The city’s Human Rights Commission in partnership with Medgar Evers College hosted a discussion between some of the city’s notable Caribbean-Americans at Medgar Evers College on Sept. 20. The event titled, “Honoring Our Culture, Realizing Our Rights: A Celebration of Afro-Caribbean Communities,” gathered several city agency commissioners to share their experiences as black Caribbean-Americans and their pathway to achieving their roles.
Guest speakers there to talk about their experience were state Sen. Roxanne Persaud, the commissioner of Department of Finance Jacques Jiha, Gregg Bishop, the commissioner of Small Business Services, and Mark Chambers, the director of sustainability at the Mayor’s Office. All of whom are of Guyanese, Grenadian, Haitian, and Jamaican background respectively. Brittny Saunders, deputy commissioner for the of human rights agency, who is also of Jamaican descent moderated the discussion.
The panelists discussed their journey as immigrants or children of immigrants, facing discrimination, and working their way up the ladders in their fields. And the institutions that provided opportunities that would play an assisting role in who they are, said Bishop.
“My mother overstayed her visa and was undocumented before she was a nanny for a while, putting herself through school at City Tech,” he said. “And when she graduated she ended up working at Downstate. So when we talk a lot about institutions, they are critical for changing generations because I would not be sitting on this stage right now if not for those institutions and her determination.”
The conversation approached the topic of bias and discrimination. Commissioner Jacques Jiha says as a non-English speaking immigrant, he dealt with a series of hurdles. He recalled being paid less for the same job that he and another employee worked for, and within a year of reporting the discrimination, he became the boss of the recruiter who allowed the unjust action to happen, stressing the importance of knowing your rights as an immigrant.
“I know for sure that if I know what I’m doing, I’m going to overcome every obstacle you put in my way,” said Jiha. “And I tell people all the time, educate yourself and get as much as you can get, because at the end of day it’s what you know that matters.”
State Sen. Persaud also talked about a series of prejudicial incidents she encountered in workplace meetings, real-estate, and the anti-immigrant attitudes she often faced. But she was able to stay afloat by self-encouragement and being outspoken.
“If you don’t speak, people will continue to walk over you,” she said. “Those are some things we go through and it made us stronger people because we know what the opportunities we came here for and not going to allow anyone to take that from us. People left the homes they have because of the promise for a better life, and that’s what motivated me to continue striving to move up the ladder.”