Fall 2010 Issue


Get a Life

Two professors aim to empower Haitian-American youth by introducing them to their rich cultural heritage

By Jim W. Harper

A student wipes away tears from Dr. Charlene Desir’s face after she receives thank-you flowers from LIFE program participants.

Acclaimed Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat visited Barry’s campus this past summer – not to deliver a keynote address or to facilitate a symposium. She came to chat with Kadesha Floyd, 15, Garuen Georges, 15, Brithny Benjamin, 14, and nearly 100 other students attending a new academic camp. The camp’s teenagers may not have known Danticat before reading her book “Behind the Mountains,” but the adults in attendance were quite aware of her significance.

“When do you sit down and read a book and actually get to meet the author and have her answer your questions – an author who was on Oprah’s book club and on the New York Times bestseller list. How often does that happen?” said Jasmine Sainvilus, a graduate student in the Adrian Dominican School of Education and one of the four classroom teachers for the program Literary Initiative for Empowerment, or LIFE.

In fact, not only did the Oprah-approved author agree to participate in the LIFE program, donating her books and signing them for the students, Danticat also wrote a letter of support for its application to The Children’s Trust, which awarded the program a $100,000-grant.

The seven-week summer program, which empowers Haitian-American youth by familiarizing them with their rich cultural heritage, is the brainchild of Barry’s Dr. Pamela Hall, an assistant professor of psychology, and Dr. Charlene Desir, a professor at Nova Southeastern University’s Fischler School of Education. The two researchers formed a common bond over their concern for at-risk kids – particularly older children of Haitian heritage.

“Not too many people focus on high school kids or kids transitioning to college,” Hall said. “We know the need there is really, really great. We wanted to get them before they are lost.”

Hall was recruited to direct LIFE by Desir, who conceived of the idea for the program based on an ethnographic study on Haitian and Haitian-American youth that she conducted at Harvard University.

“This is why we got our degrees. This is our life’s mission,” said Desir, who was born in Haiti and raised in Massachusetts, home to the nation’s third-largest Haitian community, after New York and the leader, South Florida. In comparison to the Haitian community in Massachusetts, in Florida she sees “more of a poorer community. There’s less financial and academic-type supports.” Of the predominantly Haitian students at North Miami Senior High School, upwards of 70 percent do not graduate when expected, she said.

The LIFE program, which targeted students from that high school and from the community surrounding Barry, seemed to fill a void as evidenced by the students’ eagerness to attend the typically “dreaded” summer school. Desir and Hall recall LIFE students braving severe storms to attend, students coming from shelters and foster homes, and others who had few alternatives. Several students said to them: “If I didn’t come, I don’t know what I would be doing.”

Students in the program explored their cultural roots through literature, music and dance, and visual art forms. Art was the hook that kept them coming back day after day, week after week. They made masks; they painted a wall-sized mural depicting Haitian culture and history, and they explored their roots with spoken word artist Mekka. In fact, Hall and Desir were able to recruit many local artists to participate in the program, including filmmakers and musicians.

In addition to art and cultural education, the program also included a healthy dose of college prep academics led by Dr. Deidra Suwanee Dees, a Native American with a PhD from Harvard, the Haitian-born Dr. Lilia Santiague, who received her doctorate from Nova, Patrick Colon, a teacher at North Miami Senior High and Sainvilus, who teaches at Miami Edison Senior High School.

For her part, Sainvilus said she was thrilled to be able to engage the students in “co-constructing” their activities in a way that differs significantly from the prescribed confines of the curricula of her school-year job within Miami Dade Public Schools. She says she “felt very free” and inspired by how involved the students became in projects such as Photo Voice.

The St. Gerard sisters, Eminnie, Daniela, and Emina, sing the ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus at the LIFE program’s end-of-summer celebration held July 29 in Andreas Hall.

Photo Voice put cameras in students’ hands and asked them to represent their lives visually, thereby facilitating self-reflection and creativity. It also opened up a dialogue with the research team of Hall and Desir. They interviewed the students about the meaning of their photo essays, and the researchers have plans to present their findings, especially as it relates to Haitian identity, at various academic conferences.

All of the LIFE students were challenged not only to express themselves artistically but also to delve deeper into their personal and communal identities. As a result, it became clear that many of the teens knew little about their history and culture.

“Even though many of them are of Haitian descent, they never learned about Haitian history. Their parents never taught them or they never learned in school. This was surprising to me,” Desir said, adding that she was heartened, however, because “they wanted to learn more.”

At the end of the seven weeks, on July 29, the students were ready to give back to their teachers. Dressed up in red and black, 100 teenagers sang, danced, recited poetry, and gave thanks at an end-of-summer celebration held in Andreas Hall. The event opened with Brithny Benjamin, 14, confidently leading her classmates as they recited affirmations, first in English and then in Haitian Creole, just as they had done every morning throughout June and July. All at once they proclaimed, “I invest in me. …”

The payoff was felt by the audience of family members, teachers and friends of LIFE.

“I’m going to remember the energy of that last performance,” Desir said smiling.

One of Hall’s favorite memories of the program involved what Desir said to the students every morning after their opening ritual: “You all are my dream, actualized.”

The students “ate that up,” as they became more confident with each passing day, noted Hall, adding that she looks forward to running the camp next summer, dependent on funding, and plans to continue meeting with some of the students on at least a monthly basis during the school year.

As for Sainvilus, she says she is more than ready to go back next summer: “Even as a teacher I really enjoyed it. It was far from just another summer school.”

Jim Harper is a freelance writer who resides in North Miami. He also teaches English as a Second Language and coaches swimming.