Understanding Leadership: Pushing Against Existing Paradigms

An interview with Nedgine Paul Deroly, co-founder and CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti.

by Agnieszka Bulacik, October 28, 2021
Nedgine Paul Deroly

Nedgine Paul Deroly is the co-founder and CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti, which seeks to raise education outcomes in rural Haiti by promoting teacher excellence and student success—rooted in haitian culture, customs, and community. She has experience in the non-profit sector with an emphasis on promoting equal educational opportunities for all children. She was named among the top global social innovators by Echoing Green, was selected for the Forbes Magazine 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs, and is a member of the inaugural cohort of the Obama Foundation Fellowship. She is passionate about joining forces with others to continue pursuing her deep commitment to educational justice. Feel invited to dive deep into our conversation.

Agnieszka Bulacik: So we start these conversations with a simple question: what comes to your mind when you hear the word “leadership”?

Nedgine Paul Deroly: When I think of the word “leadership”, I immediately think of a group. Funny enough, I didn't necessarily grow up thinking about it, because I think what's been normalized is thinking of THE leader in leadership, the person. But I don't think leadership exists unless there is some kind of collective mobilization towards something. And I also think about how a leader can act differently than the boss, in Creole, we use the word “chèf.” I think of a leader as somebody who pushes against existing paradigms and things that have been imposed as normal, as status quo, to do things differently, for the greater good and for mutual advancement.

AB: That's already so dense with meanings. I would like to stop for a while with this collective aspect of leadership because that's part of the work that we'd love to explore deeper. What do you mean, when you talk about collectivity and collective leadership? Do you see any concrete practices to make it visible?

NPD: I think of the ways in which a lot of societies and cultures used to consider "we" rather than "me", and I think about what changed, and what pushed us to think that the egocentric, the "I" focused, is okay. That then helped me understand what it might take to move us back in the other direction again. So in thinking about the community. I tried to think about the ways in which we could revalue and reprioritize, but also make it very concrete, the benefits that come with thinking about "we" first and "us" first. I think that's a little bit of the charge, and the weight of the work that many social entrepreneurs, like us, do. Trying to help people see some of the things that might take a long time to manifest. So when you think about global collective health, and having everyone take responsibility for their actions, for example, in the middle of a pandemic: what you do individually has an impact on global health. But it's hard to think about the benefits for people a few weeks from now or a few months from now. So I think one of the things we need to do differently when we think about collective leadership and collective well-being is how do we make real today the positive impacts of “we” behaviour for the collective. Even if it might take a long time to become real.

AB: Yeah, totally. I'm thinking about the current situation and the pandemic. Our neighbour, a really kind woman, was telling us “if you need something, whatever, just let me know. Even toilet paper - we have so much to share!”(laughs)

NPD: Yes - and what makes somebody have that instinct to say, “I'm going to share and not hoard.” And I think people sometimes reduce it to how you were brought up, but I think it's more than that. I think there are different signals that we get from the media: from the way the news is delivered these days, the way our entertainment is delivered, there's just so much I think that signals to us that we should care about "I" first, "me" first. I would be interested in even just doing a little bit of dissection of figuring out what leads people to be collectivistic, even when everyone tells them not to be.

AB: Yeah, even if you're brought up believing that that's the only path that you have to go forward. And how it's also connected to the Western mindset.

NPD: One hundred per cent! And the idea that it's been exported to be "the normal". So now even when you think about maybe some Asian cultures, I don't know them very well, but I tend to think of their cultures as more collectivistic. It's so interesting that it seems out of the norm in the popular media. People would say “Oh my gosh, look at how different it is. Look at how Chinese classrooms work? How kids collectively cleaned up?” Why is that so amazing rather than saying this is the norm, everything else is a deviation from the norm.

AB: I was lately thinking about that also in the frame of, you know how some people address us saying, “Wow, that's so great that your work is meaningful, and in social service”. And I'm like, why is it not the norm?! Why do we agree on something less than that? Why do we agree with doing the work that is not of service?

NPD: Yes, that's exactly it. When do some things become unquestioned? Why did it become unquestioned for leadership to be about the "I" and even entrepreneurship to a certain extent is getting very "I" focused, which is always very concerning to me. Even social entrepreneurship, for some strange reason, has become very egocentric. And so I think we have to also wonder, what is it about modern psychology that makes people unquestioned what the status quo has been?

AB: I see that there's a lot of focus on investing in “you” in social entrepreneurship. And I'm really curious to hear about your strategies to collectivise your leadership?

NPD: One for us was about how we got from "we" to "I" in Haitian culture. We had to go through a period of identifying the traumas that led to that. Identifying that together has had people have "aha" moments - moments of a revelation by themselves. So I can't tell Stephanie, I can't tell Michelle when it started to become okay in her head for the focus to be on her instead of on the community. But when we go through the process of identifying traumas collectively, like: what was your first day of school memory? What was the moment where you realized that there's trauma in the classroom? What was the moment when you realized our mother tongue, Kreyòl, is not acceptable, but we have to speak French? All of those moments are part of the trauma experience, so identifying them collectively, but never saying, this is the way trauma happens, allowing everyone to have their own healing moment, is part of that. Because I don't think you can build on really, really destroyed Earth, right? So we have to heal that Earth and try to figure out how to make that soil healthy again. And then from there, we start to build the collective. 

