Every Friday afternoon while I was in grammar school I would trek across town to my grandfather's porch. The routine and expectations were clear -- I would sit next to him with my music sheets open and I would "sing" the music through a practice called solfège or sight-singing. My grandfather was a conductor and the patriarch of our family. I was learning his craft and I never dared skip a Friday session. I was chosen to work with him and it was a privilege. It was also the one weekday afternoon that I was allowed the luxury of skipping my after school academic studies. School dominated my life. We were typically in class every weekday from 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and we never dared to be spotted by the school director on a weekday afternoon without a book-in-hand. Such was my school life growing up in Haiti. We had committed and dedicated teachers who were often extensions of our families. They demanded excellence and dedication to studying. Education in Haiti was then, and still remains highly valued and prized, but I later realized that not every child in Haiti was as fortunate as I was.
I was born in Haiti to parents who were both educators and moved to New York when I was 12 years old. At that age, my family -- all six of us -- moved to a one bedroom apartment in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, New York City. My brother and I shared a sofa bed in the living room. Concerned for our safety, my parents only allowed us out of the apartment to go to school. In middle school I was taunted and bullied, called "Frenchie" and mocked for my thick accent and underdeveloped English. The classroom for English Language Learners was in the basement of the building and students would spit into the window from the schoolyard. Through those years I stayed focused on my studies during the entire school day and during my free time, still never daring to be caught without my books in hand. I did not forget the habits instilled in me from Haiti. By high school -- at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn and Springfield Gardens in Queens -- I had found my way. I played volleyball and soccer. My friends were the students on the honor roll, and although I was a bit shy, I walked the halls with a quiet confidence that earned the respect of the "tough" kids, other students and the teachers. My teachers from Haiti and an amazing Haitian teacher at Lefferts Middle School #61 in Brooklyn were some of the most influential people in shaping me into the leader I am today.
At Lefferts, Mr. Cherarsard took the Haitian students under his wing and demanded focus and discipline -- not too different from my experience at École Des Freres in Grande-Rivière-du-Nord, Haiti. I had the confidence to advocate for myself in high school when I was blocked from a more advanced mathematics course because I was still labeled an English Language Learner. When I approached the Assistant Principal in charge of the English Language Learner program, he agreed to allow me access to the course after his "rigorous" evaluation of my English skills -- he had me read aloud from the New York Times. The foundation set during my childhood by my teachers in Haiti and in middle school by Mr. Chersarsard not only gave me the academic skills for success, it prepared me to persevere through many challenges and to fight for my education. The approach to education that most of my best teachers used was deeply rooted in the values of Haitian culture and the expectation that education extended beyond the schoolhouse and into the community.
Looking back at my journey from a student in the Haitian school system to leading the third largest school system in the United States, I have learned one very important thing -- we must always genuinely show the deepest respect for the communities that we serve. In the reform movement, our hubris and paternalism often lead to our downfall. When I first met Nedgine Paul and heard her push to create Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti) I listened intently. I wanted to be sure that the program employed the most effective practices from the reform movement but also focused on lessons learned. When I understood that she envisioned a Haitian-led, Haitian-run organization focused on systemic change by building deep relationships in the community and fostering Haitian leadership capacity, I jumped at the chance to get involved. After all, I had made a commitment as a Pahara/Aspen Institute Fellow to focus on capacity building and developing leadership in my country of birth. Nedgine has built a terrific Board of Directors and I am honored to serve as the founding chair. After decades in America, my parents continued to support educators in Haiti, and this is my opportunity to continue their legacy.
Anseye Pou Ayiti was recently accepted as part of the global Teach For All network. Our role as partner organization will help illustrate the global nature of educational inequity and the benefit of sharing solutions across borders to create stronger and more impactful opportunities for children. Haiti is a country with a glorious history, the site of a slave rebellion that successfully overthrew French rule and established a free republic governed by former slaves.
My family lived in the city of Grande-Rivière-du-Nord, not far from the birthplace of the great revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The country's history gave us hope, even during the most difficult years of the Duvalier regime. I had a great childhood in Haiti and it took me years to understand the systemic and deep-rooted inequalities that exist in the country. The average child has only five years of formal education and with approximately 70 percent of people living outside of urban areas without access to critical resources, it is an issue that impacts the majority of the country. I had devoted teachers as a child in Haiti, but I was part of the fortunate few. I now understand that most primary school teachers in Haiti have very little formal training. Only 20 percent of teachers receive the training and support necessary to be most effective.
My grandfather and my parents always saw the world through a lens of social justice. They taught me that education is a human right, one that has consistently been a valued priority within Haitian society dating back to public school laws enacted soon after Haiti's independence in 1804.
Like me, Anseye Pou Ayiti's CEO and Co-Founder, Nedgine Paul, is the daughter of a schoolteacher and principal. She is returning home to help solve the country's crisis of educational inequity and ineffectiveness -- all while uplifting the culture, customs and community norms of a proud nation. Teachers will be placed in existing underserved primary schools, including the school that Nedgine's father once led.
Anseye Pou Ayiti will recruit both top graduates of Haitian universities, and current teachers already working in classrooms across Haiti. We will work to both bring those recent graduates into the classroom (including graduates of local teachers' colleges), and to build the skills of experienced teachers to improve rural and urban education across the country. It will be more than a two-year program; our goal is to inspire our teachers to become lifelong leaders in education as alumni ambassadors. We will build deep partnerships with students, parents and local organizations with the goal of creating lasting change in the community.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, "education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace. The full development of the human personality is critical. Education must help nurture a populace capable of self-governance, of asking tough questions and standing up to power. These are critical thinking and questioning skills that are needed to succeed in college and in careers. These are the skills that helped me transition and succeed in New York City Public Schools despite arriving without knowing a word of English and experiencing multiple barriers. Education must focus on a student's full development not simply to create a just society, but to create a prosperous economy. Through education, Anseye Pou Ayiti will contribute to the social and economic development of my proud nation of birth. Haiti was the Western Hemisphere's first self-governing black nation. We were not granted our independence, we took it. Despite many socioeconomic challenges, Haitians are born into a world with a limitless horizon. We believe that we are not just capable of greatness, we are destined for it. Our history reminds us of this.