Trailblazer Gala Grows A Dazzling And Diasporic Footprint

Lucy Gellman | September 26th, 2023

Trailblazer Gala Grows A Dazzling And Diasporic Footprint

Culture & Community  |  Downtown  |  Education & Youth  |  Arts & Culture  |  New Haven Caribbean Heritage Festival  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Jamaican American Connection

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Top: Janice Hart, Dr. Sherene Mason, and 2022 Honorary Jamaican Markeshia Ricks. Bottom: Attorney Wendy A. Clarke with her parents, Justin and Sioney Clarke. Lucy Gellman Photos. The photo of Smith-Holness and Lisa Hannah toward the bottom is a contributed photo.

Azaria Samuels came to celebrate cross-cultural connection with an extended family that has made New Haven home. Kenechia Daley knew it would be a party, and wanted to give back to a community that has given her so much. Shamar Wilson saw it as a moment to share with his New Haven aunties, who provided a safe place to land when he least expected it. And for Jamaican politician Lisa Hanna, it was a chance to talk about health equity and the strength in a diaspora.   

Saturday, they were among hundreds who braved the rain to fête the Jamaican American Connection (JAC) at the Omni New Haven Hotel, as the organization held its twelfth Annual Trailblazer & Scholarship Gala in the building’s second-floor ballroom. Honoring attorneys Wendy A. Clarke and Andrew Crumbie, the gala raised funds for JAC’s annual scholarship program, which since 2010 has supported over 50 young people of Jamaican and Caribbean descent pursuing higher education. 

This year, scholarship recipients include University of Connecticut senior Aaliyah Kerr, Albertus Magnus junior Shamar Wilson, Dartmouth College sophomore Olivia O’Connor, University of New Haven student Kayce Hanlan, and University of San Diego student Isaiah Moore. 

“Our national motto, ‘Out of many, one people,’ is based on Jamaica’s multiracial roots, and as America strives to move toward a culture of greater inclusion and diversity, we only have to look to Jamaica to see how this is accomplished ” said Dr. Camelia Lawrence, a breast surgeon with Hartford Healthcare who served as this year’s gala chair. “Make no mistake about it. Jamaica was ahead of its time in teaching the world that every voice is important!”  

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Lawrence, pictured laughing at far left (honoree Wendy Clarke is in the foregound): “Make no mistake about it. Jamaica was ahead of its time in teaching the world that every voice is important!”  

She looked to the country’s coat of arms, which celebrates both the Indigenous Taíno people who were Jamaica’s first inhabitants and the island’s claim to the pineapple, of which it grows multiple varieties (its national fruit, Ackee, has its roots in West Africa). Before Spanish colonizers arrived in 1509, the Taíno called the island Xaymaca, which translates from Taíno-Arawak to “land of wood and water.” 

In the four centuries since, its culture has included Spanish, West African, British and Indigenous Caribbean influences—some of which are painful, layered, and complicated— as well as a fierce fight for independence that many attendees centered Saturday night. This September marks 61 years of Jamaican independence from British colonial rule. 

“This is an incredible celebration, as we pay homage to our island heritage and how we extract all of the goodness from our roots to the benefit of our adopted homeland here in America,” Lawrence said. 

Long before it ended on the dance floor, the night was about celebrating the breadth and depth of that diaspora, from tear-flecked acceptance speeches to plates that delicately balanced pineapple-studded salad, sweet and still-warm plantain, jerk chicken, fish, callaloo and peppery rice and peas. Even before the program had formally begun, it jingled and echoed through the space, where musicians Duane Huff and Kareem Thompson welcomed attendees with a mashup of Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield on the steel drums. 

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Duane Huff and Kareem Thompson.

Both members of the Caribbean Vibe Steel Drum Band, the two called it an honor to be playing at the gala. Huff, who grew up in New Haven, remembered falling in love with the steel pan decades ago, when he was just 10 years old, and heard the instrument for the first time. As he deepened his studies in music, he added it to his repertoire. Years later, it’s become a part of how he understands and loves New Haven’s rich tapestry of cultures. 

Playing beside him, Thompson said that the instrument is part of who he is, and how he honors his family's history. The child of Trinidadian immigrants raised in Brooklyn, he first learned about the steel pan from his grandfather, who folded its rich and resilient legacy into stories of growing up in Belmont, Trinidad. The first time Thompson played it himself, he was eight, and already accustomed to the sound of Carnival that filled the borough each summer, rising through New York’s sticky heat.

