Wesley Laîné MAIPS ’14 has spoken at the Clinton Global Initiative, delivered the graduation speech at the Sciences Po Law School in Paris, and appeared on the front page of the New York Times with his classmates when he participated in Harvard’s first commencement for black graduate students. But if you are to ask him what place or moment in his life matters most, he will always return to his native Haiti.
In the fall of 2012, a student turned a class exercise about a love triangle and alligators into a passionate but playful debate on the morals of intervention and neutrality. The student was Wesley Laîné, and it was his very first day at the Institute; the exercise was a part of new student orientation. Despite the weighty direction of the conversation, the debate never got hostile or contentious, but felt meaningful and open.
Laîné lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, until he was 12 years old and his family moved to Oklahoma City. His father, a minister who had put himself through law school in the evenings, had deep ties in the community, and the family decision to leave was not an easy one. “He bet on us,” Laîné says. “Like most parents in Haiti, my parents dreamed their kids would have it better than they did.” He says that his family had “crawled” its way to the middle class by the time they left, but violence was increasing, and going to school was a daily struggle, if there was school at all, because of frequent strikes. In many ways, he says, it was the typical immigrant story once they got to the United States: his dad worked lots of odd jobs to make ends meet and made ambitious plans for the children to get quality educations and make better lives for themselves. “My dad worked so much I used to hide his shoes so he wouldn’t have to go.”
Returning to Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010, Laîné worked there for two years before enrolling at the Institute. His foundation, Haiti Philanthropy, became heavily involved with clean water projects in the Southeast Department of Haiti as a response to the outbreak of cholera brought by UN peacekeepers from Nepal. The foundation has expanded to include a rainwater harvesting reservoir and projects to help women and children. Last summer he visited many villages where the foundation serves beneficiaries and spent time “bearing witness to the daily struggles.” He adds: “Anyone who aspires to political work has to be aware of what life is really like. It is so easy to get out of touch with what is happening on the ground.”
He credits his love of history, politics, and historical figures such as James Baldwin for inspiring him to go to Paris through Middlebury Schools Abroad while he was a student at the Institute. Like the author, he felt the City of Light offered him the chance to “just be a person, anonymous. There is a degree of liberation in anonymity that I craved during this part of my journey.” In the U.S. most of the time, he says, the daily injustices that American society levies on black citizens does not allow for that. “The U.S. is also my home, and I love it, which is why I have strong feelings about the current state of American society. The sad fact is that many of the things Baldwin talked about are still true today.” He particularly hates when people use him as an example in order to turn a blind eye to the systemic injustice that exists today. “In many ways, I am the exception. I feel very fortunate. America’s promises are not available to everyone. If two or three things had gone differently, I would not be here. Many of my friends are stalked by the justice system.”
Laine lives in Paris now, where he is a lawyer with a top firm. The distance between his home and Oklahoma City, where his family still lives, can seem great, both literally (4,820 miles) and figuratively, the distance traveled reflected in his achievements. Laîné earned two law degrees; his classmates at Sciences Po elected him to give the commencement address, and he was part of the inaugural black commencement at Harvard.
“It was truly an affirmation of everything we and our families had gone through to help us get there.” He feels strongly that the only way forward is to face the past.
He says that every action, degree, career choice he takes is to lay the groundwork for a political career in Haiti, where he wants to shepherd transformative change for the impoverished country. All of the character traits that served him well that first day at the Institute—a quick wit, nimble intellect, and warm demeanor—are sure to be an asset to him as a politician promoting progress. “Like all Haitian parents, mine are strict and hard to please,” Laîné says with a chuckle, “but this visit my dad told me that I would probably accomplish what I want to do in Haiti.”