In this month's edition of Girl Crush, I am thrilled to introduce you to, hands down, one of the smartest women I've ever had the pleasure of meeting and working with.
Carine and I met this summer when I collaborated with ExploreHaiti to promote Haitian tourism. (Read Part 1 of my Haitian experience here.) I was immediately drawn to her strong character and sharp wit. She is incredibly passionate about everything she speaks about, especially her beloved homeland. An academic and artist who has studied at Columbia University, Northwestern University, Harvard University and the Beaux-arts de Paris, Carine was kind enough to let me pick her brain on Haiti, Women's Rights and President Obama.
AL: What exactly do you do?
CH: I am partner and Director of Communications at ExploreHaiti. I'm also a political scientist by academic background.
AL: What were some of your fondest childhood memories?
CH: I remember growing up as a special time. I was the third of six kids. The middle kid, "the misfit, the rebel". The time when we moved to Montagne noire where we were free to run in the woods unattended holds a special place in my heart. Early on, dancing became a big preoccupation, especially during my adolescent years. It took a lot of my time and weighed a lot on my thinking. It was a passion. Like a lot of Haitians, creativity was, as it is today, part of my life. I had a carefree childhood for the most part. Haiti was an incredible place to grow up. At the time infrastructures were in pristine shape, we had electricity and running water 24 hours a day. One had to look a bit to see slums, for example.
AL: What was it like growing up in Haiti?
CH: I know you know, coming from Jamaica, about the implications of slavery, the scars of slavery. I think because Haiti was the first black republic and the only successful slave revolution, we bear particular scars. Haiti is a country that doesn't evolve like any other country. In terms of history, it's a trendsetter. And if I'm to be completely frank, it is a place where growing up was sometimes painful for me. I rarely speak about it but I used to volunteer for an orphanage as an adolescent and there I realized the poverty then. I think about it often. Seeing the poverty, seeing the difficulties, living some of the difficulties myself… For me it remains a place of challenges but also a place of awe.
AL :Was there any particular point where you realized something was wrong, in terms of the social defects that are very obvious in Haiti?
CH: I don't think of Haiti like that. I think of Haiti as a place where we are not taking the typical route towards development or democracy. I remember growing up, I went to school, I had extra-curricular activities. Life was simple. Even if I was very sheltered, I was able to sense the different social levels between people. To give you an example, we were prohibited from speaking Creole which was the language my cook spoke. Creole is our native language, so why were we as kids prohibited from speaking it? Regardless, I never felt weird about Haiti. It's home. It is familiarity in its purest form. I never think about Haiti in terms of what is lacking. I think that is the perspective of someone who hasn't lived there. I do think we're taking too long to initiate and remain in a developing cycle. I do think we have governance issues and a hard time solving basic problems such as picking up garbage. I imagine this is what a visitor can call “obvious defects” as it were.
AL: Who's someone that really influenced the person you are today?
CH: One of my professors from Columbia University. His name is Dennis Dalton. He recently retired from Columbia University where he taught for 45 years. He was my political theory professor. After I left Columbia, we developed a long lasting friendship. It has been over 25 years now. He became my best man and today he's a very good friend and confidante of mine. He is the person that influenced me the most in my thinking, in my emotional life. I go to him for counsel, for feedback. This is someone who has always highlighted the importance of finding my own voice and staying true to who I am. I would be a very different person if I did not have him in my life.
AL: You're a mom. Do you think motherhood defines womanhood?
CH: No, I don't. Motherhood is one of my favorite roles but I don't believe motherhood defines women. I constructed a belief system for myself very early; my spiritual base, if you want. I believe that our souls are neutral. Our souls don't have gender or colour. And I think as a soul, motherhood is not what defines me. I happen to be a female in this lifetime, but I think it doesn't define me. I think, awareness, consciousness is larger than that. It's larger than motherhood, gender, it's larger than race, larger than career. What happens when a woman cannot have kids or chooses not to have children, is she less of woman than me, is she less defined than me? I think not.
AL: What were the qualities that you thought were important to instill in your daughter as a young girl?
