NOTE FROM BLACK STREET: Typically when featuring an individual we would post a bio and questions would follow. When we contacted Jimmy, and he agreed to be featured on Black Street, he sent us a wonderful and entertaining bio. We also included the “Disclaimer”. We hope you enjoy this piece as much as we did. :-)
Disclaimer: Before I write this bio (which is really just a skim through bits and pieces of my life), I don’t consider myself successful or an expert in anything other than being an expert in being Jimmy Toussaint. I am just like any other student (I’m starting grad school in the fall), but the difference is, I tend to be blessed with the ability to materialize most of what I dream about. I have no idea how I achieve what I do. I don’t think about it really. I just do what feels right to me, and I keep listening to the voice in my head that guides me. I don’t know how to write a bio, really. I thought it would be easy to write about myself. I spent my undergraduate years writing tons of papers on ancient philosophy. I have plenty to say when it comes to Kant’s categorical imperative or Aristotle’s Eudaimonia, but for some reason I am either going blank or I’m unsure of how to start this. So, I guess I will give a sort of report on particular events that occurred in my life, and maybe you will be able to learn something about me from them. Or, at least get a sense of my background. I hope this works.
Who are you?
So, I was hanging out with the Production Assistants. They were my friends from school. I decided, why not give opportunities to the TV, Radio, and Film majors from Brooklyn College. The people on set didn’t pay much attention to me. I didn’t know what they were doing anyway. I knew nothing about film. My job was to sell. By this time, I was a master salesman. I could walk into any record label and secure a music video for Edwin Decena using my wit and my determination. They all knew what my name was at the record labels. Either from the relentless phone calls I made to them, or the successful jobs we have done for them.
I started when I was 19, turning 20. I met this budding film director named Edwin Decena at Noriega’s video shoot. He was working as a producer then. He had a couple low budget videos under his belt. It was just a short introduction. We slapped hands. Nodded at each other. We said a few words. Then, he was back to work. You know how long ago this was, because I ended up seeing him again on Blackplanet (Blackplanet? Word, that’s a while ago). On Blackplanet he had a link to his reel. It was some pretty good stuff. I thought to myself, this dude deserves to be shooting some bigger artists. He is talented.
So I linked up with some friends I had that worked in the music industry. A friend of mine, Kato, had an artist that just got a distribution deal through Def Jam. They had been talking to a director that did a video for Alicia Keys to shoot his artist’s new single. It was good timing. I told Kato about this guy Edwin Decena. Edwin and I met up so he can give me dvd copies of his reel. I then passed that over to Kato. After a few meetings with the artist and Kato, I successfully secured Edwin’s first major label music video. I didn’t know this about myself then, but I happened to be a great salesman.
I think I became well practiced at sales from modeling. I was an 18 years old with a ton of ambition and no direction. I didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I happened to be skinny though. Skinny, bald with high cheek bones. My cousin had just gotten signed to a modeling agency, so I rolled with him. I had nothing better to do. It wasn’t long until we did a show together. You see, when I walked into a casting, I would see tall, bald black guys with high cheek bones. Its uniform. Why pick me over them? Why pick them over me? You end up being casted because of your personality. Everyone has abs. Everyone can fit the sizes. But, its your salesmanship that gets you the job. I didn’t know thats what I was really practicing by modeling, but I learned that later on.
So here I am successfully selling Edwin’s services to Kato and his artist. It was an $18,000 budget. The biggest Edwin had worked with at the time. And, afterwards, Edwin entrusted me with his career pretty much. He gave me more dvds, and told me to try and make it happen. I believed in Edwin, and I believed that as long as people up at the record labels knew of him, they’d give him jobs. So, I began my work as his agent. It was rough at first. I heard no after no after no for a good 9 months until I finally got a shot up at Atlantic Records. The rest is history. Fast-forward, we end up working with almost everyone that’s a someone in the rap/r&b genre at Atlantic Records.
