Leadership is homegrown. There are hundreds of books written in dozens of language about what it means to be a leader, but that definition is rewritten in each country, each culture, each community. In Cite Soleil, Haiti, for the longest time, leadership was defined as the number of guns you had under your control. As the largest ghetto in the Caribbean, Cite Soleil’s years of gang violence had created an archetype of leadership that was about control, violence, and power – the chief.
Robi had an issue with this image. He was a co-founder of Konbit Soley Leve, a social movement that brought people from rival neighborhoods in Cite Soleil together for community projects. He had seen many “civilian” (i.e. unarmed) young people begin to emerge as leaders, but he also saw that they lacked the community respect they deserved. When people thought of leaders, they didn’t think of these young people who were mobilizing their neighborhoods to build urban gardens, transform their streets, or mentor youth; they still thought of men with guns. And during the summer of 2013, the men with guns were wreaking havoc on Cite Soleil, sparking a turf war that left many civilians dead. Robi saw the confidence he had been building in these young people be drained away by fear and a sense of resignation.
And so Robi launched the Cite Soleil Peace Prize. It was an initiative to select a handful of young leaders who used nonviolent means to change their neighborhoods for the better, and to give them the recognition they deserve. This would serve two purposes: one, it would hopefully give the encouragement that these young leaders needed to keep on the road of social change, and two, it would begin to change the image of what a “leader” meant to the rest of Cite Soleil.
That summer, Robi assembled a committee of respected individuals from Cite Soleil and they selected four honorees. These four people were honored in front of a crowd of thousands of residents of Cite Soleil, and a tradition was born. Every year, a committee selects four to five honorees, and they are presented with honorary plaques and gifts that help their work (such as tools or English lessons). These events are always powerful and meaningful to everyone involved – to the honorees because they are recognized for their hard work, and to the observers because they can think to themselves, “that could be me one day.”
And now, almost four years on, we are beginning to see the results of those shifts in mentality. First, many of the young people have emerged as full-fledged leaders. There isn’t enough space to tell of their stories here, but we can highlight a few:
- Sadrack Joseph from Soleil 4 was among our first honorees, and he was recognized for forming a basketball team that brought people from all neighborhoods together in the middle of the turf wars of 2013. They scraped together resources and often struggled to get home after matches when gunfire was erupting in the streets. Sadrack’s scrappy little Cite Soleil Basketball Team is now an established institution in Cite Soleil, with summer training camps for children, formal coaches training, and civic education activities. Sadrack has developed a partnership with a group called Spring to Cite Soleil and he travels to the United States to speak about his experiences and raise support for his initiative.
- Alashkar Millien from Brooklyn, Cite Soleil, was also among our first honorees. She was recognized for taking a leadership role in the Konbit Soley Leve movement during the violence of 2013, when many others were afraid to step up. Cite Soleil is a hyper-masculine culture, and she overcome a lot of push-back for being a woman taking a leadership role. Not only has Alashkar maintained her strong leadership of the broader movement, but she has also launched Konbit Fanm Leve, a women’s wing, to encourage more women to get involved and develop their leadership capacity. She has also been supporting Konbit Timoun Leve, a youth and children’s wing of the movement, to train boys and girls to become the future leaders of Cite Soleil.
- Samuel Cadet from Bwa Nef was honored in the second round of honorees. He was recognized for his commitment to transforming his neighborhood through urban gardening. Since being honored, Samuel’s level of confidence in his work increased dramatically. He became an expert at using social media to promote his urban renewal projects and encourage others to do the same. He then decided to go beyond social media and trained to become a journalist at Cite Soleil’s Radio Boukman so he could tell stories of urban resilience and renewal to everyone.
- Frantz Francois was also among our first honorees, and was recognized for years of quiet dedication to SAKALA, Cite Soleil’s largest youth center. SAKALA uses sports, arts, and education to teach young people about peace and civic engagement; it is also home to Haiti’s largest urban garden. Since being honored, Frantz has maintained his dedication to youth empowerment but has become a lot less quiet. He has become a powerful spokesperson against violence in his neighborhood, and has spearheaded initiatives to unite youth from different ghettos across Haiti. Frantz has become a ubiquitous presence at any event that brings young people together to build a common vision of peace.
These are just a few stories from the extraordinary individuals who were honored in just the first three classes of Cite Soleil Peace Prize. This year will be the fourth – and time will tell how this next set of leaders will grow.