Planting seeds of leadership

Esther Pierre went from instructor to principal and learned lessons of participatory leadership along the way

Rising early in the morning, Esther Pierre takes a colorfully painted bus, or tap-tap, through dense Port-au-Prince traffic to her job as principal at a school in Kafou Fèy, home to some of the most vulnerable people in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.

Kafou Fèy still contains visible damage from the 2010 earthquake, and gang violence is prevalent. Nestled in this urban area, the school’s pink walls and flourishing palm trees are a tranquil contrast to the bustling roads and precarious housing just outside its walls.

Pierre admits that even she did not fully understand the realities of life in this area when she began working at Fondation Oecumenical pour la Paix et la Justice (FOPJ; Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Justice) in 2001.

“It is in working with them that I have come to learn the living situation is terrible. There are people who are so vulnerable and marginalized,” she says.

A view of Kafou Fèy as seen near Ecumenical Centre for Peace and Justice (FOPJ). This neighbourhood is home to most of FOPJ's students and is among the most marginalized areas of Port-au-Prince. MCC photo/Alexis Kreiner

FOPJ is a private primary school and long-term partner of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Haiti. The school provides an affordable education for some of the most vulnerable youth in Port-au-Prince, including restaveks (children working as servants) and youth at high risk for gang involvement.

MCC provides both financial and material support as well as trainings for FOPJ staff on conflict resolution and nonviolence, mental health and trauma, and administrative best practices.

“Esther is a remarkable Haitian leader with a vision of educational opportunity for marginalized children that resonates deeply with MCC’s peace witness and support for the most vulnerable among us,” says Rebecca Shetler-Fast, the MCC representative in Haiti. “Supporting FOPJ’s work, under Esther’s leadership, is our way of partnering in FOPJ’s vision and model of access to compassionate and quality education for all Haitian children.”

Pierre began working at FOPJ as an instructor. She had a welcoming smile and patient ear which eventually lead her into teaching conflict resolution in the classroom, and she was later promoted to principal.

What started as just a job turned into a passion as Pierre began to learn more about the students’ lives and the role FOPJ could play in making a difference not just for the students, but for the community. She was inspired by the vision of providing education to students who wouldn’t be able to afford it, giving them more opportunities than their circumstances normally would allow.

“You don’t just work here to make a living – you work here to enter into the mission!”

Esther Pierre is the principal at FOPJ (Ecumenical Center for Peace and Justice), a private primary school and long-time MCC partner in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

While Pierre manages the general administrative and organizational tasks of the school, she also takes time to get to know students, understand their lives and form relationships with families and community members.

“I want to make a plan to help children learn better. It is important to create an atmosphere for children to learn where they are loved, cared for and where they have rights.”

While her work at FOPJ for the past 17 years has had a significant impact on students, Pierre also believes she has gained invaluable skills working with such a vulnerable population.

“My work with FOPJ has given me a lot of experience in people’s lives – knowing people, how to connect with them, how to talk to them, how to receive them. It has given me maturity. It is the kind of maturity that you construct over time, and it allows me to live with people in a new way.”

Pierre describes the leadership approach she takes as “relational leadership.” She places high priority on involving everyone in a decision, even students. On their first day, students sit with Pierre to review the behavior expectations of the school in addition to helping set expectations for their own behavior. With students contributing to their own classroom guidelines, Pierre has seen more students participate in class.

Esther Pierre accompanies a student in the courtyard at FOPJ. MCC photo/Alexis Kreiner

She also believes it’s important to work alongside parents to understand what is happening in the home and community around her students. “When you are working with people who are marginalized, you cannot just make a decision for them. You must walk alongside them. They need to participate in what you are saying or doing for the best results,” she says.

For many students at FOPJ, safety and stability in their community can seem like an impossible dream. Pierre’s goal is to see her students mature and learn and return to the community as agents of change. She believes students at FOPJ can be active, influential members of society, speaking out against injustice and violence. The kind of relational leadership she models is passed on to her students.

She reminds her students: “You can leave the community in your mind and spirit because you think a new way and act differently… But if you stay there physically, you can share this with other people and they can see you as a model. If everyone leaves, who can help others? There will be no one.” 

Widlyn Lonet is a primary school student at FOPJ, where she and other students benefit from regular meals and training on non-violent conflict resolution, an invaluable life-skill for children living in a neighborhood with high rates of crime and violence. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Pierre works long hours to ensure that everything is running smoothly at the school, staying late to finish tasks or care for students. She admits that the changes in students and community are rarely immediate and often hard to see, but this doesn’t discourage Pierre in her work.

“The changes are not always visible,” she says. “Sometimes, it is just like planting many seeds…”

Pierre is optimistic for the future of FOPJ students and the community of Kafou Fèy. She believes that the work of FOPJ instills hope for families by providing accessible education. She wants to see FOPJ become a model school for others in the community, showing the importance of educating vulnerable youth in the area.

“We want the students to become messengers,” says Pierre. “We want them to share the message of hope and light with other people where they live.”