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Young Haitian-Americans Use Social Media To Advocate For Black Political And Economic Empowerment

Vanessa Joseph 2019 Campaign Launch.jpg
Vanessa Joseph
Vanessa Joseph from a 2019 campaign launch

This election season, young Haitian-Americans are using cultural platforms on social media to advocate for voter turnout, economic empowerment, and uplifting Black South Floridians.

Vanessa Joseph, 32, is an immigration lawyer and city clerk of North Miami. She’s also the chairwoman of the Haitian-American Voter Empowerment Coalition.

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Joseph says her outreach effort doesn’t paint millennials and Gen Zers with a broad brush. The multi-ethnic Black community, for example, represent several Black immigrants with varying levels of socio-political interests, “identity and family obligations.”

“Many of us [Haitian-Americans] do feel that pressure of having to build power in the U.S. while also ensuring that Haiti is secure, especially when you have friends and family still living there,” Joseph said. “Haiti is less than two hours away.”

The Miami native says that proximity to Haiti maintains a high level of obligation among intermediate family members, many of whom pay large remittances to finance necessities in Haiti — and when “you’re part of a hyphenated community, you carry that sense of responsibility no matter where you land.”

Joseph says although there are class differences, varying levels of interests and obligations within Black communities the ongoing health, education and economic disparities in the U.S. don't spare anyone. Black people across the country often face a “common struggle.”

She says young Black professionals aren’t preoccupied with just music, sports, art, and parties — this generation is in the middle of a transformational movement; grassroots leaders are placing more emphasis on financial literacy, tech, and local politics.

Every Sunday at noon, Joseph is live on Facebook for The VSS Hour, a current affairs and culture show that educates viewers about the 2020 U.S. Census, primary and general elections, wellness, and significant work by Haitian pioneers in South Florida.

The VSS Hour is named after Joseph and her co-hosts: Santra Denis is the founder of Avanse Ansanm and chief programs officer at Catalyst Miami — an anti-poverty organization in Miami. Dr. Shirley Plantin is the chief executive consultant for U-Turn Youth Consulting Firm.

Joseph and her co-hosts are attracting young cultural consumers who are civically involved on issues like voting and Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for immigrants. She says sparking awareness within these spaces can lead to more voters in the electorate.

Earlier this month, the 9th Circuit Appeals Court ruled that the Trump administration can end TPS for tens of thousands of Haitians, many of whom have lived and raised families in the U.S. for decades.

That ruling is being appealed, but if it holds, it could force thousands of Haitian TPS holders to return to Haiti, starting in the spring. The deportations would separate families and parents from their U.S.-born children.

There are nearly 500,000 people of Haitian descent living in the state, according to the U.S. Census. Joseph says, in many ways, her outreach message must have a broad appeal.

2019 VSS at Links Lunch.jpg
Vanessa Joseph
Santra Denis (far left), Vanessa Joseph, Dr. Shirley Plantin (far right)

Haitian radio, television, and churches often play a major role in reaching older Haitians for social causes. On the other hand, digital media, Joseph says, fills the information gap for the younger generation.

Popular comedians Success Jr and Plus Pierre, for example, created content that educates the community around the Census. And multimedia platforms like L’Union Suite and Tele Pam help fill the information gap between culture and politics.

They “produce shows that inform the audiences about what’s going on in Haiti and the U.S., Joseph says. “It’s certainly important to meet people where they’re at and ensure that we make civic engagement a part of their everyday lives, even if it means integrating civic engagement into the various cultural platforms that exist in our community."

For many Haitian-Americans, the impact of U.S foreign policy is just as important as local politics. Joseph spoke with WLRN about what the VSS Hour show is trying to accomplish in South Florida.

Here's an excerpt of that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity:

WLRN: The show does a great job with blending languages — with Haitian Creole and English — was that strategic? What was the mindset behind blending the two languages?

VANESSA JOSEPH: Blending the two languages was important to us because for one, we definitely do not want to shame anyone for not being able to speak Creole. We don't want for Haitian-Americans, people our age, who were born and raised here, to feel like that have to be left out of the conversation.

WLRN: What issues do you think Haitian-Americans care about right now? Have you have discussed it on your show recently?

Yes, of course. Immigration is a significant issue for many Haitian-Americans. We're very much concerned about the future of TPS. But certainly, I, as an immigration attorney, am very much concerned about the future of immigration at large. And, you know, the larger Haitian-American community does want to see comprehensive immigration reform that does give folks a pathway to citizenship. But that's not all that we think about. We also want to see improved foreign relations between the U.S. and Haiti. And, of course, just as many other communities, we want affordable housing and economic development among a myriad of other things.

Is there a shared agenda like are there generational differences? You know, any disconnect within each community?

You know, as with any other community, the Haitian-American community is not monolithic. So we're from varying generations; we have different relationships with Haiti. We live all across the United States. But on the whole, we can come together, as we have recently, to work on agenda priorities that we can all agree on. At the end of the day, we all want a stronger Haitian community. But how do we get there and what do we want to see in terms of economic development, political power, education that will ensure that this community continues to thrive and that it certainly continues to grow?

You talked earlier about how the Haitian community isn't a monolithic community. So is the term Black community. It also seems to posit this idea that everyone is on one accord. Are there overlapping policy ideas between Haitian-Americans and African-Americans, or are they essentially asking for the same things?

Absolutely. We are Black first. And the priorities of all Black people are the priorities that we as a Haitian community share as a Haitian-American community. We share these same priorities. We want the democracy that was promised to us. We want to live long and healthy lives. We want to protect our communities from the climate crisis. And among a host of other things, we want the legal system to also work for us.

And so there's a lot more people who are interested in entrepreneurship. We see a lot of financial literacy type of content being pushed around Instagram, for example. Do you think that cultural capital is enough to make the new generation more civically engaged?

The fact that so many of us are in spheres of influence. So whether that's on social media, whether that's in sports, whether that's in music, in Hollywood, politically — we are more than what our pioneers ever thought.

They didn't have this as an example. There weren't all these Haitian-American attorneys. There weren't all these Haitian-American doctors. We look at how, you know, our Haitian-American nurses, our Haitian nurses are on the front lines during this pandemic.

And I think that it has allowed us to dream so much bigger and especially with our children who are growing up in the American system — they know that the possibilities are endless. And I think that when we have people reach whatever level of influence they do reach that we have to ensure to continue propagating positive messages and images of Haitians and Haitian-Americans and their contributions to not only our communities, but also to America and to the world.