Managing any nonprofit human service organization is a difficult endeavor. But for immigrant organizations the battle is even more taxing, requiring the organization and its participants to function between two worlds—each with a different set of priorities, standards, demands, languages, and cultural protocols. Leadership at such organizations must be particularly agile on the one hand and firmly grounded on the other to handle this bridging function without sacrificing important aspects of the organization. But this and other observations of leadership paradoxes can also be found in other kinds of organizations in communities that are culturally, politically, and economically marginalized.
Multiple studies on leadership have concentrated on the attributes and behaviors of the individual. A major flaw of this approach is that it ignores the environmental and situational factors that condition the leader’s orientation to his or her position in the situation.
While there is fairly wide acknowledgement of the critical role played by nonprofit organizations in building the health and overall viability of immigrant communities, there is relatively little recognition of the demanding complexity involved in leading and managing immigrant organizations. These complexities, in my observation, flow, in large part, from the mix of political histories in the organization; ingrained cultural assumptions and legacies that have been brought forward into the organizational setting; and the group’s experience of being culturally marginalized from the mainstream. All of these components create an organizational “habitat.” Building from empirical investigations in the Haitian community, this article will highlight leadership challenges inside Haitian organizations with the hope that these insights will be relevant to other immigrant and marginalized organizations.
Haitian by birth, I have worked with many community-based organizations over the past 14 years. As the Director of Community Planning at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, I helped design and provide capacity-building initiatives for many different types of nonprofits involved in public health initiatives. Particularly where communities were at special risk for health concerns, I have supported the creation of new organizations and overseen management-consulting services to existing nonprofits. In so doing, I have worked with mainstream American organizations, Hispanic and African American organizations, and immigrant organizations, including a number of Haitian organizations.
Over this decade and a half, I have repeatedly watched otherwise excellent management consultants fail miserably to assess the dynamics of Haitian organizations. Well-meant recommendations and interventions on issues such as constituent involvement, governance, personnel policies, decision-making, and transparency of operations produced little to no meaningful change inside these organizations. It became common to see these organizations involved in lengthy periods of paralysis, chronic conflict, and, sometimes, system-wide disengagement—by staff, board, constituents, and eventually, funders. A number of them have failed entirely.
These observations motivated me to engage in a series of investigations of organizational practices in Haitian-community-based nonprofit organizations in the U.S. This article draws on those empirical investigations, conducted over the last four years in multiple U.S. cities with large Haitian populations. My overarching finding is that cultural norms in the home country have profound and lasting impacts on the ways in which leadership and management are practiced in U.S.-based immigrant organizations. Further, I believe that the situation presents an extraordinarily powerful opportunity for leaders.
My research1 was based on the hypothesis that the repressive politics of the Haitian government have greatly influenced collective action and the formation of organizations in Haiti; and that, in their turn, these institutional experiences in Haiti influence the formation and the development of Haitian organizations in the U.S.
Unfortunately, few organizational studies have seriously looked at the replication of major societal issues in nonprofit organizations. While organization development theory, cross-cultural studies, and comparative management studies have emphasized the organizing power of culture in the way organizations look and act, transnational organizations and immigrant-based organizations in the U.S. significantly push even at the boundaries of this set of constructs. For instance, while most studies on comparative management examine the differences of management practices in organizations immersed in their home environments, a major focus for the ethnic-based organization must be on the adjustment of the interaction between external cultural pressures and the internal dynamics of the organization in its community.
Research conducted over the last four years has evolved from participant observation,2 phenomenonological interviews, and structured focus groups with different Haitian organizations. The major findings can be summarized as follows:
• The reproduction of old patterns of organizing and managing organizations
• The extension of social conflict and social competition inside the organization
• Predispositions about Haitian leadership and cooperative behaviors
Haitians in the United States
Although it is impossible to obtain an exact number of Haitians in the United States, it is estimated that about one million Haitian immigrants live in the U.S.; the largest of these communities are in Miami, New York, and Boston. These communities number 350,000, 300,000, and 70,000 respectively and they include all strata of Haitian society. Haitian organizations exist in all of these communities, easing the transition process of Haitians to the United States and attending to the political, social, and human service needs of community members. With such strength of numbers comes the possibility of maintaining cultural prerogatives, and, as one participant commented, “The Haitian organization in the U.S. can be compared to an organization in Haiti that’s been transported”3—and that trip has involved a lot of baggage.
Haitians created the third major revolution in modern world history. From the successful resistance of slaves and their organizing to defeat in 1804 the most powerful army of that time (the Napoleonic army), Haiti emerged as the first black republic and the second independent nation in the Americas. This caused colonial powers like the U.S. to isolate Haiti as a threat. However, there were major obstacles for development of the new republic. Isolated from the rest of the world for more than a century, Haitian politicians have manipulated the masses, marginalized the peasant society, and claimed power for personal gain, using patronage and coercion to maintain power. The bourgeoisie marchande allied to whomever was in power used commerce for enrichment and to sustain its social positioning. In this context, there is no history of accountable institution and community building. Organization is seen largely as the vehicle for exploitation and self-enrichment. Although some efforts were made in the nation’s history to change this system, these practices have prevailed. Pean summarized the Haitian experience with the following statement:
Very early after the Haitian Independence, the practice of corruption named Plumer la Poule (‘Pluck the Hen,’ in reference to the pillaging of public funds) explained all forms of loss for the nation—loss of credit, trust, knowledge—all together to explain the precariousness of the living conditions and the insecurity.4
The transition of Haitians into the U.S. has not been easy. Many came fleeing political oppression and bring strong feelings about the trustworthiness of political and other leaders. Once here, many have found that the experience of discrimination against Haitians in America is not only multilayered and intense in and of itself, but also reinforces existing divisions in the Haitian community. Very early in life, Haitians see the manifestation of social practices of exclusion: the moun la vil and moun an deyo (the antagonism between peasants and urban settlers). These and other deep divisions based on old class structures actively play out in the practices of Haitian nonprofits here in America. The stakes are quite a bit higher, however, than they might be in more mainstream organizations, because community-based organizations and the politics of the larger Haitian community are often solidly interconnected, with the power structure in those organizations representing the new field for power positioning and reinforcement of class distinctions.
Without understanding these stakes, the contextual politics of the community, and the cultural “markers” of class or power position embedded in a particular political history, a management consultant may be nearly oblivious