“I just love it. It’s my life,” he said. From the steel pan, he became fluent in multiple instruments, ultimately studying jazz at Florida Memorial University and music at the Berklee College of Music. He now teaches there, commuting from Brooklyn to Boston each week. He also still plays in a band with his grandfather and uncles, he said, as a way to keep Trinidadian “culture and music alive.” 

“I love playing for Caribbean people,” he said. “To just play their music and see the reactions.”   

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Azaria Samuels: It's a family. 

Around them, attendees seemed lifted by the sound, shaking off any reminder of the evening’s rain as they checked in, caught up with friends and floated to their tables. Samuels, whose father and grandmother are Jamaican, said she was thrilled to “represent the culture” in her adopted home of New Haven. After moving to the city five years ago to work for Long Wharf Theatre (she is now at the Shubert Theatre), she met JAC President and Co-Founder Karaine Smith-Holness at a work event. 

“She just walked up to me and she took me under her wing,” Samuels remembered with a smile. Within months, Smith-Holness had ensured that Samuels had a sort of extended family that helped her feel welcome in New Haven. Those members have been with her during major life transitions, including her engagement, work as an independent curator, and preparation for a wedding in Miami later this month. 

“I feel so supported,” she said. “This [JAC] is an organization that is also a family.” 

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Hamdenite Kenechia Daley, who has been a fan of JAC's work since its inception. 

Nearby, Hamdenite Kenechia Daley echoed Samuels’ love and fondness for the organization. Born and raised in Manchester, Jamaica, Daley first came to Connecticut at 17, settling in Bridgeport with a father who had immigrated years before.

After starting her studies at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU), she discovered the Caribbean restaurant Tropical Delights on Fitch Street close to campus. Smith-Holness had a hair salon next store.

The rest was history. Daley remained close with Smith-Holness during her undergraduate and graduate studies at SCSU, and still goes to her salon, which is now on Ashmun Street, today. As the director of research administration at the Yale School of Public Health, she said, giving back to JAC after all the organization has given her is a no-brainer. 

It’s not just giving back in the form of scholarships, she added: she’s seen and benefitted from the JAC network, and hopes to do the same for young people just starting their careers.  

“It’s hard when you come to this country, not always knowing where to look [for support],” she said. “This provides a space where individuals can come together.” 

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Amani Kerr and Gina Dwyer. 

Between checking attendees in, Hamden High School senior Amani Kerr said that she’s proud to support the organization on behalf of her sister Aaliyah, one of this year’s scholarship recipients. As a member of a proudly Jamaican family, she’s gotten to know JAC through the New Haven Caribbean Heritage Festival, which in recent years has danced its way from Goffe Street Park to the New Haven Green downtown. 

Saturday, she said that the gala was and remains the first place she can remember seeing so many successful Jamaicans—among them, attorneys, surgeons, pediatric doctors, nurses and so many others—in a single place. “History is literally being made in this room, and I’m here for it,” she said. 

In the ballroom, that excitement crackled and buzzed through the air as emcee Andrew Clarke shouted out different islands in the Caribbean, pausing for cheers for Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, Dominica (“not the Dominican Republic,” he said to laughs) and of course, Jamaica. At a table toward the back of the room, Caribbean Heritage Festival Co-Organizer Shermaine Edmonds proudly waved Dominica’s multicolored flag, celebrating 45 years of the island’s independence.

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Top: Dr. Janice Hart—or as she is sometimes better known, Ms. Matty Lou. Bottom: Clarke keeping the room on its toes. 

Back on the dance floor, Clarke joked that he was going to drop in and out of patois, and hoped that the non-Jamaicans in the room were ready. He later called the gala a full-circle moment—the first celebration was the first time anyone asked him to emcee an event. He’s since become an integral part of the work JAC does. 

“Are there any non-Jamaicans in the room?” he asked as hands cautiously went up, a few of them bright white and tentative even on their ascent. “Okay. Is there a Jamaican at your table to translate?” 

The room dissolved momentarily into laughter. It soon fell to a reverent hush as attendees stood for both the “Star-Spangled Banner” and "Jamaica, Land We Love," to which many sang along. Quizzing attendees on the lyrics afterwards, Clarke reflected on how unique the work, written by Robert Lightbourne and published just a month before Jamaica officially declared independence in August 1962, is.  

