Conor Bohan is contributing to the emergence of a strong middle class in Haiti by creating a new mindset of upward social mobility among both underprivileged communities and the elite.
The New Idea
Conor is fostering a new mindset of upward social mobility by creating mechanisms and entry points that enable formerly excluded young people to study and work with people from the elite, proving to themselves and society at large that if given the opportunity they are equally capable of achieving and leading. His program, the Haitian Education and Leadership Program (HELP), identifies the most promising youth in disadvantaged communities and enables them to access and excel in leadership positions across all sectors of society. In so doing, he is contributing to dismantling deep-seated class divisions and challenging a pervasive cultural assumption that education and positions of leadership are reserved for the elite.
This change in mindset is enabling Conor to work with leaders across sectors -- universities, companies, and the government -- who are generally from the elite, to create a supporting environment for a more inclusive society. Conor has partnered with universities to re-think and design new practices that will enable underprivileged youth to access and develop their potential through a different type of university education that focuses on an individual's growth as a leader and positive force in society. Conor is also working with the business community to invest in developing a new type of talent that takes no note of one's family background. More recently he has also started working with the government to create a new civil servant program.
Haiti's population is one of the youngest in the world -- 60% are under the age of 24. However, very few Haitian young people have the opportunity to develop their potential because of deep social stratification in Haitian society. Both cultural and historical factors have prevented the development of a middle class.
Culturally, higher education and leadership positions have been reserved for the elite. It is common practice in Haiti when meeting new people to ask who one's parents are; the family name is a standard way of socially relating to others. As a result, coming from a poor family is often accompanied by a feeling of embarrassment and social exclusion. Politically, until recently, governments had a clear policy to deny education to the vast majority of youth. Brain drain was institutionalized by the Duvalier regime in an effort to rid the country of educated opponents. The political and economic instability that followed its collapse in 1986 only increased the flight of the educated class. 84% of Haitians who have earned a university degree since 1964 now live outside of Haiti. This is the highest rate of brain drain in the world among countries with at least 5 million people. Among those who remain, less than 5 percent control 70 percent of the country’s resources.
Social inequality continues to persist because there is a pervasive mindset that opportunities and leadership positions belong to those born into a privileged family; this mindset is reinforcing the same old structures that created these social divisions in the first place.
Conor is seeking to create a new mindset of social inclusion on two levels, among underprivileged communities and among the elite. By investing in a core group of young people who become role models for their communities, he is enabling underprivileged communities to create a new narrative of upward social mobility. The example of these young people in turn inspires self-confidence in others, leading them to see that they too can create positive change.
The HELP outreach program is a reflection of the broader culture of hope and possibility that HELP seeks to create - every year HELP students go back to their communities and speak to 160,000 high school students. HELP asks that all classes within the school attend these meetings so that they reach students of all ages. Further, HELP purposely includes female HELP students in the recruiting teams to prove to all young Haitian women that, like class, gender does not determine achievement; like men, women too can be great electrical engineers, accountants, or lawyers.
Conor has also developed a leadership and citizenship course that encourages students to develop their confidence through self-reflection, and to develop a sense of shared responsibility for their country's future. The course provides them with guidance so that they can discover their core values as change leaders, and focuses on self-awareness and building an identity that includes the capacity for leadership and self-efficacy. Building confidence is one of the most important components of a student’s success because it breaks the social mold that these students have grown up with; students often begin HELP with a poor sense of self-worth or embarrassment about their background and family circumstances. This leadership and citizenship course is complemented by opportunities for students to practice their changemaking skills by developing solutions to real community needs through service learning projects.
Conor is also seeking to collaborate with other organizations that are empowering youth with the confidence to drive change. He is currently in conversations with a Mexico-based organization working with high school students internationally to further spread HELP's leadership and citizenship principles.
Conor seeks to change the mindset among the elite by creating entry points and mechanisms for underprivileged youth to access leadership positions across various sectors of society - universities, companies, and the government -, demonstrating that anyone regardless of their background can positively contribute to building a better society if only given the opportunity. As cultural perceptions are changing, he is engaging these elite leaders in building a favorable ecosystem for a more inclusive society.