So, I am at one of our many six figure music video shoots for Jaheim’s song “Never”. We are in New Jersey. Edwin and I are pretty successful by then. I am a sophomore in college at this time. I find myself always cutting class to go to video shoots in other states (Mostly Atlanta). But, New Jersey is close enough, so I hire production assistants from Brooklyn College and we travel. So, I am hanging out with the production assistants who are really the lowest ranked workers on the set, but they are sort of my peers because of our ages. One of the producers tries to send me out to get something at the store. Typically, we always shoot in Atlanta because at the time, most of the popular artists came out of ATL. But, this woman was new because we were shooting in Jersey. We didn’t want to spend all that money flying out the guy we use in Atlanta.
I stopped talking to the production assistant, and I told the producer that I don’t go to the store. She in turn asked me, “Who are you?” It wasn’t a regular “Who are you?” It was a condescending “Who are you?” It was a “Who are you” that really meant “Who the hell do you think you are to not listen to me when I tell you to go to the store?” One of my friends who was working as a production assistant saw what was happening and said, “Its ok, I’ll go to the store.” The producer was not satisfied. She asked for my name. Apparently, she thought if she got my name, she can walk over to the executive producer Salvatore Costa and get me reprimanded.
I give her my name. I even spelled it out for her. I made sure she pronounced it correctly. “Not ‘Saint’, its pronounced ‘saw-nt’”, I said. Now annoyed by my sarcasm she marches to the executive producer. Five minutes later, she comes back with a look of embarrassment. I guess she thinks she will never be able to work with this film crew as long as she lives. I get an “I’m sorry” from her. I wasn’t offended. I looked young. I spoke to the younger folks. But, my position always gave me the responsibility of an older established man. My position garnered respect. But I never felt that way. I always felt that I was still a young ignorant kid figuring things out. In some ways, I still feel that way.
I went to the back of the newly built school to grab my economics book. It was hot as hell. Mosquitoes harassed me. The inauguration was in a couple of hours and my mother doesn’t need me much right now. So I figured I needed to prepare for my economics final. I enjoyed macroeconomics. It really made me envy economics majors. I had taken too many philosophy courses to switch now.
My cousin Blanco is seeing me all grown up for the first time. The last time he seen me I was a baby. That was the last time my mother took me to Haiti. Here I am, 23 years old and I can barely speak Creole, but I am inaugurating a school I built in Haiti. I couldn’t have done it without the help and financial support of my parents. It was definitely a team effort.
I got made fun of by the kids there. “Li pale tankou bebe”, they said. To them, because my Creole was so bad, I sounded like a baby. But, they knew I wasn’t a baby. I was one of the founders of their school. I had to be smart right? Maybe. In reality, I was still a student with my own exams to take. They didn’t know that though. The inauguration began, and it was my turn to speak. I had the English teacher translate. My speech garnered the attention of the local mayor. There seems to be a mentality Haitians have, where they can’t believe someone will do something good without wanting to run for president later on. Everything is political in that country. Nonetheless, the mayor said he loved my speech and I have a bright future in politics.
He wasn’t the only one. I guess that leads to me next chapter.
I Wouldn’t Mind Shooting Someone
My mother was yelling at me profusely. My step father was disappointed. Family members from all over kept calling my phone. The contract for the Marine Corps Officer program was already filled out and on my table. I wanted to join the marines. My family had been in the military for over 2 centuries in Haiti. I was always attracted to military life. I thought someone like me would excel as a military officer. I was fit enough. I have the build. I was dedicated enough. I could achieve what I put my mind to. And, I thought it was honorable to serve. But, don’t tell Haitian parents that.
“Don’t you know you have to kill people?”, my mom asked with a disgusted look on her face.
“If these people are trying to kill me, I wouldn’t mind shooting someone. Either that, or I’m dead”, I responded.
