Collaborating to Embrace the Most Vulnerable Haitian Migrants: Center for Workforce Development to Host Conference Aimed at Fostering the Well-Being of Haitian Mothers and Children Through Community-Based Partnerships

Haitian mothers and children

For two members of the William James College community in particular, the humanitarian crisis that persists in Haiti is not simply devastating, it’s deeply personal. “For those of us who live in the diaspora, home is always very close to our heart,” says Gemima St. Louis, PhD, Vice President of Workforce Initiatives and Specialty Training, Center for Workforce Development, calling to mind the mythical Sankofa bird. According to an African proverb, its protruding chest and backward glance symbolize the importance of never forgetting where one came from—especially when moving forward in pursuit of new opportunities. It’s a sentiment with which Gina Dessources Benjamin, LICSW, Associate Director of Clinical and Community Services, Center for Workforce Development, also resonates. Both St. Louis and Benjamin were born and raised in Haiti (the former until she was an adolescent, the latter for just a short time). To call their watching the unwelcome reception that Haitian migrants have experienced as they attempt to settle in communities throughout the state excruciating feels like a gross understatement. As Haitians and mothers, their joint interest in advocating for safe, welcoming, and compassionate healing spaces for Haitian mothers and their children in the wake of the ongoing migrant crisis remains top of mind.

 “Despite seeking a safe haven here, Haitian migrants are seen as a burden [and made to feel] unwanted which, for individuals who have experienced multiple traumas in their home country—and, we suspect, even more during their migration journeys—is both painful and traumatic,” says St. Louis. Among mothers and children, the stakes are even higher, which is why this year’s Haitian Mental Health Conference seeks to illuminate the vulnerabilities among this group in particular. On May 10, William James College and the Haitian Mental Health Network are co-sponsoring—Stronger Together: Fostering the Well-Being of Haitian Mothers and Children Through Partnerships—an in-person community gathering aimed at bringing awareness to, and focusing on the human aspect of, the ongoing migrant crisis. 

“We have a sense of responsibility as global citizens, and fellow human beings, to at a minimum bear witness,” says Benjamin, emphasizing that—amidst a sea of “powerlessness and paralysis” that nothing can be done—sitting with one person and leaning into their story, their suffering, and “what keeps them motivated” amidst steep challenges is a simple albeit profound first step.

An overwhelming response, from grassroots organizations seeking to address migrants’ most pressing needs, has unfurled on a local level. From providing support with cultural and linguistic responses to mental health needs to rallying folks to bring food, clothing, diapers and other everyday essentials, the community-based effort has been impressive.

“It is incumbent upon us to take action,” says St. Louis who, in helping to organize this conference, sought to elevate the voices and concerns of Haitian migrants whose struggle is disproportionate to that of other groups. “Historically, we know that immigrants who are Black and brown have not always been welcomed [in the United States],” she adds, emphasizing the complexity of the issue at hand. As such, the conference aims to shed light on the social, emotional, psychological and traumatic impacts of the migration journey on Haitian mothers and children; raise awareness of culturally appropriate strategies to address the mental health needs of Haitian mothers and children; provide critical resources that clinicians, educators, and community leaders can utilize; support state, local, and community-based agencies that are engaged in the resettlement efforts; and advocate for safe, welcoming, and compassionate healing spaces for Haitian mothers, children, and families.

“Research shows that children who have the opportunity to grow in a healthy environment—and who develop strong attachment bonds with their parents, especially their mothers—thrive, not only during infancy, but well into their adulthood,” says St. Louis of the impact healthy attachment has on the duration of an individual’s life. The concern is that mounting challenges among Haitian mothers—from finances and housing to childcare and personal safety—will ultimately have a direct impact on the well-being of their children, especially when access to care is severely limited. 

  “Many Haitian mothers, who are staying at shelters, don’t have access to basic resources like cooking facilities,” says Benjamin, pointing to added layers of challenge that can make getting proper nutrition, for breastfeeding mothers and their children, difficult if not impossible. These and other often invisible factors, when compounded, not only affect maternal bonding but also put mothers’ health at risk.

“Maternal mental health matters,” explains St. Louis, using a statement that acknowledges the reality of postpartum depression despite it not being widely discussed. This, on top of the myriad of psychosocial and economic challenges, “is a recipe for disaster unless we are intentional about attending to the needs of these moms and their babies,” she adds, pointing to Benjamin’s ongoing work as essential.

 “Collaborating with community-based organizations is a critical piece of the work,” says Benjamin, pointing to a wealth of expertise that’s often missed when community leaders and organizations with the cultural and linguistic capacity to do the work are overlooked due to a lack of capacity and infrastructure. As such, the upcoming conference will highlight the importance of community partnerships which serve as a bridge to connect government entities with local resources that have been doing the grassroots work. “Building trust within the community is essential to moving any initiative forward,” she says, which is why Benjamin advocates for an intentional approach to supporting and funding those organizations committed to building on-the-ground relationships where resources are needed most. Amidst a workforce shortage crisis, Benjamin is actively engaged in a parallel pursuit.

“Recruiting an underrepresented workforce who we can train, develop and retain to work in underserved communities, at a time when we're experiencing such a workforce shortage crisis, [is key]” says Benjamin, who also serves as Director of the Community Health Workers Training Program. By recruiting individuals with lived experience, there exists an opportunity to engage folks with deep experience doing the work who have remained in entry-level positions due to a lack of formal training or education. The program offers a wealth of support from mentorship and career coaching to ongoing professional development that promote growth while increasing access to opportunities down the line; it also comes with a stipend aimed at addressing some of the same social determinants of health—from childcare and housing to food security and transportation—the Community Health Workers’ clients may be experiencing.

“I'm always a champion for those who hail from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, because that's what the community needs: people who look like them, who speak their language, and who understand where they are coming from,” says Benjamin, coming full circle and evoking the Sankofa bird:

“We are preparing a workforce to give back and to look back on those who may be in a similar situation looking to advance and move forward themselves.”