brooklyn haitian studies institute
Marie Lily Cerat speaks at a September 2020 educational event in Prospect Park. Photo by Leonardo March

The Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College has a new leader, nine months after the resignation of its founding director. Marie Lily Cerat, a professor of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, started as substitute associate director last month. 

“I feel, like many others, that I have a responsibility to the community to serve the Institute,” said Cerat, 58. “Furthermore, the Institute has a huge role to play in preserving the Haitian immigrant experience in the United States, and in working with academics, community leaders, professionals and members of the community at large to strengthen the community.” 

Founded in 2016, the Haitian Studies Institute has encouraged scholarship on Haiti and an understanding of policies that impact Haiti and its diaspora. The director role was vacated last June, when Jean Eddy Saint Paul, its founding director and Brooklyn College sociology professor, stepped down from the position

For now, Cerat’s role is temporary, until the City University of New York (CUNY), which operates the public university system to which Brooklyn College belongs, finds an executive director. 

“Recognizing the importance of the Haitian Studies Institute and the limitations the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on its programming, Dr. Marie Lily Cerat was brought on as the Substitute Associate Director for the Haitian Studies Institute until the college receives more clarity about funding, post-pandemic,” said Richard Pietras, a spokesperson for Brooklyn College, in an email. 

The process for finding a permanent executive director is under evaluation, Pietras said. He did not have further details to share about the process or Cerat’s position, upon request. 

CUNY hired Cerat for an administrative-level position as a higher education officer, while the faculty position held by Saint Paul carried higher pay. Carole Berotte Joseph, who led the initial effort to create the Haitian Studies Institute and is a retired past president of CUNY Bronx Community College, said the lower compensation was not a surprise, given Cerat’s interim position. 

The university promoted from within until it can advertise for a full-time director position, said Joseph, citing conversations with Cerat. 

“We have to watch to see what happens at the next step, to make sure that whoever gets the [permanent director] position gets the title and the right salary,” Joseph said. “I am concerned that they didn’t name the director, but I understand CUNY has frozen all searches since COVID.”

CUNY instituted a hiring freeze a year ago, due to state-imposed budget cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Decades of service to Brooklyn’s Haitian community

Cerat comes into the role with support from Joseph, among many others. She has worked in Brooklyn as an educator and community organizer for decades. She has also been involved in past Haitian Studies Institute events, including the 2019 Haitian Creole Language and Culture Symposium, where she served as a speaker.

haitian studies institute
The campus of Brooklyn College, which houses the Haitian Studies Institute. Photo by Paul Stremple

“The CUNY world has been elevated by Dr. Cerat’s expertise as a Creole linguist,” said Rodneyse Bichotte-Hermelyn, District 42 Assembly Member, who helped found the Haitian Studies Institute. “She has helped our office, and many others, in translating Creole, and she has taught Caribbean history. She is a great asset, and we in the Haitian community look forward to working with her.”

Haitian American Alliance President Yolette Williams said she was happy to hear that a director was finally hired for the institute. 

“Dr. Marie Lily Cerat, a well-known community leader in Brooklyn, is an excellent choice,” Williams said. “Lily has worked extensively with our immigrant population and many local community-based organizations. She has also been actively involved in promoting Haitian culture and history.” 

A native of Les Cayes in southern Haiti, Cerat said she credits her background growing up in a lakou communal living system for her commitment to community engagement work. Eleven years after immigrating to the United States, Cerat co-founded the Brooklyn-based nonprofit social services organization Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, along with Ninaj Raoul, in 1992. 

After working as a teacher in New York City public schools, she joined HABETAC at Brooklyn College, training Haitian bilingual teachers and other educators who serve Haitian students. 

Cerat said she served at HABETAC from 2003 to 2010. She worked as an adjunct professor for CUNY before earning her doctorate in urban education and a certificate in Africana Studies from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2017. Cerat also has a master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from City College of New York, which she received in 2001. 

Under her leadership, Cerat said the Haitian Studies Institute is preparing a needs-assessment survey and a programming calendar for the 2021-2022 academic year, which begins this fall. A virtual forum on mental health in the time of COVID-19 is scheduled for May 15

“I envision the Institute as the site where anyone doing research on Haiti and Haitians anywhere in the world will have to consult and contact, because we will have the resources to assist them,” Cerat said. “After all, the United States is home to the oldest and largest community of Haitians outside of Haiti. My goal is that the Institute reflects that fact.”

Editor’s Note: The original version of the article listed May 1 as the date for the COVID-19 mental health event. This event was rescheduled to May 15, and the article was updated to reflect the latter date.

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Haiti Liberte. Sam can be reached at sam@haitiantimes.com or on Twitter @sambojarski.

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