If it was my little brother going into the military, there would be no problem. But, it was me. It was the son with the 3.7 GPA that is supposed to go to an Ivy League law school after graduation whose saying he would rather shoot at Afghans and Iraquis for a good 5 years and possibly come back dead or without a limb. “I get to lead a platoon of up to 50 men mom”, I argued. “I think I can be a great leader. I mean, this is good life experience.” She wasn’t buying it.
After a ton of pressure, we came to a compromise. I decided to not become a marine in exchange for their financial backing for my run for New York City Council. One may say thats a big leap. But, it wasn’t far from what I was doing before. Campaigning seemed pretty natural. I had to once again do what I did when I was modeling. I sold myself. I was selling myself with my personality and my ability to speak. And, it was working. I got the NYC Independence Party to endorse my candidacy and they gave me a petition to get on their ballot. The NYC Independence Party was no joke. 47% of African Americans voted down that party line in the election cycle before mine. I ended up being derailed down the line though. I’ll explain. You see, the Independence Party is broken up in two. The New York City Independence Party and the New York State Independence Party.
Bloomberg is the most powerful member of the Independence Party. Remember that whole term extensions fiasco? Where they kind of forced term extensions on the public? Well, Bloomberg promised to support all of those city council members that helped in passing the necessary legislation for term extensions. One of those city council members being the incumbent in my district. So, while at the city level they were all about Jimmy Toussaint’s candidacy, at the state level, there was a ton of political wrangling to keep me off the ballot. Of course, my young and ignorant self didn’t understand that after I was endorsed, the game wasn’t over. I was just starting my senior year of college during the campaign. Heck, the only political experience I had was being one of the presidents in student government.
Nonetheless after being derailed, I received a lot of respect. There were many candidates that weren’t endorsed by anyone. I was the youngest candidate in the state to ever win an endorsement from a political party. Now, the community considers me a community leader; which I feel awkward about still. Sometimes, I don’t feel worthy of certain titles and praises. I don’t know. Maybe its just me. I just feel that someone should put in a certain amount of work before they can be called a leader. I’ve been called that so many times, but really, I just either do what comes natural to me or do what I enjoy doing. I don’t think I went through enough to be called a leader. To me, Malcolm X is a leader. I am no Malcolm X. Maybe when someone calls me a leader, they are really referring to what they can see me being instead of something I am. I think that’s my best explanation for it.
We Shocked the Big Boys
My phone ran off the hook. My voicemail was full. Everyone knew I had a school in Haiti and wanted to check in on me. They also wanted to go to Haiti after they saw what had happened. It was about two days after the earthquake and my eyes were glued to CNN. One re-accurring question I was asked was “Can you help me get down there?” I connected a kid I knew from Brooklyn LIU with a medical team going to Haiti. He was just some Haitian kid I knew at the time. Right now, he is one of my best friends and runs Colline Foundation’s Haiti Volunteer Program. I knew he worked as an EMT when he wasn’t in class, so I knew he would be useful in Haiti after the quake. When he came back, we played around with the idea of creating a program that would facilitate people who want to go down to Haiti and help.
You see, you couldn’t just go to Haiti. You wouldn’t know where to sleep, what you could eat, if you would be safe, who to help and how to help and you wouldn’t even know if your help would be effective or harmful. So, we set up everything. People would pay their own way to Haiti and we would be there to facilitate them. My school had crumbled. I couldn’t leave the teachers that worked at the school hanging, so we continued to pay them. All that was going through my mind was “$380,000.00 freaking lost!” That’s how much it took to build the school. We built it out of pocket (no donations). So, I re-hired the teachers to work for Colline Foundation to help facilitate the volunteers. I hired a good body guard. I paid everyone livable wages. My Haitian employees were paid up to ten times more than those that work for other orgs.
