“What really moved me,” admitted Jean-Paul Benoit, president of Haitians and Friends (HF) during our interview, “We realized there was no Haitian presence at the university, so we suggested the club.” After obtaining Student Government’s approval on March 1, 2012, Benoit and six other students officially launched the first Haitian organization at University of North Carolina’s 66-year-old Charlotte campus. “Even when we don’t have a huge Haitian community here, as opposed to Florida or New York,” added the graduating senior, “I think we can work to give our country a voice and show what Haiti really is.”
Organizational goals and objectives, according to Public Relations Coordinator Sebastien Francois, aimed at shattering succinct summations of chronic misery enveloping Haiti’s conventional image. “We want to promote Haiti and Haitian culture within a student demographic that know very little about our history,” he said. Francois, who plans to continue his postgraduate studies at UNCC’s William States Lee College of Engineering, completed his junior year this spring. Francois’ argument is not a singular perception within the organization, though. Concerns over Haiti’s global image spread well beyond HP’s goals and objectives.
Several communication campaigns designed to surgically reconstruct the country’s image surfaced recently, starting with Minister of Tourism Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin selecting a new logo and slogan for a public relation campaign she hoped would help revitalize Haiti’s tourism industry. Similarly, the Haitian Consulate in Orlando, Fla launched Decouvrir Haiti last week, a campaign dedicated to improving Haiti’s image during Haitian Cultural Heritage Month celebrated in May. Moreover, Miami Herald’s “Haiti’s Rebranding itself as Tourism Destination,” reinforced perceptions of an ongoing collective effort to put a new face on Haiti. Some 20 Haitian hoteliers attended Miami’s Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Summit (CHRIS) to focus on recent tourism trends in the Caribbean, reported award-winning journalists Jacqueline Charles. Beyond the collective image building, proactive individuals, such as Journalist Erilande Sully also launched Destination,a new magazine dedicated to Haiti’s beauty: nationally and internationally, something club President Benoit found particularly appealing.
“That’s why we want to ensure a successful launched of HF,” he said, enumerating numerous challenges the organization faced. “Capturing the interests of people who, to some extent, have no idea where Haiti is, will be difficult,” remarked the 24-year-old finance major that plans to return to Haiti following his December graduation. Since inception, explained Benoit, HF enjoyed relative success, attracting at least 25 students of diverse ethnic backgrounds to some club meetings. “We have had Jamaicans, Africans, Dominicans and Venezuelans, among others, who participated in our meetings,” declared Benoit who emphasized the club was not a mean to mobilize Haitians only. “We must keep in mind the organization is here for everyone promoting Haiti: Haitians and foreigners alike,” he added.
Talking about the club’s legacy, strategic recruiting would ensure continuity and strong leadership in the near future, said the president. Benoit also admitted to recruiting 10 young Haitians throughout the U.S. and Haiti who will, within the next four years, replace the governing body and keep the organization active. “We will use every resource at our disposal to get greatest exposure and ensure continuity,” he added. For his part, faculty Advisor Fritz Hjardemaal, a young Haitian working at UNCC’s Information Technology Services, felt the club had the right structure in place to not only ensure its survival, but also thrive. HF’s constitution, its governing body and recruiting mechanisms would facilitate the club’s long-term progress, explained Hjadermaal during an interview.
To that end, Francois detailed his plans to propel the organization to new heights next semester, including bringing Haitian guest speakers to UNCC, offering ethnic dance lessons and, collaborating with established organization to increase HF’s visibility. In fact, President Benoit recently secured a student membership program from the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte (LACCC) where HF would be its campus liaison. Under that agreement, the club would represent the Chamber on campus; recruit students and help them obtain internships, networking and job opportunities within the organization. Club members agreed LACCC’s membership was a great acquisition that would lead to many opportunities for a club barely a semester old.
Throughout our interviews with club members, one underlying theme reemerged constantly. “Haiti is not known around the world for the things that we do best,” said Hjardemaal, who expressed great pride in HF’s leadership board. “It is great to have such a dedicated group of young men here at the university, helping to change those negative perceptions,” he added.