Max Jean-Louis belongs to the alumni network of the ifa CrossCultureProgramme (CCP). He took the pictures as part of a journalist training course that CCP offered its alumni for reporting on culture and civil society.
In February 2021, on a promising sunny morning in the Parc Historique de la Canne-à-Sucre, a former sugar plantation now swallowed by the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, activists from across Haiti’s civil society gathered where once slaves cut cane. They had come to discuss the rights of Black people around the world.
One young, slim man seemed to stand out. He had a ready smile and resolute voice, an appealing and reassuring presence. He stopped time and again, showing his interest in and attention for others. For example, at one point, he was checking the level of comprehension of the English language of several attendees, since some contents on that day were available only in the language of Shakespeare.
The man's name is John Sley Pierre, 28, a lover of history, culture and law. Over the years, he has built an impressive reputation. Since the age of 15, he has committed himself to several organisations, such as Fondasyon Felicite and Université Quisqueya. He is also the main organiser of this gathering.
For the last year, Pierre has been the Strategic Associate and Haiti's Ambassador for Interconnected Justice (ICJ). ICJ is a Pan African platform connecting Africans and people of African descent across the diaspora for collaborative action. Pierre joined this organisation because he believes that actions by the African diaspora could have a significant impact. His goal is to harness the talent and power of Africa and its diaspora to help his ailing country. In this way, by launching an online TV channel, ICJ has been highlighting the recent tragedies that Haiti experienced in the past months, from the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July 2021, to the recent crisis at the border between the U.S.A. and Mexico caused because of the arrival of more than 12,000 Haitian refugees.
In recent years, Haiti has been shaken by political instability, inequalities, social injustice, and chronic poverty. As a result of his involvement with ICJ, Pierre helps tackle some of those challenges. For example, at the next town hall meeting that he is planning to come up with further ways to stimulate a global response to the multidimensional nature of the crisis Haitians are facing. ICJ is lobbying in the U.S.A. and beyond for justice for the Haitian people who are suffering from chronic poverty and increasing insecurity. On the other hand, when the earthquake hit the south of Haiti in August 2021, Pierre raised thousands of dollars with a group of partner organisations from the diaspora to assist those people who lost everything following the disaster. With networking at the core of its actions, ICJ has ensured that human dignity is respected in the provision of humanitarian assistance. More importantly, beyond the natural and man-made disasters which Haiti has experienced, ICJ is empowering young entrepreneurs like Max Domercant, who is the CEO of a tourism agency and a massage business, to increase their existing income.
History defines many of Pierre's actions, and respect towards his ancestors has always been a key marker in his life. Before joining ICJ, John Sley was involved with 'Fondasyon Felicite', and was a regular at the annual celebration of Haiti's Independence Day on January 1, when 'joumou', the traditional pumpkin soup, is cooked in Haiti: in public squares, at historical sites, at big crossroads and even in the Haitian diaspora in the U.S.A., Togo and Benin, to be distributed to thousands of fellow citizens and foreigners. "This action perpetuates the spirit of sharing and solidarity established by the Haitian ancestors," he told us. The tradition holds particular importance for John Sley, born on the following day, which is Ancestry Day in Haiti, a national holiday.
Using ICJ, Pierre is able to combine facilitating a greater understanding and appreciation of African heritage with the need to look forward. "I love the law, which in my opinion is an essential discipline when you want to understand and know the history of a people or group," he told us. In his position, he can conceive and foster initiatives on the ground to defend the right of minorities, promote socio-economic inclusion as well as fight discrimination and stereotypes in Haiti and in the Pan African world. For example, together with ICJ and Congo Tomorrow, Pierre has helped to train over 250 young people in the Democratic Republic of Congo to respect women's rights and economic justice. In addition, Pierre has implemented with ICJ and Athari Collective a Fellowship Opportunity in the Cryptocurrency Industry that will benefit a young man or woman of African descent living in the US. Over the course of six weeks and under the tutelage of a prominent company's executive team, the Fellow will gain a cursory understanding of the key facets of the cryptocurrency industry through hands-on experience and direct mentorship from senior officers. "I am very proud of this opportunity that we have created because it opens so many doors for the future," Pierre told us.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of Pierre's activities are organized remotely. We met him in his garden, a little green oasis composed of extravagant plants, trees and flowers such as cherry trees, mango trees, ferns, and hibiscus, among others. When working from home, he is usually on Zoom working with young activists in Haiti, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d'Ivoire and other countries. These virtual connections echo the history of Haiti and Africa: from 1502 to 1793, hundreds of thousands of Africans were brought by the French to work on the plantations in Saint-Domingue (Haiti’s name during that time). Most Haitians are of Afro descent, but not all are aware of this connection. "The education system is Haiti is very ineffective in that sense. Of course, young Haitians today learn that African slaves were brought to Haiti during the colonisation, but that’s all they know. They don't know anything about the long-lasting connection between Haiti and the African continent," Pierre stated. John Sley's activism relates to Pan Africanism, a movement that aims to encourage and strengthen bonds of solidarity between all indigenous and diaspora ethnic groups of African descent by raising awareness among coming generations.
On the day we met him in his garden, he was discussing several activities scheduled throughout August 2021 to celebrate the life of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican Black nationalist and well-known leader of the Pan African movement. During his lifetime, Garvey brought his vision of Pan Africanism to several countries around the world. The First International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, presided by Garvey in 1920 in New York, attracted approximately 2,000 delegates from 22 countries. Garvey’s message, according to his biographer E. D. Cronon, was unequivocal, "A Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness." In his Zoom meetings with leaders in the Pan African world, John Sley uses new technologies to pursue Marcus Garvey's mission. Being humble, Pierre declares, "I think that all I am doing is a decent minimum compared to the action of this exceptional man."
Like several other countries that experienced the slave trade, Haiti is still coping with issues such as colourism (discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone) and other forms of prejudice. Of even greater concern: since its independence in 1804, racism has been at the root of the entire history of international relations between Haiti and other developed countries.
The end of slavery and the recognition of Haitian independence in the nineteenth century was one of the major political issues for the colonial powers of the time. Haiti, mostly populated with former Black slaves who defeated the French colonisers, became a pariah state, marginalized, disdained and weakened. During that time, for great powers including the newly independent U.S.A., the country was nothing less than a country of savages, to be subdued and ignored. But for Black people, Haiti served as a legendary Black Mecca, a symbol of the liberation of a country from slavery. Pierre, completely aware of this history, relies on his faith in a better world with no racism, more equality and the prevalence of justice. He is like a torch, an everlasting inspiration for other young people of his generation.