Christopher and I secured lodging at a missionary compound. We pretty much rented their building. We went to the government owned bus company and rented a bus. We hired cooks. And, then we had a full fledge program. Through viral marketing on facebook and from people finding us on google, we had so much applications coming in that we denied over 400 people due to lack of space. Our program was popular. So popular, that the other big organizations that ran these volunteer programs thought we were a bigger and more established NGO. We went to Haiti with our groups of volunteers in the summer. I ran into one of the folks from a larger organization. They heard about my NGO. After a couple questions and a couple bottles of prestige, the kid was amazed to know that Colline Foundation was ran by 3 Haitian American kids from Brooklyn who are either in College or straight out of College. Here they were, worried because they were losing volunteers to us while they were a part of a huge organization with much more money and resources than us, and we were just three random young Haitian Americans out there making things happen. We shocked the Big Boys.
Q&A With Jimmy Toussaint
Jimmy Toussaint: I think the earthquake in Haiti had an impact on me. I mean, when the school we built (Colline Academy) fell, we were financially unprepared to deal with it in regards to getting back on our feet and getting it up and running again. I think that event taught me to never lose hope and it also taught me the value of being creative and using what God has blessed me with; to make things happen. Colline Academy is being rebuilt right now. Its slow, but its happening. And, we are getting people excited about coming to Haiti, which sort of creates jobs for Haitians. Every time a volunteer comes to Haiti through our program, a Haitian can feed their family because we hired them to help facilitate our operation and the lives of the Haitians that the volunteers come to help are touched in a positive way.
I also found out a lot about myself after that event. I found out that I love giving people jobs. It excites me to give people in Haiti job opportunities. I really love giving people job opportunities. Some people want to enrich themselves so they can buy stuff. I want to enrich myself so I can reinvest creating more employment opportunities. If I can successfully do that in Haiti, I would die the happiest man on earth. I know that may sound weird, but everyone has their own thing. Some collect cars, some people collect sneakers. I would like to collect job applications.
Jimmy Toussaint: I mean, there are plenty of things that annoy me about Haiti as a country. The place is a circus sometimes. But, then again what country doesn’t become a circus once in a blue moon? Its just that Haiti descends into a realm of irrationality more times than often. I still love the country though. I’m Haitian. It doesn’t matter where I was born. I am Haitian by blood. My last name is Toussaint. I’m from the original Toussaint family of Cape Haitian. My family helped found the country during the revolution. I could be born in Japan or Russia and there is no escaping the fact that I am Jimmy Toussaint born to two parents who were born and raised in Haiti with a lineage linked to men who fought and died to gain liberty for enslaved blacks in Haiti.
People have this conception also, that if you were born in the states, then you must be very different from a Haitian in Haiti. I mean, there are differences, but much more similarities. Because, when you have parents born and raised in Haiti, its not like they stop being Haitian because they’re in the US. They still eat the same foods, listen to the same music, “whoop” their kids how they got whoopped, etc. The culture is still there. So, even though I was in the Unites States when I was walking down a city block, Port au Prince was right at home.
Jimmy Toussaint: I just want to rebuild Colline Academy and in the future find investment opportunities that will create more jobs for the Haitian. That’s it for now. If I can help cultivate a thriving middle class, that will be a slam dunk. But we are talking years from now. I’ve just started, so I have a ways to go.
Jimmy Toussaint: I was in church one day. The pastor said, God gives you blessing not for you to keep but for you to share your blessings with others. That was a memorable sermon for me. There are very few of us in the black community that can do what I can. I think that makes me inherently responsible for others in our community. Because there’s nothing worst than living your life without fulfilling your purpose. If I’m being blessed, it must be for a reason right?
Jimmy Toussaint: Business of course. I like economics. I enjoy the subject. I also enjoy philosophy. Who knows. Maybe down the line, I would get a PhD and teach. Maybe write a few books. I love films. I am a partner at Before Everything (BE) and we are working on a short film series that is actually amazing.
Jimmy Toussaint: If I’m alive, I will be flying back and forth to Haiti working on projects there. Hopefully, Before Everything (BE) will be a thriving film production company. But, above all, I just want whatever I am doing to be to the benefit of others.
Contact Jimmy Toussaint: