Little did Frederic know that would lead to her entering politics and then becoming the first Haitian-American woman elected to office in New Jersey. As a council member and second vice president in Irvington, Frederic now spends much of her time educating Haitian-Americans in Irvington about resources available. She also teaches city officials about the needs and power of her vibrant community.
“My biggest accomplishment as the only Haitian-American on the council has been to encourage people to work together for the betterment of our community,” said Frederic, 42. “You have immigrants coming in that I constantly try to support, especially with the language issue.”
Recently, Frederic’s efforts to drive voter turnout, reduce insurance burdens on taxi drivers and create an environmentally sustainable city have cemented her reputation as a bridge-builder. Particularly, between the immigrant community made up of mostly Haitian-Americans and city officials.
“She’s a dominant star in bringing people together,” said Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss. “She calls me on behalf of her constituents and she’s constantly connecting them with people in the administration through the different departments they need to be in contact with.”
Lessons in determination
Frederic began developing knowledge of immigrants’ needs when she immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17 from Cazale. Her mountain village, about 45 miles north of Port-au-Prince, is known for its Polish settlers.
Growing up, Frederic’s family instilled a love of education at a young age, she said. Her parents, Marie Charite Orelien and Joseph Orelien, sent her to strict schools in Port-au-Prince where failing a class meant expulsion. That level of rigor taught Frederic the importance of determination, a trait she would carry with her when she moved to Irvington in 1996.
In the working-class township, Haitians make up about 14.1% of Irvington’s 54,233 residents. From that established enclave, Frederic faced new challenges — chiefly, completing her education.
“My dad did not like the Irvington school system and he made me apply to the community college, despite having limited English,” Frederic said. “Because I had excelled in math and science in Haiti, I received strong grades in both of these fields.”
And despite the language barrier, Frederic became a math tutor by her second semester at Essex County College. She earned an associate’s degree in biology and two years later, Frederic graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in biology and chemistry.
Later, Frederic earned a master’s in health care administration from Seton Hall University, where she is now pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry. She began to use her scientific background to actively pursue making Irvington an environmentally-friendly city.
While working toward her advanced degrees, Frederic also married Joseph Betissan Frederic and gave birth to her only son Ben. She also learned to navigate life as an immigrant, including becoming fluent in English and accessing various systems, offices and information.
It was after attending the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University that Frederic learned more about local government and its impact on citizens’ day-to-day lives, especially those of immigrant backgrounds. She decided to run for a board of education seat, in 2009 and 2010. Frederic was unsuccessful then, but did not rule out another run in the future.
“A friend on the council”
In 2012, an opportunity opened on the city council, and Frederic successfully ran.
“I wanted to be the voice to help out other Haitians whose first stop was Irvington,” Frederic said. “I was able to change certain laws to give Haitian-Americans more opportunities and remind them that they have a friend on the council.”
Recently, when drivers with the Irvington Taxi Committee complained about insurance prices, Frederic helped amend an ordinance to lower their insurance rates. In the lead-up to the November elections, even though she was not on the ballot, Frederic encouraged the community to be civically engaged. She took to Haitian radio to instruct residents in Creole how to properly complete voting ballots.
“It’s so amazing when you can speak to someone in Creole and be able to use it to help others,” Frederic said. “It’s really important that we provide that kind of support by letting them know that it’s OK to feel welcome and it’s OK to speak Creole. [Being] able to connect with people is priceless.”
Through her eponymous nonprofit civic organization, Frederic also organizes a Haitian Independence Day celebration, brings Haitian-American artists to Irvington for Haitian Flag Day, and otherwise highlights the talent and creativity of Haitian-Americans.
“Anytime I’m holding an event, like a clothing drive, she is always there to support financially and brings other council members to our events,” said James Louis, who works with the Haitian-American Civic Association. “This is not just for me and the organization, but this is the testimony from everybody I’ve talked to within the community.”
Besides lifting up Haitian-Americans, Frederic has also focused on making Irvington part of the Sustainable Jersey program. In 2014, the city became bronze certified, a designation awarded to cities that implement sustainability measures, and she was named a Sustainability Hero.
Her current focus is on educating residents about the impact of lead paint on children and how to remediate such structures and promoting health and wellness in the township.
Balancing city council, her full-time job and a family can be overwhelming and she sometimes feels like giving up, Frederic said. But, remembering the residents in need renews her determination.