Carline Desire’s passion: Empowering Haitian women

Carline DesireCarline DesireCarline Desire is the executive director of the Association of Haitian Women in Boston (AFAB), a non-profit organization based in Dorchester.

BHR: Tell me about the early years, what significant events in your life as a young woman inspired you to do this work?
Carline Desire: I attended Cathedral High School. My parents took second jobs to send me to a parochial school. With all the events with busing at the time, they wanted to ensure I went to a good school. That’s where I was first introduced to the Apartheid movement – through a feminist who spoke to my class. She shared about women’s rights and what’s going on around the world, specifically with Apartheid. I joined a local group that raised awareness for Africa and Apartheid.
Then I went to Boston University, where I studied international relations. I joined a group of students who were involved in Haiti called Massachusetts Haitian Student Associations (AUAM). We invited people like Mel King and Byron Rushing – [who] were always involved in raising awareness about Haiti. We organized conferences and rallies. Back in the 80’s we formed an inter-collegiate committee to raise awareness about Haiti, and we tutored high school students at English High School. It was [around] that time we had massive influx of the ‘boat people’.

BHR: How did you get involved in advocacy for women?
CD: It started in the late 80’s because the cases of domestic violence that were on the rise. We realized that some people living here were dealing with issues that needed to be addressed on the local level. None of the groups wanted to address local concerns, so we started to focus on women and families which led to the founding of Association of Haitian Women (AFAB). It was first called Group Etid Fanm Ayisyen (GREFA). We assessed what was going on with Haitian women. We used to meet at a clubhouse at St. Leo’s on Bricknell street, which is now gone. It was the place for Haitians to gather.

BHR: What was the initial mission of AFAB?
CD: From early on we decided the work should be about empowering women and families. We always include families in our work because you can’t focus on women without their families.

BHR: Has did the programming of AFAB evolve?
CD: We functioned as a volunteer organization for 10 years. We did an informal needs assessment and went around the community. Housing, domestic violence, DSS, education were the top issues. We launched a housing project in 1991, but it took 6 yrs to get this project going. This project grew to become KaFanm. Because we were always being kicked out of our meeting spaces, we decided we needed our own space - chè mèt, chè mètrès.

During this time I went for a Master’s [degree] in community development at Hampshire College, now it’s the University of Southern New Hampshire. I worked on KaFanm, as my community development project. At the time, I worked for DSS (Department of Social Services). I also taught at Somerville and Boston Public Schools.

I spent about four years in Haiti. I taught English in Port-au-Prince. It was crazy. Sometimes you’d have a class over 100 students! They were so eager to learn! Mostly women. I would teach in Port-au-Prince during the week and did literacy work with the women in rural areas.

When I returned to Boston, AFAB’s board asked me to formally lead the organization. I became the executive director in 1997. We began to formalize the adult education, domestic violence and youth development programs. We had about $200 in our bank account. Here I am leaving my job, with no security whatsoever. So, I [had] to fundraise to pay myself and hire staff.

BHR: What are some of the lessons learned from women’s advocacy?
CD: It’s difficult work. Some of the people you think should be your allies in this work or want to be your allies, but they’re still underneath sexism, internalized oppression that doesn’t allow a holistic approach to the work. I’ve grown over the years. I was very vocal and determined to express my opinion. As the only female executive director - part of decision-making team - I’ve had to be diplomatic. Because I feel at times, the info that is crucial is lacking...I had to look at things with a gender lens, a female perspective.

BHR: What have you gained from this work?
CD: The love for humanity, for my people. Every time I get frustrated, the work is so intense. I wear so many hats. I’m the director of two different non-profits. And ask myself why did you do this? Every time I say enough already, why are you killing yourself? The strangest things would happen. People who you don’t know, would come and thank you and express how AFAB has affected their lives. That makes such a difference.

BHR: What’s next for AFAB?
CD: We are looking to expand our partnerships with groups from Brockton, Cambridge and really statewide. So we can become more of a powerful community. We are now responding to calls and invitations to build our base. We are on a mission to get more university women involved because they need to get involved and take it to the next level.

BH: What’s your favorite Haitian proverb?
CD: Kou li cho, li kwit (once it’s hot, it’s cooked). Let’s not waste time, let’s seize the opportunity.