PEN Haiti’s Potential Rising
Roosters singing, fresh cool air, doves and finches chirping, lush green trees extending miles in all directions and the gigantic La Selle Mountains in the background create the scenic yet serene space that the PEN Haiti Center occupies in the elevated lands of Thomassin 32, a commune of Pétion-Ville located in the western part of Port-au-Prince. Its Residence Georges Anglades “House of Literature” is a vibrant creative epicenter like none other in the country, where countless youth (high school and university students), young professionals, and artists of all kinds—including novelists, poets, musicians, and visual artists—come throughout the year. They gather to meet one another, to learn, and to explore their deep sense of purpose in catalyzing a future of greater hope for the Haitian people despite persistent political and economic challenges. As the PEN Haiti Fellow appointed by the PEN America Development Fellowship Program, supported by the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, I’ve been working to optimize, professionalize, and bring innovation to PEN Haiti’s infrastructure in order to ensure its long-term sustainability.
Working directly with PEN Haiti’s President Jean-Euphèle Milcé, a novelist and career Haitian Diplomat, and the PEN Haiti staff has been a transformative experience for my professional career, as well as a powerful source of inspiration for my own creative work as a writer. Having left Haiti at the young age of 14, I’ve been able to rediscover my country by seeing it with new eyes thanks to this work experience and the perspective I have gained from living elsewhere. I have deepened my understanding of the complexities and harsh realities of Haiti, as well as my appreciation for the beauty of its land, its culture, and its people.
As with the other 140 PEN centers around the world, the PEN Haiti Center is an organization that defends free expression and celebrates literature and creativity. Despite all the challenges it faces, I firmly believe that PEN Haiti is playing a key role in the development of this country, one not seen before. The PEN Haiti Secretariat has been working assiduously to promote an alternative form of education directly tied to Haiti’s rich literary traditions, one that is often not taught in the conventional Haitian classroom.
With a major focus on the provinces, the disadvantaged rural areas, and on promoting the mother tongue, Haitian Creole, PEN Haiti has a primary goal to expand and strengthen its “PEN Provinces Network,” which now includes: Petit Goaves, Gonaïves, Jacmel, Saint-Marc, and Port-de-Paix. The PEN Provinces Network serves two main functions, the first of which is to work with local schools to provide writing workshops, conferences, debates, and creative events to engage and inspire the next generation of young Haitians. Currently, nearly 70 percent of Haiti’s population is under age 30, according to Population Action International. The second important function of the Network members is to serve proactively as eyes and ears for PEN Haiti’s Observatory, whose important work is to observe and gather information on the human rights abuses suffered by journalists and writers, to enforce and expand free expression rights throughout the country, and to build a democratic and free Haiti.
Strengthening and enlarging an effective PEN Province Network are the measures by which PEN Haiti will judge its success. PEN Haiti’s annual Young Writers Residency Program in Thomassin will occur in August 2016. Most writers for the residence are recruited from the provinces, and PEN Haiti’s annual Festival Liberez La Parole public programs serve audiences in Port-au-Prince, but also in cities of the PEN Provinces. This year the Festival will occur in St. Marc during the month of July 2016.
Implementing weekly staff meetings, creating a staff report form, updating the Strategic Plan 2016–2019, designing a Development Plan 2016–2019, and completing a PEN Haiti Procedural Manual have been some of the ways I have worked with staff members to ensure greater communication and to create a clearer understanding of their roles within the organization. We have also worked together to define the organizational policies and procedures for the day-to-day maintenance and management of, firstly, the Residence, which welcomes Haitian and international writers throughout the year, secondly, the small library of about 1,200 books, which receives local students daily, and, lastly, a bar filled with Haitian art and sculptures that sells beverages and drinks during musical nights PEN Haiti hosts to support the artist community. I’ve given a small workshop to the staff on social media and created a more integrated social media presence for PEN Haiti, a process essential for the center’s growth in today’s changing technological world.
Some of the broader goals and strategies for the remainder of my time here as the PEN Haiti Fellow are to initiate workshops on leadership, conflict management, and emotional intelligence, to set up a PEN Haiti International Advisory Board to help ensure that the philanthropic priorities of PEN Haiti are met, to launch a crowdfunding campaign in support of the development of the PEN Provinces Network and its activities, and lastly to revitalize PEN Haiti’s membership, whose members are located around the world. Since its inception in 2008 and following the tragic death of Georges Anglade, the center’s first president, during the 2010 Haiti earthquake, PEN Haiti has been able to accomplish so much with so few resources. This organization run by Haitians for Haitians holds tremendous potential to transform Haiti in the next 10 to 15 years. What PEN Haiti has to offer the often disenfranchised youth of this generation remains untapped, but with the right degree of organization, a collaborative internal working environment, and adequate funding, it will continue to rise and flourish.
Photography by Patrice Dougé.