By building the collective, one of the things that we realized is powerful for us is our culture. Actually using our culture: using proverbs using music, using games, folklore, oral histories, because there's so much of our culture that has been repressed, in order to satisfy the status quo of I, I, I. So what we do in our work - we literally have storytelling time. We'll recreate some games that we were told, that once you hit five years old, you can't play this anymore. We tried to just tap into some of the cultural aspects, such as: I can't win if we don't win this game. The only way you can win a game is if everybody wins. The only way you can tell some folk stories in Haitian culture is if everybody has a piece to play. So if one person is not in the circle, the full story is not told. The way we sing songs: you can't sing songs with one voice. There are no solos in some Haitian songs, it's groups. I think the ways in which we revalue and recenter our culture is the ways in which collective norms start to become normal. 

The other piece of it too is bringing in the maximum of people who look and feel different. So what we realize is: our work cannot just be about teachers. Students have to be part of it. Parents are now part of our work. School directors are part of our work, our neighbours. I think the more we start to visually, literally see a manifestation of diversity, the easier it becomes to see the benefits of working in the collective. 

The last piece is the data. I don't start with the data, but I think data is helpful, because like I said before - if the benefits are not quantitative to a certain extent, and clear, it's hard for some people to understand it. So five years ago, people were saying our work would be crazy and imaginary and fluffy. Now we have the data to back up some of the ways in which things are transformed quantitatively. And honestly, sometimes you have to define what you're quantifying. Sometimes I had to redefine it. I'm not going to use your measures, your definition of what success means. But here's what success looks like for us. And we're going to track it over time. But I'm not going to adopt your definition of success just to make you happy.

AB: I admire you for your courage and clarity and the way you do your work in such an unapologetic, and brave way. I am really curious to hear about your path: where did you collect the strength from, or which were the moments that were transformative for you and made it clear for you that this is the way you want to do your work? 

NPD: It's interesting, I don't know if you've had this experience, but I'm realizing more and more that there are people who helped unlock these ideas within me in ways that I didn't recognize them. I remember in primary school, I had this teacher who was so strict. But I'm realizing there are some things I do, that are part of being unapologetic, that all kids can succeed, and that's what she wanted us to understand. But at 12 years old, you don't get it. You just don't like the strict teacher. She was saying, “You all don't believe what others are telling you you are capable of. Here is my bar and I'm not negotiating with that bar of excellence. You can get there!”. And we did. And I'm realizing that some things I do are like Madame Salomon. (laughs) It's crazy. So anyway, there's a lot of people and moments like that. A lot of it is shaped by people around me, which is another vote for the collectivistic way, of being raised and being introduced to other stimuli outside of the status quo.

So one, definitely my parents. When we moved to the US, they still said “Haitian culture will come alive in our home and don't let anybody be ignorant enough to make you feel bad about being an immigrant”. So all of that was also part of our upbringing. It was about being proud instead of ashamed or fearful of talking about our identity. 

Number two, was this push that Haitian identity was misunderstood. When we moved outside of Haiti there was a lot of stuff associated with Haitian identity, including the incorrect claim that AIDS came from Haiti. There was all this craziness that was all false. I'm grateful that in a push to inform the ignorant, I started to realize that even if you're getting messages from the "powerful", those images could be false. That motivated me to want to uncover how much is false, how much is pushed as a narrative without truth. I think that's what, after my parents, encouraged me to study history. I majored in history in university and I think that also helped me understand how powerful history is. But it's their history, it's not our history, and it's not messy or complex enough to capture the full truth of any people in any community in any country. 

The third piece of why I think I push against the status quo is that I have been in the presence of and worked with, and lived in communities where I have seen genius die and I am terrified of how generations are losing genius because they're trying to conform to something that was created generations ago by a couple of people in two countries. I think it's ridiculous. And I'm terrified that things like capitalism and the ways in which Western hegemony has just swept across the globe remain in fact unquestioned. So I am excited about the genius that will be unleashed in the coming years if we even give it a chance to flourish.

AB: Your work is strongly related to challenging present colonial reality. How do you deal with topics of decolonization in your work?

NPD: I was just on a call the other day where I was like “we have to decolonize our education system”. I think the clarity of words is helpful. And, honestly, I wasn't necessarily this way, 10 years ago. I would try to tell everyone, let's talk about this for a while until I dropped this word. But I realized that while they'll forget the 50 words you use to describe decolonization, they're gonna remember decolonization. They're gonna remember that one word. So I've been encouraged and I'm working towards being even more succinct and concise with the words even when they're labelled controversial. Because you will feel something when I say “decolonize”. And usually, that gut reaction is because you know, it comes from a place of truth. We got to use the words and I worry that the culture of fear that is being stoked in all parts of the world these days, is so that we get away from the very clear: this is truth. That is false. This is colonialism. This is capitalism. We have to use the words and I think, the more we do it together, the more it becomes normal to be on the stage in a big, big conference, maybe, and use words that otherwise maybe just be said in private groups.

Continue reading here.

About the Author

Agnieszka Bulacik

Agnieszka Bułacik is a queerfeminist creative and facilitator with a broad history of working in culture, arts, and education; she is the co-founder of new visions, an educational collective supporting cultural practitioners, change-makers, communities, and organizations in adopting new practices and approaches to become more equitable and inclusive. She has deep experience in holistic anti-discrimination and critical global education and has facilitated numerous workshops across Europe impacting various groups by creating spaces for uncomfortable conversations about discrimination and belonging and unlocking capacities of imagination, compassionate self-reflection and critical thinking. 

“new visions in conversation" is a series dedicated to talks about love and justice, truth and power, and paths to spiritual and political awakening with inspiring leaders and role models, whose work and everyday practices bring us closer to one another, acknowledgement of our interconnectedness, and justice for all. lead by members of new visions - an educational collective supporting cultural practitioners, change-makers, communities, and organizations in adopting new practices and approaches to become more equitable and inclusive and focusing on what leadership is and how collective leadership can look and feel like.