CH: One thing that I wanted to instill in her was the importance of her own voice. Both, through my parenting style and my curiosity about her, I wanted to pinpoint what her talent was and how her own voice could support that talent. I remember very early on, I didn't like some of the parenting skills that Haitian culture promotes and I researched which parenting style I preferred and I picked an authoritative parenting style to make sure that I wouldn't stifle her, and that I wouldn't deny her her own voice. I wanted her to participate in her own upbringing, I wanted her to be aware of her talents and autonomous enough to pursue them.
AL: Do you believe that women have it harder than men?
CH: OK, let's take current affairs because I'm a political scientist. Let's look at the recent US elections. The United States has always had men as presidents. And Hilary Clinton has been trying to break the “glass ceiling”. If we look at it that way, we will say that women have had a threshold that they haven't been allowed to pass. So if we look at it that way women “have it harder than men” because we are kept from holding certain roles only because we are women and that is unfair. I think to say "no", women don't have it harder than men would deny some of the struggles that women face today so called developed countries. But going back to Haiti, there is a variation on the theme and I think it interesting to consider it and draw some inspiration. Haitian women have an amazing position in Haitian society. You will see them at market selling, negotiating, making the money, because they are the ones who hold the purse in the family. When you look at their roles in the Revolution, their roles in the Voodoo temples, they hold very prominent positions in this so called emerging economy. If you look at it through those lenses, I think Haitian society is very modern as it acknowledges that women are extraordinary and powerful and if given the space they can do it all.
AL: Can I just interject quickly?
AL: I just want to say that all the rights that we have now as women...we have so many more choices than ever before, we're able to do so many things. Obviously, a woman just ran for President of the US, women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies...but that took many years in the evolution of the way we perceive what a woman's place should be. It's not as if that's how things have always been.
CH: I think that mens' journeys are simpler. Because women have the ability to give birth so mens' pathways are less cluttered than ours. Women have more choices available to them. For instance, in the US I can have a baby and have a career. I can do both. I am empowered to do both. Yes, at one point we couldn't do both. But I think that's because we have the option of giving birth, our journeys require that we make certain sacrifices to accommodate having children. It's a more complex type of a journey. If you look at Haiti, a society that is deemed to be so backwards, Haitian women are doing it all. Women are able to cultivate land and give birth. Women are able to be doctors and give birth. We've already had a female president.
AL: But that does mean they didn't have to prove themselves as capable, whereas with men, it's assumed that they are capable.
CH: Growing up in Haiti, I never felt that. I was raised as a leader and I could do whatever I wanted. When I moved to the US to go to college, I did realize than women don't do the same thing as men do but it was late realization. But I think that I made the choice of not letting that intimidate me.
AL: What are your views on feminism?
CH: What is feminism?
AL: In my layman's opinion, feminism is the principle that women should have the same rights as men. Women should be paid equally as men for the same job. In terms of the quality of life and the opportunities that are available, women and men should be on par across the board.
CH: Then I think I was born a feminist. Not for one second did I ever think I was ever inferior to my brother. And I think it is common sense that if I'm doing the same job as a man, then I should be paid the same amount of money. I think maybe the difference is, here I'm not an activist about it.
AL: You've worked for President Obama, as part of his 2008 and 2012 campaigns. You've met him. What was that experience like?
CH: I met the President twice. I was one of his original Obama Fellow and Field Organizer. I met him at a rally and he was saying hello to us, his team. I was against the railing and there was a kid just in front of me. Barack saw the kid and looked at me with intensity like saying: you got him right? I said yes with my head. I realized a few things in those few moments: what a compassionate leader he was; that he had great attention to details; how warm and caring he was; how people matter to him; how protective he instinctively was of those who are more vulnerable. And I think that his presidency confirmed this to me. We see this in the policies/initiative he fiercely fought for: Obamacare; the equal pay for women; his defending gay marriage; the Paris climate agreement; the opening to Cuba; his initiative with My Brother's Keeper. I am proud of him and I believe his presidency will be celebrated as one of the best in US history and it was a privilege to be a part of it.
