Comments on My Acceptance of the MIT Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award

By: Michel DeGraff

I am from Haiti. In Haiti, when we enter a room and greet our audience, we say, in Haitian Creole, “Onè,” which means that we honor each and all of you in the audience. And the audience responds “Respè” as a show of respect. So let’s all give it a try: “Onè . . .
Respè . . . ”

(Professor DeGraff’s speech starts at 19m01s.)

Now I’d like to say “Mèsi anpil!” (i.e., Thank you very much!) to the organizers of this beautiful lunch. Thank you as well to MIT for this long tradition, which started long before we had a national MLK Jr. Day. In this tradition, we at MIT celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. with both words and actions. I would also like to thank the anonymous colleagues who nominated me and who wrote letters on my behalf. I also thank my MIT department, Linguistics and Philosophy, and the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. And I especially want to thank my MIT-HAITI team. We are a pretty large group across all of MIT and in Haiti. At MIT the team includes allies in various units: from MIT Sloan to Linguistics to the School of Science, the School of Engineering, the Office of Digital Learning, the Teaching and Learning Lab, etc. In Haiti, we work in close collaboration with educators across a wide range of public and private universities and with leaders in the Haitian Government, especially the Ministry of National Education. Together we are developing, evaluating and disseminating state-of-the-art digital resources in Haitian Creole for active-learning methods in Haiti.

I’ll soon give you some historical background and more details on these efforts, which live up to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy that we are celebrating today. But before that, I’d like to insist that without our MIT-Haiti team, I could not have gotten this award. This award is not mine, it’s OURS: it’s an award to our teamwork, teamwork with amazing colleagues at MIT and in Haiti who so strongly believe that together we can change the world as we confront a formidable global challenge.

“One dream can change the world.” This is the tagline of the inspiring movie Selma about Martin Luther King Jr., which I saw recently.

Toward the beginning of the film, there’s one haunting scene, from the early ’60s before the Voting Rights Act. That scene highlights Ms. Annie Lee Cooper, played by actress Oprah Winfrey. For many years, Ms. Cooper has been trying, in vain, to register to vote in Selma. On her fifth attempt, her application is again rejected. Why? Because of yet another totally artificial barrier: she’s being asked by a white clerk to recite the names of all the 67 county judges in Alabama! Obviously, she cannot. Who could?

In Haiti, such barriers to full citizenship are even more brutal, and have been entrenched through language and education throughout the history of the country, all the way back from the colonial period when much European wealth depended on the work of enslaved Africans. Back then, our African ancestors were treated as beasts of labor not as minds to be educated.

In Haiti today, most Haitians are excluded from access to quality education and from the means to create and transmit wealth. Indeed most laws and decrees, most written press, most textbooks, most official exams are written in ONE language (French), which the vast majority of Haitians do NOT speak. Yet most everyone in Haiti speaks one language in common: Haitian Creole (“Kreyòl”) the language in which we just said “Onè… Respè.”

This linguistic barrier has been so entrenched in the Haitian psyche that one can call French in Haiti, a linguistic “bluest eye” – to borrow a phrase from writer Toni Morrison. Too many Haitians, unlike Annie Lee Cooper in Alabama in the ’60s, have been socialized, from birth, to accept class-based injustice: they have learnt to accept that if they don’t speak French, it’s their own fault and, as such, they do not deserve anything better than second-class citizenship at the pit bottom of one of the worst levels of socio-economic inequity in the world. The Kreyòl phrase “Nou pa moun” is a frequently heard complaint from those who speak Kreyòl only: “We are not human beings.” Fortunately, there are many Haitians who have enough clairvoyance and dignity to deeply believe in this Haitian proverb: “Pale franse pa vle di lespri,” which means “That you can speak French doesn’t mean that you’re intelligent.” Another popular Kreyòl phrase is: “Sispann pale franse”(literally: “Stop speaking French”), which, tellingly, means “Stop obfuscating!”

