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Caribbean-American Heritage Month 2019 Guest Contributor Post: Empowering My Community By Karen Andr

I believe my purpose is tied to using my skills connections and training to create community, facilitate healing, empowerment, and opportunities for people of color. Long before Issa Rae, I was rooting for everybody Black! During my first semester of college, I knew I would not make it to medical school as my Haitian mother wished. Every Caribbean and African parent expects their children to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer/architect or some other lofty profession. My first priority was to find a major that would empower me to help black people. I had read enough black history, particularly the history of enslaved people in America, to know that there was much healing to be done in my community. So, I decided to declare psychology as my major. I hoped to help black people heal from generational trauma visited upon them beginning with the transatlantic slave trade to modern times. That was a pretty tall order, I now see, but 17-year-old logic doesn't always take scale into account. I was a first generation college grad and had to figure it out on my own.

I then went on to pursue a law degree, inspired by legal giants such as Thurgood Marshall, the first black US Supreme Court Justice and Nelson Mandela, who many forgot started out as an attorney. I had dreams of being a catalyst for social change. Those dreams were not fully vetted, but off I went on my white horse. Without mentorship, I soon learned how difficult it is to affect change in the legal system. Still, I persisted and became an immigration attorney, hoping to help immigrants from my familial homeland of Haiti. The late 90s were a turbulent time in Haiti which lead to a spike in the number of refugees fleeing political persecution on the island.

Consequently, a bill was introduced in Congress to provide immigration relief to refugees from Central America and Eastern Europe (NACARA). The Haitian community, which was similarly situated, was left out of the legislation. When community advocates pressed the bill sponsors, they flatly replied that adding Haitians would have “killed the bill”. The snub and obvious indifference stung mightily. I was a newly-minted law graduate at the time and full of fire and zeal. I felt it was time that a new crop of Haitian attorneys jump into the fray to find a pathway for the beleaguered refugee community. I pressed the Haitian Lawyers Association president at the time about using our legal training to continue the fight for fair treatment of Haitian immigrants. He agreed and we joined the ranks of the other veteran attorneys and community advocates.

Thankfully, our Congresswoman from Miami at the time, was the legendary Carrie Meek. Following her legislative lead, a bevy of community advocates, immigration attorneys, and community allies such as SEIU labor union, lobbied Congress to create a bill for Haitian immigrants. We made several trips to Capitol hill for grass roots lobbying. including a day of action, uniting Haitians from across the U.S. That all seems rote by today’s standards but we were mobilizing prior to the internet, social media or even cell phones. This was grass roots lobbying at its core. We sent real people, including Haitian grandmas on buses, and planes to DC to lobby on their own behalf in their own voice.

Over the course of a year, I watched as our Congresswoman skillfully navigated the powerful pathways of Congress on behalf of her constituents. Her son, then State Representative and future Congressman, Kendrick Meek assisted in any way possible. As a result of the Congresswoman’s efforts and the unrelenting advocacy of the community leaders and lawyers, we were successful in passing the Haitian Refugee immigration Fairness Act of 1998 (HRIFA). That single piece of legislation impacted the lives of up to 20,000 people. It was then that I knew I wanted to work in politics because I saw first-hand how it afforded opportunities to create policies and legislation that impact thousands or millions of lives in one fell swoop.

That same passion for lifting up the defenseless, the oppressed, the voiceless, and for those facing discrimination, led me to later work for Congresswoman Frederica Wilson when she was a state senator, a member of Congress, SEIU, the largest labor union in Florida at the time, all the way to the White house after helping elect and re-elect Barack Obama. In each of those roles, my goal has been to level the playing field, influence policy, and support organizations and leaders doing work to help the disenfranchised in this country.

In short, I'm passionate about racial and social justice, environmental justice, and creating a truly egalitarian society. As a natural-born speaker, servant leader, and organizer, I feel it is my duty to use all of the advantages afforded me in life to serve a greater purpose for my fellow man. I feel most alive and useful when I am empowering my community.

Karen Andre is an attorney, political strategist, and professional speaker who has dedicated her life to public service and advocacy. She is principal of the Andre Group.

Recently, she served as a Senior Advisor to Andrew Gillum, and from 2014-2017 was the White House Liaison for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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