AL: You've lived such a cultured life, you've traveled quite a bit. More than the average person and certainly more than the average Haitian. Is it hard to have these worldly experiences then go back to Haiti where there's still such a myopic view?
CH: Haiti is home. It's where I feel the most comfortable, it's a big part of my identity. It feels like I belong there so it's never hard to go back to my roots. I do realize, because of my experiences, I've seen more advanced societies. I know what it is to have a quality of life, in Canada, for example. Or in Spain. And I know that when I go back to Haiti, this quality of life is not fully realized. Or for some, it is harder to have access to that quality of life. I am aware of the poverty and the lagging. But it's never hard to go back to Haiti.
AL: Do you think Haiti is misrepresented in the media?
CH: What I hear in the media is that "Haiti is experiencing yet another disaster". Or that "Haiti is mismanaging resources". These are all cliches. I do think that Haiti is not well represented in the media which seeks sensationalism. It's not a place where you only have poverty. It is a place where there is poverty and extreme wealth. It is a place where the culture is extremely complex. And unique. Haiti is a very complex place of contrasts. Haiti is not explicable in soundbites.
AL: When you read/hear ignorant comments about Haiti, what's your reaction? Do you get angry?
CH: I think anger is a dead-end. I'd take it as an opportunity. I do it all the time when I'm a guide in Haiti. Yes, we do need better governance but I turn to the positive side and say "Freedom is what Haiti has given to the world". Our culture is beautiful. It's a unique culture that we were able to protect and made to prosper. I'm proud of the fact that Haitians don't need to learn how to paint; draw; sew. It's innate. So when someone says ignorant things about Haiti, I take it as an opportunity to say, "Hey, wait a minute! What about this?" I don't get angry, I take it as an opportunity to share my own experience of my home.
AL: For someone who knows nothing about Haiti aside from what's portrayed in the media, what's one thing you'd tell them?
CH: I would tell them that it's a place, that when you land there as a newcomer, you'll be both surprised and saddened. It will challenge you. You probably will fall in love with the place. I would say all of those things.
AL: What are you currently reading?
CH: I always read a lot of books at the same time. I'll give you three: David and Goliath. One that I really like Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lesson on Life, Love and Courage. And Strategy Marketing for Non-Profit Organizations. That one is more academic.
AL: Is there any prominent or historical figure that you really admire or look up to.
CH: I think, Toni Morrison. I like her as writer. I liker her visually. I like the fact that she decided to have dreads. I like Obama, obviously. I like Mandela. I like Gandhi. I like Meryl Streep. I like Robert Redford for what he's done for Native Americans. I like Angela Merkel for being a strong woman and for being able to be the leader of such a strong nation. I don't have one person that I like. I think there are incredible human beings in the world and we live in a very interesting time where we can find out about those leaders.
AL: How would you describe your personal style?
CH: I think for me, the priority is to be comfortable. And I think because of that, I'm eclectic. If I go to the store and buy a suit, I'll mix it up. I won't wear the top of the suit with the skirt or the pants. I think it came from my aunt who was also a seamstress by trade. She used to make our clothes for us. So we had the liberty of designing the clothes we wanted. I have a very personal style and it's a style where comfort matters, shapes matter, colour matters. I like to have fun with it.
AL: What advice would you give to your 20 year old self?
CH: To be fearless and embrace my own creativity.
AL: What does it mean to you to be Haitian?
CH: I think our soul stands behind our choices, of whom/what we are, so it also stands behind our choice of where we are born. I have my purpose in this place. Haiti is a complex place, with a non-linear path to the light, and the fact that I was born there instilled in me the deep belief that making this planet a more vibrant place is a duty. So I am grateful for the opportunity to grow and evolve in a place like Haiti. It is a gift.
AL: Who is your girl crush?
CH: If I had to give you an answer I would choose two: one living and one who has passed on. Ella, my daughter because she has embraced art in her life and I believe that her generation will realize social equality between women and men. And Maya Angelou for mastering her voice and showing us how and for offering a voice to womanhood. She has been a compassionate leader and a creative genius and I have utmost respect for her.