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Caribbean-American Heritage Month Brown Girl Spotlight: Joanne Antoine, MPP

Joanne Antoine, MPP is an organizer, trainer, and strategist of Haitian-American descent. Joanne currently serves as the Executive Director of Common Cause Maryland. You can find her on social media at @Joanne_Antoine.

Q: What is your first political memory that made you say, “I love politics.”

JA: I was about eight years old and heading up to Northern NJ on a freezing Saturday morning. I remember the day because it was my first time taking a drive that long. I was stuffed in a car full of people on my way to help collect petitions with a union that represented a lot of Haitian workers. I don’t remember what the petition was for or if I even had a clear understanding of what a petition was, but I do remember how very little love there was for our community at the time and how most walked right past the union workers with the heavy Creole accents. At some point, I think they realized having me translate and do most of the talking was their winning strategy. We stood out there for hours and I helped collect most of the signatures. The day sticks out to me because we found a way to stop people who typically ignored us right in their track and forced them to hear what we had to say. Most who were willing to listen signed onto the petition. Not sure I fell in love with politics that day, but I think this is where my love for movement politics began to form.

Q: What made you want to make a career in politics?

JA: I think it just happened naturally. I was organizing before I knew what it was and then later in life someone told me it had a label and I decided to make a career of it. I’m laughing as I write this because I’m still not sure my parents even realize I went petitioning with family as a child and that I’m probably in this field largely because of those experiences. Politics wasn’t ever something we talked about at home. If anything, it was kind of this unspoken rule that it wasn’t for me because I was a woman. They wanted me to become a nurse or an attorney, so It wasn’t until later in life that I felt comfortable acknowledging my love for a field that they wouldn’t necessarily be ok with because of their personal experiences. But I think that’s why I needed to do this work even more, so that I can continue to empower those who think like them and serve as an example to other Haitian or Caribbean girls who want to make the same career choice.

Q: What made you choose the specific field that you work in?

JA: It’s a combination of things for me. I knew coming out of college that I wanted to mobilize Black communities and help build winning campaigns for Black women candidates, with a special focus on those of Caribbean and African heritage. The political power in our communities has and continues to be largely overlooked and I wanted to change that, but I also understood that when these candidates decided to run, they were barely able to complete against the well-funded opposition and that after organizing in states with significant African and Caribbean populations, members of these communities were being discouraged from voting, confused about the process, and intimidated at the polls until they decided to turn away from the process completely. And this is why I decided to work for an organization like Common Cause. I realized that the inclusive democracy that I dreamed of wouldn’t be possible if power wasn’t shifted to the people and their voices made equal.

Q: What have you struggled with the most in your political career?

JA: Imposter syndrome is real. It will have you feeling invisible especially in white spaces where you are the most visible. For a time, I doubted all of my abilities and was barely even capable of celebrating accomplishments because I didn’t feel deserving. And then there’s the guilt that comes with feeling like an imposter because I have the privilege of being in these spaces and should be able to take full advantage of that. It’s honestly something that I continue to work through in therapy.

Q: What has been your proudest moment?

JA: Most recently, my former colleague and I successfully led the statewide effort to allow for registration and voting on Election Day in Maryland! Voters overwhelmingly supported the reform in 2018 and this past session the General Assembly implemented the program. As of last month, its officially law and available for use during the coming election.

Outside of that recent victory, my work on a Haitian woman candidates’ campaign for Mayor in Haiti is definitely a proud moment. She was up against 16 other candidates, all men, and could have been the first woman elected to the position. While she wasn’t victorious, I do believe we managed to build a competitive campaign run on very little resources. She also has a base that is continuing to support her work in that area. That experience confirmed the work that I hope to do in Haiti and throughout the region.

Q: Why is it so critical, now more than ever, for Caribbean-Americans to get involved in politics?

JA: We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines anymore. We need to be proactive because our livelihoods are on the line. When you have an administration that is going through great lengths to suppress our vote, detain and deport members of our community, and discourage us from being counted in the 2020 Census- it’s an attack on us. There is no choice but to get involved in whatever capacity you can. All of our voices are needed. Our democracy is strongest when we’re all involved.

Q: What should politicians be doing better when it comes to engaging the Caribbean-American and all immigrant communities?

JA: Invest in a cultural competency training if you think it's needed and then hire us so we can engage the Diaspora for you. For those candidates that can’t afford to hire staff, ask us to serve in a volunteer advisory roles where we can assist in your efforts to engage these communities. Don’t wait until a few days before GOTV to reach out to us. That tactic is a failing one. Look at 2016 when the Dem candidates waited forever to engage the Haitian community after numerous requests- the current President swooped in and got to them first. Now the Caribbean community does largely vote Dem, but it’s also important to understand that we want candidates to talk to us. Intentional outreach, not just grouping us all into African-American outreach alone which isn’t helping in reaching all Black voters, is key. Tap into our media, create some basic translated literature, use our businesses and restaurants for your events. Do all that you do for other constituencies for us. And again, if possible, hire us to lead the work for you.

Q: What advice do you have for those trying to enter into politics?

JA: Tap into the base of Caribbean American’s already working in politics. We are everywhere (literally). Do you research and then get a mutual contact to do an introduction or just reach out on LinkedIn. We’re here to help you get your foot in the door just as others did for us.

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