A Day in the Life of Leonie Hermantin
HangProud, September 2006
by Sophia Dorval
While she has shown a strong commitment to social justice throughout her entire career, Leonie Hermantin has chosen to reject the activist label.
"I have been defined as an activist by others," she says. "I define myself as a justice-loving pragmatist not necessarily concerned about changing the world, but deeply committed to improving the lives of the hard working men and women of my community."
Leone Hermantim photo
Leonie's mother can be credited with instilling her daughter with a lifelong dedication to helping others. "My mother was more of the bohemian who taught me about social justice, about loving one's culture and enjoying other forms of artistic expressions," Leonie recalls. "She taught us to love our country and its history insisting since we were children that we read books written by Haitian authors. She also introduced us to the literature of the civil rights movement and would talk about Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. She was one of the first women in Port-au-Prince to stop perming her hair and sported a Miriam Makeba afro."
Leonie also encountered other women in her youth who had a positive influence on her as she grew up. "The women in my family were my natural role models, from my grandmother the matriarch, who was really strong and powerful; to my aunts who were both professional women, one was a medical doctor, the other a nurse. I remember my great aunt Ydelette, who sold plantains from all over Port-au-Prince to the island of La Gonave. She would take her merchandise on rickety boats to La Gonave and fight and argue with men over business transactions."
She also credits the women in her family with helping her transition from her hometown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti to New York City at the age of twelve. "I went from attending an all girl parochial school in Haiti to attending one of the least desirable urban public schools in Manhattan. These were the anchors which helped me deal with the incredibly different world I was thrown into without warning."
Despite the initial culture shock, Leonie grew to enjoy her time in New York City.
"As a child, growing up under Papa Doc Duvalier was extremely stressful and the experience of being in an environment where one did not have to live in fear was extremely liberating," she says. "Living on Manhattan's Upper West Side in the seventies with Central Park as my backyard was scary and exciting at the same time. It was very different from growing up in Petion-Ville, which was still a sleepy suburb back then. Although extremely sheltered in Haiti, I was given greater freedom to explore my environment in New York. I used to go to the Museum of Natural History, hang out on Broadway and just enjoy the hugeness and anonymity of New York."
She went on to study Latin American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where she graduated with a Juris Doctor degree. "My major deepened my understanding of the social forces which shape the Americas," she says of her choice of studies. "My social activism was nurtured at home and the degree gave me the tools and skills to address certain issues from an educated and well researched perspective."
In 1993, Leonie moved to Miami, and became immersed in the city's Haitian and Haitian-American community.
"Having had to raise children in this community has compelled me to become more socially active in the South Florida community. I did not like the way Haitians were perceived and treated and I understood that if I did not become part of the solution, I would contribute to the perpetuation of the problem."
One effort that Leonie is proud have to been a part of in her fight to combat the negative perceptions of Haitian in South Florida and to improve the lives of the immigrants living in the city was working with Sant La, a Neighborhood Center located in the neighborhood of Little Haiti whose services include an archive and research library, access to health services, and skills based training sessions. "Under the incredible leadership of a phenomenal Haitian woman, Gepsie M. Metellus," Leonie says, "I was part of a team of fearless women who nurtured and grew the agency from one with three staff members in 2001 to one of the major service providers it is today."
During her fifteen years in Miami, Leonie has noticed many positive changes as an effect of hers and countess others' efforts to help Haitian immigrants and Haitian-Americans overcome any obstacles they encounter: "There are at least eight Haitian-Americans elected to office, many are serving on prestigious boards, and more people are accessing services offered in a culturally and linguistically sensitive environment."
Leonie also serves as the deputy director for the Lambi Fund, a non-profit organization that provides aid to people in rural areas of Haiti, and is also on the board of directors of the Little Haiti Housing Association, a group that seeks to provide affordable housing to those living in Little Haiti and its neighboring communities.
And just how does one as busy as Leonie manage to squeeze time into her workday to hang out with her family and for her favorite shows?
"Working from my home office gives me a lot of flexibility and allows me to be an at-home mom, but it also means that I have the opportunity to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m."
Leonie has had numerous awards bestowed upon her, including being considered by the Miami Herald as an up and coming leader in the South Florida community. Despite all this, she stresses that she couldn't have done it all alone.
"There are many things that I have accomplished within the context of a collective effort. An activist must be a team player, and understand that credit must be shared by all whose collective efforts make a difference. Activism should not be about personal glory but about achieving the desired goals. It is not about expecting gratitude from those who benefit from your efforts, but it is about doing the work because it is the right thing to do."