Universities experience the leadership and excellence of HELP students firsthand in the classroom and in campus activities. As a result, Haiti's two leading private universities started offering a 10% tuition discount for HELP students, effectively allowing HELP to sponsor 10% more students at each school. For example, for the first semester of the 2013-2014 school year, 40% of HELP students made the Dean’s List, including one student who earned a 96% average at the leading technical university, the highest average in the history of HELP and in the history of the university. In addition, faculty at one of Haiti's leading universities have taken initiative to develop further education plans for their current HELP students so that they can pursue a PhD abroad and return to teach at the university. One of the major private universities has also decided to offer for the first time financial aid to underprivileged students, paving the way to more practices that are inclusive and offer equal opportunity to everyone. HELP is also starting to have an impact on curriculum reform and administrative best practices that are currently making it difficult for underprivileged students to graduate; Conor is able to drive greater institutional reform by having one team member work in partnership with each university where HELP students study.
The positive experience of hiring HELP students has led to proactive involvement of the business community in providing equal opportunity to education. This is a profound change of investment mentality given that corporate philanthropy is uncommon in Haiti. In 2006 HELP received a grant of $6,000 from the local private sector. Since this first grant, the local private sector has contributed close to $1,000,000 to support more underprivileged youth through HELP`s scholarship program. Conor also seeks to influence mindsets from within the companies, starting with the private power utility company, which asked Conor to adapt and provide their leadership and citizenship course to their employees.
Conor is also establishing partnerships with government ministries, for internships, management training programs, and jobs. HELP’s partnership with the Ministry of Energy Security (MSE) includes placing two HELP graduates in their management training program. HELP and the MSE are also co-developing a program to offer university scholarships in exchange for five years of employment at the ministry. This program will create a pool of motivated and highly trained civil servants.
To further expand their reach, Conor has developed a new model inspired by conversations with Ashoka Fellow Felipe Vergara, whereby HELP alumni contribute 15% of their income for the first nine years they are employed. This program reinvests some of the wealth generated by HELP, creating a sustainable source of financing and making students responsible for the long-term success of the program.
Conor traces the origins of his restless spirit for social justice to when he was 17 years-old and watched the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. He was struck by images portraying the stark contrast between the opulence of the two dictators, Michelle Duvalier’s refrigerated fur coat storage room and Imelda Marcos’ shoe closet with over 1,000 pairs of shoes, and the abject poverty of the communities surrounding their palaces. Conor has always sought to understand the broader context of his surroundings. However, being from a relatively privileged background, Conor never experienced want or need at an early age. He realized what a privilege that had been, and after finishing his university education he challenged himself to live outside the support network he had been raised with to see if he could provide for himself. He traveled within Europe for two years, working a variety of jobs. However, as much as he grew from these experiences and learned to provide for himself, he realized that a much more satisfying and meaningful challenge was to also provide for others. With this realization, he found a teaching position at a free secondary school for disadvantaged students in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and moved there in 1996.
At the end of his first semester, one of his top students asked to borrow $30 so that she could enroll in secretarial school. Conor wanted to understand the student's need and how secretarial school would serve that need. After asking these questions and talking with the student about her goals, Conor discovered that she actually wanted to pursue a career in medicine but she had made a calculated decision because medical school was too expensive. Conor saw that her potential should be met with the opportunity to pursue her passions, so with his stipend and money borrowed from friends and family, he paid for her to go to medical school. Reflecting on this exchange, Conor realized that many promising young people in Haiti will not reach their potential because they lack access to a quality education and leadership opportunities. As a result, he started HELP so that students' passion and potential would determine their career path, not their circumstances. For seven years, HELP operated entirely with volunteers and with no office. It was in 2002 that Conor decided to establish their first student center and formally incorporate HELP. For his work and vision, in 2008 Conor was named one of the Hemisphere’s Innovators by the Americas Quarterly Magazine.