Haitians Should Pursue Economic and Political Empowerment

Artist Essud Fungcap showing his work last fall at an exhibit of Haitian-American art at Brooklyn College. The event was organized by the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute.

Rodneyse Bichotte.

Kimberly Jean-Pierre.

Clyde Vanel.

These are the names of a few Haitian-American elected officials. These days, there are so many of them that an association has sprung: The National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, or NHAEON. For a community that fretted over whether they should host political candidates seeking the small-but-significant Haitian vote at the time less than 20 years ago, this is indeed heady stuff.

The following is their mission statement, as seen on their Facebook page:

NHAEON Mission is to:

1. Support the introduction of key legislation, and policies critical to Haiti and organize congressional and local briefings on current events and disseminate information to interested parties. Topics on which the network will focus include:

United States aid to Haiti, 

Immigration Reform,

United States State Department designation of Haiti, 

Promote structural, economic, and humanitarian investment in Haiti. 

2. Build stronger communication between elected members of the legislature, state, county and municipal elected officials who are of Haitian descent.

3. Serve as a vehicle for keeping elected officials across the United States connected to work being done in Haitian communities nationally and to promote issues of concern to Haiti.

4. Keep Haitian American elected officials apprised of American foreign and domestic policies relevant to Haiti and assure that members of NHAEON are given the opportunity to make a difference by offering their observations, critique or support.

The mission is laudable, but it minimizes *economic* development of the Haitian-American community. Of course, an organization of political leaders would emphasize politics and political development. But politics without economics is a body without a heart. Economics pumps life into politics. Frankly, the two are intertwined and can’t live without each other.  

Now that we’ve made some political headways, let’s focus on the economic challenges we face in this country. The community simply doesn’t feel whole. When I strolled down the canyons in “Little Haiti” of Brooklyn or Queens’ Cambria Heights, I see a dearth of Haitian-owned storefronts. That is in sharp contrast to 20 years ago when you had Haitian-owned furniture stores, nightclubs, financial services, firms, and restaurants catering to different clientele.

To be sure, there remain Haitian-owned enterprises in the area. But their numbers are declining. This is due in part to the rising cost of rent in New York City as gentrification pushes Haitians out of traditional enclaves.

This decline of our entrepreneurial class comes at a time when the number of Haitians in the United States is at an all-time high. According to the Census Bureau, Haitians make up roughly 2 percent of the 350 million people living in the United States, or 1.7 million.

I am certain that this number doesn’t account for those who are undocumented and living in the shadow of the government’s radar.

The other day, a friend observed that when there was a lack of Haitian-American elected officials in government, we the people garnered more resources from politicians. Perhaps the thinking goes a little bit like this: “Now that we have our own in office, they should know what our needs are and take care of them.”

I believe that what we were getting from the government was insignificant in the first place. It was done to placate us so we could stand with them when eventually, we would amass to a point of political sophistication.

However, whether the elected official is one of us or not, politics in general and politicians, writ large, cannot operate without strong and robust institutions and community organizations. Politicians have told us this truth for a while, but we haven’t been paying attention. Hillary Clinton emphasized this point to a group of wealthy Haitian physicians during a fundraiser on Long Island for her first senate run in 2000. She said that she needed partners in the community in order to help advance the concerns and needs. Translation: You need to get your act together if I am to help you.

We still haven’t learned that lesson. In fact, not only have we regressed somewhat economically, but many of our grassroots community organizations have shut their doors or are operating as a shell of their former selves.

Where do we go from here? This is a seminal question that we all have to take responsibility for. We need to have skin in the game. We need to support our businesses and community organizations. We’ve made criticizing our enterprise a cottage industry. We need to show our fellow Haitians that they can survive as a business or a nonprofit if we support them. They will wither if we don’t. But we must take the first step and patronize Haitian-owned enterprises to the furthest extent possible. Otherwise, it’s a vicious cycle that can spin in perpetuity to the economic detriment of everyone.

Unfortunately, there are valid reasons to be critical. We come by it honestly. We’re stuck to a 19th century French mindset and we tend to confuse service with subservience. That is why when you enter a Haitian restaurant, the employee usually wears a frown on their face and asks sternly, “Mwen ka edew,” or “Can I help you?” When said in Kreyol, it is off-putting. For most of us, it is almost consciously or subconsciously a way for us to check out and never return.

We need to change that mindset. We should take these experiences as teachable moments for the owner or manager. We should call them aside and explain that in the service economy, it is paramount that service is emphasized. Tell them about your experience and stress that you want to support the restaurant and that you will return with a bunch of friends as soon as possible and will expect better service. If there is no significant improvement, I guarantee you that the establishment will not last. It doesn’t deserve to remain in business. This empowers the customer and puts the owner on notice.

I think that most owners would appreciate such interactions. The true entrepreneurs would take concrete steps to improve the service and products.

The onus is on both the individual and the collective to ensure that the community remains economically strong as we engage and increase our ranks in the political arena. The choice is not one or the other. It is not binary. It’s both.

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