In August 2011, AFSC launched a program in South Florida to promote the civic engagement of Haitian immigrants and refugees.  This program grew from the observed need to inform prospective voters of issues and proposed bills affecting them, as well as how they may also, through voting, impact these same issues.  Additionally, the program also sought to educate potential voters on how to make informed voting decisions, rather than simply following a charismatic candidate or voting in line with their peers.  The result was the Smart Vote campaign.

Smart Vote founder and director Paul Mondesir also realized the need to not only inform potential voters, but create potential voters.  He began offering citizenship classes to help prepare legal permanent residents (LPRs) about to take the U.S. Naturalization Test.  To date, Paul and the Smart Vote program have helped an estimated 300 LPRs become naturalized U.S. Citizens.  They represent a community with a new ability to vote and have their voices heard.  Here are some of their success stories.

 

Overcoming Illiteracy

On March 8, 2012, a Haitian couple passed their naturalization exams.  Their victory was of particular importance to Paul and his motives in initializing the Smart Vote program.  The woman, nearly 70 years old, was unable to read or write before attending Smart Vote’s citizenship classes.  This is not uncharacteristic; an estimated 65-80% of students cannot read or write in their native language, making English and literacy skills a top priority in classroom instruction.  Her determination and persistence is what allowed her to overcome this hurdle and complete the naturalization process.  Through the practices, motivation, and support offered by the Smart Vote program, she was able to obtain the basic literacy skills necessary to pass the U.S. Naturalization Test.  She and her husband, residents of the U.S. for many years, were finally able to realize their dream of becoming U.S. citizens, affording them greater opportunities and freedoms.  They returned to class that night to tell their story, attributing the goals of the Smart Vote program as a major contribution to their success.

 

Proud to be a U.S. Citizen - and Able to Vote!

Chavannes is a 33-year old man who, with the help of the Smart Vote program, became a U.S. Citizen in January 2012.  A resident of Lake Worth, Florida, he first applied for naturalization in November 2011.  Less than 3 months later, the process was complete.  Chavannes, who heard about the Smart Vote program and its citizenship classes from his sister, returned to the classroom on March 7, 2012 to tell his story.

Chavannes first applied for naturalization the third week of November 2011.  On January 6, 2012, he took his Naturalization Test.  The rapidity of the process is particularly noteworthy, as lengthy application periods typically deter and discourage prospective applicants.  Between the time he first applied for naturalization and the date of his exam, he attended the citizenship classes offered by the Smart Vote program roughly once per week.  During his biometrics appointment in December 2011, Chavannes received the signature study book and CD from USCIS in order to prepare himself for the exam.  He says he spent an incalculable amount of time studying for the exam over the course of the next month, using a variety of techniques to study and absorb the information.  His efforts were well worth the trouble.

On January 6, 2012, Chavannes passed his Naturalization Test with flying colors.  He answered all 8 of the questions asked of him correctly, and passed both his reading and writing exams on his first attempt.  Among the questions asked of him were to name 3 of the first 13 states in the union, as well as two U.S. national holidays.  By the third week of January, Chavannes received his Naturalization Certificate.  His sister also underwent the same process, using the Smart Vote program to help her prepare.  His father is currently awaiting his naturalization interview.

When asked how he felt about completing his interview and naturalization process, Chavannes replied, "Great, because now I am part of the U.S. family."  As a citizen, he can now apply for federal jobs.

However, the highlight of Chavannes’ story is that he is the first alumnus of the Smart Vote program to register to vote.  He registered on February 6, 2012, and brought his voter’s registration card with him when returning to the classroom.  He is excited to vote in the next election.  This is the first example of a member of the program utilizing their citizenship to vote and have their voice heard in the community.  Hopefully Chavannes’ example will prompt other prospective citizens to use their newly acquired status in a similar fashion.