CHANDLER, Arizona – In 2000, I asked Marleine Bastien, Gepsie Metellus Leonie Hermantin — the lionesses of Florida activism — to organize the Miami reception for the launch of The Haitian Times. To my surprise, they enlisted the help of a high schooler for certain parts of the logistics. Despite my skepticism of the kid’s ability, I said nothing because I had full confidence in their judgment. That high schooler was Alix Desulme, who did a wonderful job, and the event went off without a hitch.
Afterward, I thanked the precocious Desulme profusely and told him that he had a bright future ahead of him in whatever he decided to do. Years later, he went into politics having served in various capacities in the city of North Miami, where he is currently the vice mayor of the largely Haitian enclave. And as the ranks of Haitian American elected officials began to mushroom, Desulme was one of several officials who created the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, (NHAEON). It now boasts more than 150 members, including Desulme and Illinois’ Cook County Judge Lionel Jean Baptiste.
This past weekend, NHAEON held a leadership retreat in the sunny, desert city of Chandler, Arizona, about half an hour from Phoenix. The event was to bring together not only the elected officials, but also community leaders to hash out issues facing us across the United States and in our troubled yet beloved homeland. It was also a passing of the baton. Desulme, who has been NHAEON’s chairman for the last two years, handed the baton to Charnette Frederic, an Irvington, New Jersey councilwoman whose small physique belies her fiery persona.
Why would a bunch of Haitians descend on a place thousands of miles from the traditional Haitian strongholds on the East Coast? Well, that’s because we’ve spread out as a community. Christine Ellis, a former New Yorker who decamped to the Grand Canyon State more than two decades ago, sits on the City Council in Chandler. Ellis, who served as the host of the retreat, told me an estimated 5,000 Haitians live in Arizona.
We’ve come a long way.
For me, the retreat was like a sort of homecoming reunion, reconnecting with old classmates and meeting new students who are building on the traditions of the past. Except, this was not a university campus, but a community trying to find its way in their adopted homeland.
I also had a professional motive for trekking to Arizona and enjoyed the great respite it provided from the snowstorm that blanketed the East. Since I had sort of taken a break from attending these types of events, which had become stale over the years, I wanted to get a sense of the progress we had made.
I met with various leaders – young and dynamic – such as those from the Haitian Lawyers Association, the Haitian Nurses Association and many others. These people will be the cornerstone in the Haitian Times’ pursuit as the nexus of the diaspora, connecting the ranks of professionals and working-class people, as we cement our presence in the United States.
This has always been our aspiration since our founding. However, achieving that mission in the analog age had, until the last decade, turned out to be exorbitantly expensive. Distributing a hard copy newspaper across the U.S. was not worth it, so we scaled our ambition to serve the New York City metropolitan area, with Brooklyn and Queens being our main market.
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This is only the beginning. Four weeks into an intensive media leadership training program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, I have already learned and adapted some innovative ways to increase our revenue stream. In particular, we are applying some design thinking principles that put you, our readers, at the core of what we do.
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We take seriously our mission to bring together our diaspora, scattered as it is in every corner of the United States and the world. Not to sound like a victim, but we are not a wanted people. We are tolerated in the U.S. and Canada at best and treated as third-class citizens in Latin America and parts of Europe. That’s a whole other column though…
Of accountability and mediocrity
In any case, our people’s predicament has steeled our resolve to prove others wrong, to show that we are a proud people misled for two centuries by homegrown miscreants and an international community whose bad policies have kept Haiti frozen even as the world turns.
This is why it is important that as we slowly come into our own as a community in the U.S., we shift the narrative and highlight our achievements. It’s why I use this column as a bully pulpit to hold our leaders accountable and underscore that mediocrity is not acceptable.
I have not hesitated to call out people in public who are false prophets and use the plight of our compatriots as a foil for their own agenda. For that, I have faced blistering criticism and ad hominem attacks. It is an occupational hazard. As we say in Kreyol, “Do-m laj pase laye” — my shoulders are broader than a basket — and my skin is thick to boot.
Back to the retreat, I must share it was not without some hiccups. The schedule appeared to be a mere suggestion and information was at times scant and confusing. It is understandable since this is the first time NHAEON had invited community leaders. Being an experienced event organizer, I suspect that money was in short supply, so corners had to be cut. I suggest that organizers find more sponsors and even increase the price of admission slightly to provide better service next year.
Ellis, for her part, wants to position Chandler, with its cactus and bare mountains reminiscent of parts of Haiti, as an annual destination for this retreat. Already, I look forward to it as an escape from the bitter January cold of the Midwest and the East Coast.
Considering the logistical improvements sorely needed, now, Desulme, the onus is on you to find the high schooler who will be a savvier version of you. That’s progress my friend. And like The Police says, “I’ll be watching you.”