Six years ago, community stakeholders attending South Florida’s Haitian American Community Agenda Forum met to assess and define our community’s future. In addition to discussing pressing social and economic issues, forum attendees pointed to the urgent need to identify and incubate the next generation of leaders. Five years ago, we launched the Sant La Fellows program to support, prepare and nurture the next generation of Haitian American political, civic and business leaders.

Today, as we celebrate this program’s fifth anniversary, we are indeed filled with pride and awe. This modest initiative has exceeded our expectations. Sant La fellows are reshaping South Florida’s social, civic and political landscape, and doing so with a deep understanding of their community, culture and history.

This yearlong program is offered to Haitian American professionals ages 21 – 35. Our curriculum focuses on understanding the genesis of South Florida’s Haitian community, the influx of refugees who came by boat, the birth of Little Haiti, cultural adaptation, the battle for the right to stay in the U.S. legally and finally, our path to citizenship and political power.

Through monthly labs, fellows have met South Florida’s community pioneers and trailblazers who shared unique perspectives about the issues which shaped our nascent community and still inform today’s social and political landscape. For a broader and inclusive perspective, we invite leaders and partners from Miami’s diverse community to identify countywide challenges and discuss best practices in building and shaping cross-cultural alliances.

Each year, fellows prepare a capstone project, which allows them to explore in greater depth a specific issue or concern discussed during the labs. Capstone projects have included a daylong entrepreneurial and career fair for North Miami youth by Class I; a video advocating for TPS renewal produced by Class II; a scholarship fund by Class III; and Class IV produced an engaging public service announcement to promote the Census in English and Creole. Despite COVID-19 disruptions, Class V created a deeply meaningful video about their hyphenated identities.

This yearlong program concludes with a powerful visit to the Citadelle Henri Christophe, an unassailable mountaintop fortress built by formerly enslaved people to preserve and protect Haiti’s newly won independence. The horseback trek to the Citadelle is experienced as a pilgrimage to a sacred site, paying homage to the iconic representation of a people’s determination to remain free from bondage.

2020 has been a year for the history books. As a community, we have had to deal with so many issues at once. First, we remained focused on the pandemic and its impact on our community’s economic, educational and emotional health. Next, we tackled the Census and ongoing anti-immigration policies which affect our community. Lastly, we addressed the civil rights injustices that shook us to the core as Black people living in America. As these crises hit our community, some of the most impactful voices were none other than Sant La fellows.

Our success stories are too numerous to enumerate, but we are proud to say that three of our fellows have run for office, and two are now elected officials. Avanse Ansanm, an organization whose founder is a Sant La fellow, has been actively engaged in Census outreach and voter engagement campaigns targeting Haitian American millennials. We are proud of so many of our graduates who continue to shine in academia, law, business, health care, communications and the arts.

Through this initiative, Sant La is building its own Citadelle, a fortress where our community’s precious treasures are polished, nurtured and released to the world. As we continue to face and address complex 21st-century issues, we are confident that the contributions of our fellows to this world will reflect Sant La’s mission to empower, strengthen and uplift our community.

Gepsie Metellus is co-founder and executive director of the Sant La Haitian Neighborhood Center in North Miami.

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