Desire hailed as ‘unsung hero’ for work with AFAB

On a cold snowy night in Boston’s South End, The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI) hosted the 19th Annual Neighborhood Fellows Banquet to honor Boston’s unsung heroes on March 3 (2009). The Neighborhood Fellows grants unrestricted $30,000 personal cash awards to “social entrepreneurs who often go unrecognized, but who make a vital contribution to our quality of life.”

This year Haitian-American activist Carline Desire was one of six honored with the award. She join 112 other Fellows who in total have been awarded over $2.5 million since 1991.

Carline Desire, the executive director of the Dorchester based Association of Haitian Women in Boston, is not a large woman. Listening to her recall, softly but deliberately in her lilting Haitian accent, her first involvement in advocating for her community is surprising.

“I remember after being here for a few months being put on a bus. These kids were beating up this Haitian boy and I fought on his behalf.” Desire said with a slight smile emerging between her sentences. “I got in trouble but they stopped beating him.”

Over the years, Desire’s methods of violence prevention have changed dramatically but her passion remains unbounded. In 1988, Desire was one of the founding members of the Association. Now, over 20 years later, she remains as the organization’s executive director, overseeing a host of programs ranging from coalition building, immigration advocacy, and domestic violence education.

“I think over the years people have really shown appreciation for our work,” Desire said. “Not necessarily because they believe 100 percent but because it is a way to move forward in America. They see we put all our might in it and that it is not about the money.”

For Desire, it is certainly not about the money. For the first ten years of the association, Desire worked solely as a volunteer before she was asked to become a paid executive director in 1998, leaving her previous full-time jobs within the Boston Public School system and the Department of Social Services. Now that the association is facing tougher times than ever during a recession, Desire’s salary arrives in haphazard, sometimes incomplete, installments. Still, she plans to donate the $30,000 unrestricted personal cash reward she received from TPI to the Association.

It seems only natural to her.

“The Board is telling me to take the money but it’s for the organization because they need it and because without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve done,” Desire said.

Stretching a budget of $200,000, Desire and the association do a lot, especially regarding domestic violence. They set up counseling, connect victims with lawyers and police, convene support groups and offer referrals to health services. The Association also is heavily involved in education and outreach within the greater Boston Haitian community, setting up special cultural workshops that confront domestic violence. The Association has a monthly radio show, sets up tables at health fares, and hunts for speaking engagements, be they in churches or on TV, to get the word out about domestic violence.

“This is a human rights issue,” Desire said. “From 1991-2009, we had 11 deaths in the Boston Haitian community from domestic homicide. That’s a lot.”

Despite the homicides and the assaults, Desire is hopeful that progress is being made. Churches are now inviting the Association to come speak.

“Ten years ago churches wouldn’t open the door. Now they welcome us,” Desire said. “I went to a wedding and the preacher was even talking about domestic violence. I said, ‘Oh my God.’ I wondered if this is really in his heart or if he saw me in the audience. I think he just did it from his heart.”

Desire still acknowledges that the challenges to stop domestic violence are daunting. With recent immigration raids, undocumented Haitian immigrants are less likely to seek the help of the police or the law when domestic violence occurs. Traditional attitudes that stress the subservience of women also linger in the community. The greatest challenge within the Association, which once had a budget of $350K but has since shrunk, will be funding. The $30K donation from Desire will certainly go a long way, however.

“I always say I’m a founding member [of the Association of Haitian Women] but it’s not about me, it about getting more women involved,” Desire said.