Alumni Spotlight

March Alumni Spotlight with Nicholas Cannell, MPA '16

March 17 Alumni Spotlight

The history, the people, and the culture of Haiti inspired Nicholas Cannell (MPA ’16) to start his non-profit organization Konbit Mizik located in Haiti. The organization uses music to engage youth in grassroots organizing, community service, education and development. We speak with Nicholas about his fascinating projects in Haiti, the issues he’s passionate about, and the value of his MPA degree from Baruch College

What brought you to the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs?

I came to Baruch College for an MPA for a few reasons. First, I realized that my passion and purpose are in the non-profit sector. But a fire inside to make the world a better place is not enough. Baruch was the clear winner for me in terms of offering the best value for the education, skills, and mentorship to succeed in this field. Further selling points for me were its location, its flexibility with my busy schedule, and the community of students, faculty, and alumni. I’m proud to be a Bearcat.

Tell us about your non-profit organization Konbit Mizik and work that you do. What inspired you to create this non-profit?

Konbit Mizik is a 501c3 non-profit organization based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti that I co-founded and serve as the Executive Director. Formed in the wake of the 2010 earthquake as a free record label for “underground” music artists, Konbit Mizik uses music to engage youth and young adults in grassroots organizing, community service, education and development. I believe that sustainable change in Haiti requires the continued engagement and empowerment of Haiti’s underprivileged young people, who are smart, strong, and leaders in their respective communities, and who want to see their country improve. The change won’t come from the government or the upper class in Haiti. And frankly, it won’t come from outside NGOs either. But we can help, and I believe that music is the best way to build trusting and collaborative relationships with marginalized communities in Haiti. Plus, Haitian music is amazing, and is so vital and vibrant in the Haitian culture.

In terms of our work, we’ve really done a lot to help folks in Haiti, often without much money. We organize regular neighborhood street cleaning and trash collection, art and music performances at orphanages and schools, education workshops, and produce a lot of music and music videos with positive messages. Last summer, we combined free HIV testing and condom distribution with a star-studded concert in the heart of downtown Port-au-Prince with over 5,000 attendees, making huge strides in de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying the disease for the public at large, as well as encouraging the importance of testing and knowing one’s HIV status. Most recently, we’ve been providing aid in SW Haiti for victims of Hurricane Matthew, and have since rebuilt over 100 homes and have rehabilitated agricultural production in a town called Cavaillon.

I was inspired to start Konbit Mizik because frankly I'm inspired by Haiti - its history, the people, and the culture, and I’m proud to play my part in its triumphant comeback story. Haiti is a magical place and I’ve learned so much there, especially in terms of better understanding the concepts of true happiness, dignity, integrity, tenacity, teamwork.. I could go on… But in short, I guess you can say I found a second home in Haiti, and I remember very vividly on my first visit there making a promise that I would return, and I’ve kept my promise.

You are also a film maker. How does it help you in your current work?

I actually went to Haiti for the first time in 2010 as a video producer to document a health conference, because I have a multi-faceted career in video production and community health centers. Naturally, I wanted to shoot more than only the conference, especially in an exotic place like Haiti and after a natural disaster that flattened an entire country, killed over 200,000 people in a single day, and displaced over a million people. (Side note for anyone behind a camera, the key is to shoot people’s dignity, not their despair.)

Anyway, going back to building bridges with young people, music and video basically go hand in hand and we’ve produced some really great stuff over the years. But in truth, I shoot much less now for a few reasons. First, I’d rather give the opportunity to someone else, and coach and mentor as needed. Second, as our programs have grown, as well as our administrative demands, I can’t do everything, and video production, including the editing process, takes a lot of time.

What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of in your work?

There are two things with Konbit Mizik that make me the most proud. The first is Pwojè SIDA - the mega concert and HIV testing event we held last August in Port-au-Prince. In partnership with one of Haiti’s most famous rap stars, local HIV clinicians, dozens of local volunteers, and a line-up of Haiti’s most acclaimed music groups and artists, we tested 640 people for HIV/AIDS, connected 30 people who tested reactive to free follow up care at local clinics, distributed 5,000 condoms, educated and shattered HIV myths for over 5,000 attendees, and we estimate we reached over 1 million people through a multimedia promotional campaign. And we’re set to begin planning and launch the fundraising campaign for the next Pwojè SIDA in Summer 2017. In my view, this program not only represented a vindication of sorts - there were a lot of naysayers who thought it was too ambitious or too controversial - but it also represents a low cost and highly effective intervention to increase HIV testing and education for millions of young people in Haiti and around the world who are not reached by traditional testing methods and approaches. We are working hard to procure funding to expand this program throughout the country, and one day it might serve as a model for others to replicate in other vulnerable regions across the globe.

The second thing of which I’m most proud is a little less tangible, but is nonetheless I believe one of Konbit Mizik's greatest assets - our identity and reputation in Haiti. In the context of a rapacious past with foreigners to Haiti, even those who have been well-intentioned, I take great pride that our staff and volunteers feel a sense of ownership with Konbit Mizik, and work hard for the future of the organization and for the future of their country.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work? How do the knowledge and skills gained during your time at Marxe School enable you to face them?

The biggest challenges we face have always been board development and fundraising. As the saying goes, "no money, no mission.” I often analogize looking for a new board member like looking for a unicorn because he or she needs to possess no fewer than the following three qualities: passion for the cause, time in his or her schedule, and money and/or resources that will be helpful to the organization. It’s easy to find people with two out of the three. It’s much harder to find all three. And much like the operation on the ground in Haiti is a grassroots movement, so is our community of board members, donors, and volunteers in the US. In fact, I started Konbit Mizik as a free-lance filmmaker and non-profit neophyte when I literally googled, “how do you start a non-profit organization?” So, the education I received at Marxe School has truly been invaluable for me to better serve Konbit Mizik from multiple perspectives - as an administrator, fundraiser, compliance officer, accountant, and more. Having a set of skills and knowledge base, in addition to tools and templates, makes the work ahead… I won’t say easy… but easier.