Sunday, February 18, 2018

Felicia Persaud and the Caribbean Diaspora


Mark Fraser

IT wasn't that long ago when singer and actor Lenny Kravitz appeared on the Queen Latifah show and spoke about his exposure as a child to West Indian culture and traditions by his mother who had Bahamian roots. His remarks elicited an enthusiastic response from some in the audience who, like Kravitz, could identify with having a West Indian upbringing. But way beyond the doors of that show's studio, there are numerous persons living in the United States who have deeper roots and closer links to the Caribbean.They are Caribbean Americans and among them can be found many success stories.

Take for instance Guyanese doctor Dr Deborah Persaud who copped a spot on Time Magazine's world list of the top 100 most influential people for 2013 when she and her colleagues announced the first functional cure of HIV in an infant. Aside from the medical field, some Caribbean Americans have been drawn into the entertainment industry and work in Hollywood, some play in the NFL and the NBA while others have climbed the corporate ladder, occupy top positions on Wall Street, own businesses or are entrepreneurs like Guyana-born Felicia J Persaud, founder of the award-winning digital media solutions company, Hard Beat Communications Inc that partners with companies aiming to reach the Caribbean diasporo in the US and Canada. Persaud broke the glass ceiling as a Caribbean-born woman doing business in one of the toughest places - New York City.

Persaud has been living and working in the United States for the past 19 years. She's not only a business woman, she's also been a staunch advocate for the rights of Caribbean Americans, her columns and articles on immigration have earned her awards and a special place among immigrant communities. Her day job as Chief Marketing Officer at Hard Beat Communications partly entails promoting the Caribbean as a region to invest in. Day in, day out Hard Beat is reshaping the way investors and foreigners alike see the Caribbean - as much more than sun, sand and sea but as a growing economy and a place to do business.

A few days before my interview with Persaud, I perused her bio which was waiting for me in my inbox. Persaud goes by many titles; she's a media expert, an award-winning journalist, columnist and activist who in 2004 founded Hard Beat Communications Inc. Persaud also saw the creation of three brands, CaribPR Wire, News America and Invest Caribbean Now.

Not long after she migrated to the US in 1995 but way before she started her own business, Persaud pursued a career in journalism. She gained a lot of experience on radio and in the print media in Guyana and when she made the move to New York she began serving in the position of managing editor, assistant editor and contributor for several magazines. Journalism fanned the flames of activism within Persaud and it was during this time that she became even more vocal about the rights of Caribbean nationals living in the US and the critical-yet-neglected issues affecting them. The subject matter of immigration especially struck a cord with her. Persaud researched and wrote on numerous stories about the plight of immigrants living in the US, many of these stories involved undocumented immi-

grants. "Immigration became a personal thing for me because I myself was an immigrant in a new country. I started hearing stories from other people who were immigrants who were having just a hell of a time," Persaud explains.

"Some were undocumented, some were in church trying to get help and they were being sexually harassed by pastors who took advantage of them and threatened to report them to the authorities, there were kids who were in school and were so brilliant but couldn't go to college or accept a scholarship because they were here as an undocumented immigrant. Just heartwrenching stories and that was what really led me to focus on immigration."

Persaud soon discovered that many immigrants were not willing to speak out about their experiences so she became determined to speak for them, advocating for immigration reform, participating in protest rallies and writing letters to President Barack Obama.

"'Especially in the Caribbean community people are just afraid and we have this culture "oh it's my business I don't have to talk about it" so they're going through this trauma but they don't share it - completely unlike what the hispanic immigrants do, they're sharing, they're talking about their stories, they're lobbying, we don't do that in our community enough so I have taken up the mantle whether it's writing about it, whether it's rallying across Brooklyn Bridge and standing out there and saying Caribbeans too need immigration reform. I think that's something you have to do because the voiceless are too afraid to do it in our community," she says.

Even as she enjoyed success and accolades after starting her own businesses, Persaud became even more aware of sticking points that needed attention. She founded Carib ID - a lobbying group that secured bills in 2008 in the US Congress and Senate urging for Caribbean nationals to be accurately counted and to have their own origins census category on US census forms. This was by no means an easy task, it was made even more difficult since the Caribbean American community is not adequately organised to take on such tough issues that require susbstantial financial backing. The bill that would push to provide an origins checkbox on census forms to allow Caribbean nationals and those with Caribbean ancestry to 'check' that category was introduced in the US Senate and in Congress which was a huge milestone.

"But we did not have the financial resources to actually move it to the level it could have gone and I think that's what is missing, we don't have an active lobbying group that can finance this because that's what it's going to take - a lot of money. I don't think people get the bigger picture, we're just so stuck on the small issues,"she says.

So what exactly is the big picture? And if Caribbean nationals don't have their own 'origins' category on US census forms, how does that impact them?

"We have no numbers, we can't readily say how many Caribbean people there are in the US because we have no way to self identify ourselves on the form. It's a big issue and it impacts on everything that we do so we have no real political voting bloc, we have no economic power at least in the eyes of the mainstream - we're not counted, we have no radio station, we have no television station, we have no real media power,"says Persaud.

"Without economic numbers we can't tell our stories, we can't impact any progress significantly... so we're just in a big mass, we know we're out there, we know we have the numbers and the power but we're just not counted in the places that matter."

Persaud is working tirelessly to change that and she's using her entrepreneurial skills and media expertise to do so. World Bank estimates suggest that in the last ten years billions of dollars have been poured back into the Caribbean from all across the US. That alone says we have economic power, says Persaud.

Every year at the Invest Caribbean Now forum which was founded by Persaud, Hard Beat Communications Inc and the Caribbean Tourism Organisation connect representatives from the Caribbean's public and private sector with businessmen hoping to invest in the Caribbean region. CaribPR Wire - another part of Hard Beat Communications- is the only Caribbean-focused AD, PR and news agency designed to reach the Caribbean, Caribbean American and ethnic marketplace and News America- which was also created by Persaud- is the news wire of the Caribbean and Latin America which places a strong emphasis on the Caribbean diaspora. Persaud is also working on a new television series 'Diaspora Now' that will focus on famous and successful Caribbean Americans. This she hopes will boost confidence and engender pride among those within the community.

Speaking out, advocating, building brands, businesses and building wealth back in the Caribbean and among young people - that's the legacy Persaud wants to have, while she has worked in politics before she has no ambition to get involved full time.

"To be a politician you have to be more diplomatic than I am. I am not diplomatic, I speak my mind, I just say it as it is," she says matter-of-factly.

In Persaud's eyes, Caribbean Americans would receive due recognition when there is a category on those all-important US census forms that allows them to identify their origin, where they come from. And she's calling on all Caribbean Americans to mobilise themselves so that this can be achieved.

"The major thing that we need to accomplish is to have a category on the US census form," says Persaud. "If we can achieve that then across the board we will be completely recognised. On a smaller level we just have to come together to keep lobbying and to keep investing in our own."