In 1996, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights (NCHR) held a weekend summit on the state of the community at New York University. The gathering brought together the luminaries of the community at that time.
One moment that remained seared in my mind is of Netlyn Bernard Samedy closing the ceremony with these words:
“We need to organize so that we can become a strong, savvy, sophisticated community.”
She said it over and over and brought the crowd into a frenzy like a preacher, whipping up the flock during a Sunday sermon. That cri de coeur has been a clarion call for the community, but, 30 years later, it appears elusive. Or is it?
Last weekend, the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network (NHAEON) convened in Weehawken, NJ for its annual meeting. The three-day powwow took place along the bank of the Hudson River, giving attendees an unobstructed view of Manhattan’s majestic skyline. While the conference focused on youth and the next generation of Haitian leadership, the officials celebrated their accomplishments and that of the community.
A few statistics. There are more than 150 Americans of Haitian ancestry serving as elected officials in the United States. Haitian teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals bolster significantly the ranks of Black people across industries.
Recently, Harvard named Claudine Gay as the first Black and second woman president in the school’s history. Her selection was preceded by Rice University selecting Reginald DesRoches as its president.
These two milestones, among numerous other achievements, put the Haitian community on a path to becoming an inextricable part of American society. We’re also being watched by current immigrants and others whose families settled in America a century and a half ago.
Time to consolidate
Despite such august achievements, the community’s psychosis is one of angst and anxiety — triggered by a feeling that we have underachieved compared to other recent immigrant groups in the US. To be sure, challenges remain and one of the underlying themes of the NHAEON conclave – at least at the hotel’s bar – is that we need to be more organized.
That, I agree with. The issue is not one of organizations lacking. There are more than 600 Haitian organizations across the U.S., we’ve discovered at The Haitian Times. The problem is that they are ineffectual. Too many of them have overlapping and duplicative missions, and lack the resources to tackle the issues they were ostensibly founded to address.
Therefore, I’m calling on the Haitian Studies Institute, housed at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, to take the lead by calling for a summit of every Haitian community organization in this country. We need to consolidate these groups so we have strength in numbers.
I understand why these organizations have existed. I also understand why people saw the need to go solo and organize their communities little by little. But many of these groups are one-man bands or small groups juggling more tasks than a juggler at a carnival show.
At this point, the leaders of these smaller groups must take a hard look in the mirror and accept that they are ineffectual. They’ve achieved little and, as we move forward, they are stymying the community’s growth by competing for resources. They should seriously consider becoming a foot soldier in a larger, stronger army, rather than leading an army of a few troops.
Having so many little groups has proven ineffective, and now it’s time for consolidation. We need strong local, regional and national organizations to address the community’s collective needs.
If we can create several federations with the capacity to pool our resources, fund our service providers and support our businesses, then we will be ready for what lies ahead. We are facing blistering attacks from White supremacists and others who wish all people of color harm. Our cohesiveness and coming together is a strong shield in our armory to fight against this scourge.
Our individual achievements notwithstanding, we lack community institutions that can take us to the next level. The failure to get it together now will have dire consequences and the community will stagnate in the long run. For example, since people began to go out and convene in person, events have been sold out because we’ve missed each other. None of these events are held at Haitian-owned venues because such establishments don’t exist.
… And to unite
Since the 1990s, New York and Florida have set their sights on political empowerment. And if last weekend’s conference is any indication, we have achieved that goal.
However, these days, our fight is economic and should be top of mind during a national conference to set our priorities.
And then we have the elephant in the room: Our beloved Haiti. Few other recent settlers in the U.S. have the burden of changing the trajectory of their home country like we have. Therefore, it is important to get serious about building strong institutions here and leave the posturing at the door.
During a prayer breakfast to close the NHAEON’s ceremony, Bishop Gregory Toussaint, the first Haitian megachurch pastor in the U.S. and founder of Shekinah, preached unity. He articulated the difference between a state, a country and a nation. Strength, according to the North-Miami based clergyman, comes when we see ourselves as part of a nation where there are no borders.
“Our time to shine has yet to come,” Toussaint said. “It starts with the diaspora and continues to Haiti.”
Going back to that seminal conference at NYU, less than a decade after, NCHR shuttered its doors when its executive director, Jocelyn McCalla, could not garner the financial backing of the community. Ever since then, we’ve not had any serious organization advocating and setting an agenda for Haitians in the United States.
The time for another serious conversation that leads to tangible action is long overdue.