“It’s the only national anthem that is a prayer,” he said, his eyes twinkling in the ballroom’s dramatic light. 

That love for the country—and for the diaspora—flowed through the remainder of the night, from the presentation of scholars to a keynote address from Hanna that brought the room to its feet, and still left plenty of time for dancing. Asking Wilson to join her early in the evening, Smith-Holness remembered getting a phone call from Albertus Magnus College last December, letting her know that there was a Jamaican student who needed a place to spend the holidays. 

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Karaine (Kay) Smith-Holness and Shamar Wilson. 

It was just over a week before Christmas, and she was happy to set an extra place at her table, she said. At the meal, she learned that Wilson’s sponsor family had backed out, meaning that he would need to find funds to continue in school, or go home to Jamaica. She jumped into action—and watched as her network did too. 

“I did what everyone else in this room would have done,” she said. “I gathered the troops and the organization said, ‘Yes, we’re going to take care of him.” Within two weeks, JAC had raised enough to keep Wilson in school. Since, the organization has made plans to continue supporting his education and career. Around the room, several of the women and JAC members who have become his honorary aunties stood, all of them beaming. 

“They’ve been everything to me,” Wilson said in an interview at his table. Born in Saint Ann Parish and raised by his grandmother,  he feels a sense of family among JAC members, who have helped keep him in school and cheered on his golf career—and reminded him that Jamaica isn’t that far away at all. “Being around them, I’ve bloomed. The highest thing you can do is be a positive representative for your country.” 

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Attendees Tamara Titre and Aza Mosley, who are both members of the George W. Crawford Black Bar Association and came to support Trailblazer awardees Wendy Clarke and Andrew Crumbie. 

That spirit remained in speeches from both Clarke and Crumbie, who thanked the friends, family members, and parents who have made their professional journeys possible. Taking the stage after an introduction from Dr. Sherene Mason, Clarke said she is especially grateful for the relatives, sister-friends, church family members and colleagues “who propped me up and mentioned my name in rooms from which I was absent.” 

None among them, she said, compare to her parents, Sioney and Justin Clarke. “As I stand here tonight, I can only hope that I’ve made you proud,” she said to them. 

It was the same sentiment that carried Crumbie when he looked out at his family and noted, “I need to recognize the people whose shoulders I stand on … Without some of you, this story never would have been written.”

KayLisa2As she gave the keynote, Hanna both held onto those words, and added her own with a call for Jamaicans across the diaspora to keep giving back to the island that raised them. Beginning with the story of Granny Nanny, who walked 300 miles to warn her brother that the British could not be trusted, Hanna jumped back to the present, calling out a healthcare system that is failing her constituents.

In July, she explained, a woman came to her because she felt extremely sick, and was waiting on a biopsy result that had been delayed for weeks. When Hanna helped get her in to see a gynecologist, the woman learned that she had Stage IV cervical cancer, which had spread to multiple parts of her body, including her lungs. 

Because hospitals close to her could not accommodate a request for chemotherapy, she ended up at the University of the West Indies. Hanna did what she could to facilitate transportation and care, she said—but was also aware of how common this story was, and how frustrating and futile it felt. The woman died in early September. 

“We need more activism around women’s health,” Hanna said. She called on members of the audience to bring their education and professional expertise back to the island, and to use their power as people in the Caribbean diaspora push for better allocation of resources, from hospitals to inoculation campaigns. “If you empower Jamaican women, you fix the economy.”

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Sasa Harriott, who sponsored a table in the spirit of giving back. "It’s a great, great time," she said. 

Before turning the night over to DJ Fire, Smith-Holness also announced two surprise “Honorary Jamaican” awards, one of which went to this reporter (who did not know about it before the fact, and remains moved, surprised, and extremely honored by the gesture). The other went to International Festival of Arts & Ideas Executive Director Shelly Quiala, who has helped move the Caribbean Heritage Festival downtown.

Back at Table 19, Sasa Harriott was ready to dance the night away. The founder of Harriott Home Health Services, Harriott grew up in Jamaica, and then immigrated to the U.S. to pursue her education. She’s been coming to JAC’s events since attending a gala in 2019. For her, she said, making time to support fellow Jamaicans is part of her duty as someone whose also had to walk that path. 

“I understand what it feels like” to be ready to pursue an education and not have the financial resources to make it immediately possible, Harriott explained. “So yes—giving back is very important. And it’s a great, great time."