As a linguist and educator, I know that in order to learn a language, ANY language, you have to get adequate input from that language – ideally, be IMMERSED in that language from a tender age. In Haiti, most Haitians, from birth onward, are immersed in ONE single language – Kreyòl. The de facto status of Kreyòl as Haiti’s sole national language and as a unifying factor across all social classes is a robust fact and a linguistic asset. As for French, only the upper social classes, some three to five percent, speak it at home on any regular basis. Given these facts, plus what we know about the role of the native language in education, Kreyòl stands at the ready to be used as a powerful tool for nation building and economic development. Yet, there’s a widespread entrenched belief that those who speak Kreyòl only are somewhat deficient, that Kreyòl is a lesser language, a language that CANNOT be used for science, for math, for the law, in written press, and so on. This linguistic apartheid has been encoded deep in the DNA of Haitian society, from the birth of the Haitian nation in 1804 – even as our enslaved ancestors were liberating themselves from French colonial chains. Today, still, Haitian minds are shackled in neo-colonial linguistic myths.

So, in effect, Haiti is still very far from Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. But the MIT-Haiti Initiative IS dismantling these age-old barriers that have been implemented through language and education.

And the Haitian Government is playing its valiant part, collaborating with MIT in this historical struggle for social justice ( and we now have, since December 2014, an official Haitian Creole Academy to promote the use of the language in all sectors of society. We are at the point that we can now reasonably hope that these barriers are indeed crumbling.

In 2010, Dr. Vijay Kumar (Office of Digital Learning; and I launched the MIT-Haiti Initiative ( with support from the Foundation for Knowledge & Liberty, the Wade Foundation, the Open Society Foundation and the National Science Foundation ( and in collaboration with faculty and administrators in Haitian universities and Haiti’s Ministry of National Education ( This MIT-Haiti initiative has been opening up education in Haiti through educational technology and through Kreyòl. We’ve been producing and testing, for the very first time ever in history, high-quality (MIT-quality!) digital tools for active learning of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Haitian Creole – with an initial focus on physics (, genetics, and biochemistry ( and differential equations, statistics, and probability ( As of now, we’ve worked with more than 200 university and high school STEM faculty and government officials in Haiti. We’re also showing that kids who learn to read and write in Kreyòl learn three times better than kids who learn in French – which is not surprising in light of what we linguists know about the language-immersion factors that we just sketched and about the role of the native language in education ( And in 2014 and at the request of the Haitian government, the MIT-Haiti Initiative in collaboration with MIT Sloan Executive Education organized for then-Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe and his cabinet (some 50 high-level officials) a workshop on leadership and teamwork – all of that in Haitian Creole ( So now, all the available evidence points to an irrefutable, if “unarmed,” truth which we must speak until it has the “final word”: Kreyòl is a full-fledged language which improves learning gains in Haiti – learning gains in reading, writing, math, science, etc. Given the data so far, learning IN Kreyòl should also improve Haitian children’s capacity to learn the humanities and second languages like French, English, and Spanish. Fluency in some of these international languages, ALONGSIDE the systematic use of Kreyòl at all levels, can help Haitians benefit from, and also contribute to, the creation and transmission of knowledge, both locally and globally, with self-respect and dignity . . . “Onè . . . Respè . . .”

There’s a lot more to do. But I think we’re already showing that language barriers and unequal access to quality education and to other socio-economic opportunities are among these daunting global challenges that we at MIT can help solve ( In effect, we’re showing that MIT’s expertise, teamwork, and resources, in partnership with Haitian educators and leaders, can transform Martin Luther King’s dream into reality, in Haiti as well. And I believe that this can serve as an inspiring example to other communities where language and education are used as barriers to social justice.

Of course, the work is only just starting. We’re going to need much more support and a much bigger team to totally dismantle these formidable barriers and to make our dream reality. But this is MIT after all. So I trust we can do it. With the right team, the right level of support and adequate political will, we can have another revolution in Haiti toward opportunity for all.

Yes… “One dream can change the world.”

Editor’s Note: Michel DeGraff is a founding member of Haiti’s newly created
Haitian Creole Academy (Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen).