Reflecting on the Life of Principal Dez-Ann Romain

Reflecting on the Life of Principal Dez-Ann Romain

By Mohamed Q. Amin

On Sunday, March 22, New York City lost a beloved teacher, friend, sister, daughter, and colleague, a tireless crusader for education justice. I was 14-years-old when I first met Dez-Ann Romain. She walked into Mrs. McCauley’s art class at Far Rockaway High School in Queens, NY, with intimidating confidence and fearlessness. We bonded through our love of art and challenged each other to discover our true potential as two Caribbean immigrants. Dez-Ann was a Trinidadian Cleopatra being raised by a single mother, and I was a young closeted Indo-Guyanese transplant. Both of us coming from low-income working-class families living in the “ghetto,” we were considered “at-risk” youth. While our parents were still learning how to navigate New York City, for four years, we competed for art scholarships and other academic opportunities to advance our education.  

Those who knew Dez-Ann in high school would say she was determined to succeed. She was brilliantly creative, wise beyond her years, and would dominate any space with her abundance of positivity and love for others. I distinctly remember her having intense disagreements with teachers, which ultimately earned her their respect and admiration. She was always an advocate for marginalized and under-resourced students, especially the black and brown among them. From 1997-2001, we were those black and brown students. Dez-Ann and I proudly spoke with our Caribbean accents, and throughout high school, our diverse group of friends reflected the crayons that would define what it means to be “at-promise” young people. 

In 1997, during our freshmen year, Dez-Ann and I were jointly selected for an art Internship at the Queens Museum of Art. Along with twelve students from three different high schools in the Borough of Queens, we were featured in world-renowned American photographer and educator, Dawoud Bey’s 20X24 Polaroid photography exhibition. Determined to uplift and empower our classmates, we participated in many extracurricular activities together. We spent our junior and senior years serving on the Student Government Association, working as Set Designers for the school’s production of “The Wiz” and “Grease,” and were members of the National Honor Society and the Class of 2001 Yearbook Committee.  

Dez-Ann was immensely proud of her “Trini” roots and culture. As one of the Student Government leaders, Dez-Ann insisted on us incorporating a “Culture Day” as part of our senior year “Spirit Week” celebration. She wore those red, black, and white colors as a badge of diasporic pride and honor of the twin-islands of Trinidad and Tobago. But it didn’t stop there! In our music class, Spirit Week ended with Dez-Ann leading an all-out soca fete in tribute to Carnival culture with us jumping and waving our Caribbean flags. Dez-Ann’s immigrant experience shaped her perspective on life, gave her purpose, and amplified her desire to see undocumented and documented immigrant students thrive. 

Our journey didn’t end with red and white Far Rock graduation caps and gowns, ironically an ode to Dez-Ann’s Trini colors. We kept our young and naive promises to remain friends and eventually became life-long sources of inspiration and support to each other. At 18 years old, as I was struggling with my faith, and silently suffering from debilitating anxiety and confusion over my sexual orientation, Dez-Ann was there for me. After coming out to her, she jokingly said, “I guess this means we can’t get married now, but I still love you.” This type of unimaginable acceptance and friendship was lifechanging for me. It meant that I wasn’t going to be alone with my incapacitating thoughts and fears of rejection. Dez-Ann and my best friend, Myisha McDonald (also a graduate from the class of 2001), became my support system. 

Drawing encouragement from Mrs. McCauley, Dez-Ann devoted her extraordinary short-lived journey on this earth towards being a compassionate and driven educator, empowering, and uplifting inner-city students. She once said, “If I want to make real change in my student’s lives, I have to become a Principal.” To accomplish this goal, Dez-Ann worked as a hairstylist to support herself through college, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Visual Arts and two Masters in Education from CUNY Brooklyn College. As I was unapologetically finding my voice in Caribbean LGBTQ + activism and accepting my queerness, Dez-Ann was becoming a powerful culture-shifting muse for her students. Our shared lived experiences as working-class Caribbean immigrants became lessons in her classroom. 

In 2016, one year after I founded the Caribbean Equality Project, Dez-Ann invited me to do a workshop on the negative impact of “Caribbean Cultural Hate Speech” at the Brooklyn Democracy Academy in Brownsville, NY. She was the Principal-in-Training and had recently learned that out and perceived queer students were experiencing homophobia. The school’s student population consisted of 50-60 percent Caribbean immigrants and first-generation Caribbean-Americans. In 2017, at just 34-years-old, Dez-Ann was promoted to Principal of the Brooklyn Democracy Academy (BDA). She developed new economic empowerment and food justice programming at BDA and helped students navigate complex systems on their path to a quality education with unmatched elegance and compassion. 

Principal Romain was more than just a remarkable educator and student advocate. Her turbulent relationship with her mother left her being the only stable and supportive family foundation to Delicia, her only sister whom she loved more than life itself. Dez-Ann was a resilient black Caribbean woman that committed her life to speak out against inequality, supporting social & gender justice issues, and a diligent campaigner for equal pay for women in education. She lived by these values and instilled them in all her students, who she always referred to as her children. Dez-Ann believed all black and brown young boys and girls deserved to engage with role models that look like them, and she worked tirelessly to facilitate these opportunities. To her students and colleagues, Principal Romain dared them to dream without limitations. She personified leadership, motherhood, and exemplified authentic fortitude to seeing her children win in an institutionalized academic setting constructed against their capacity to achieve the American Dream. 

Principal Romain was more than just a remarkable educator and student advocate. Her turbulent relationship with her mother left her being the only stable and supportive family foundation to Delicia, her only sister whom she loved more than life itself. Dez-Ann was a resilient black Caribbean woman that committed her life to speak out against inequality, supporting social & gender justice issues, and a diligent campaigner for equal pay for women in education. She lived by these values and instilled them in all her students, who she always referred to as her children. Dez-Ann believed all black and brown young boys and girls deserved to engage with role models that look like them, and she worked tirelessly to facilitate these opportunities. To her students and colleagues, Principal Romain dared them to dream without limitations. She personified leadership, motherhood, and exemplified authentic fortitude to seeing her children win in an institutionalized academic setting constructed against their capacity to achieve the American Dream. 

As of April 2, 2020, New York State has 92,381 confirmed cases of Novel coronavirus, with 51,809 in New York City and at least 2,373 COVID-related deaths statewide. People between the ages of 18-44 make up nearly 44% of the cases and 4% of deaths, while people over 75 make up about 8% of the cases and 50% of deaths. Being forced to painfully reminisce on my 20-plus years of friendship with Principal Romain, I question whether her tragic death could have been prevented. What if the President of the United States had taken a proactive approach to allocating resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19? Imagine if Mayor Bill de Blasio had closed all New York City public schools earlier? Would Principal Romain still be alive to continue inspiring, leading, and changing the lives of her children at BDA, during this remote learning evolutionary time in history? 

As I reflect on all my teenage memories of us escaping Far Rockaway with our friends to explore New York City, I’m reminded by how enthusiastic Dez-Ann and I were to be the change we wanted to see in this world. Principal Dez-Ann Romain embodied that change. My beloved friend built a tremendous legacy in giving “at-promise” students a second chance to excel and to discover their full potential, regardless of their socioeconomic background. May her wisdom, art, and selflessness continue to inspire us all to live our truths and stay home during these uncertain times.  Rest in Power, Principal Dez-Ann Romain. 

 

Mohamed Q. Amin is a pioneering Indo-Caribbean Queer & Muslim Human and Immigrant Rights activist, a native of Guyana, who currently resides in Richmond Hill, NY. In response to anti-LGBTQ hate violence, in 2015, he founded the Caribbean Equality Project (CEP), a non-profit organization that advocates for Caribbean LGBTQ+ voices in New York City. Amin holds a B.A in Economics, has over fourteen years of management experience in retail banking and financial literacy program development in immigrant communities, and is currently pursuing a Masters in Mental Health Counseling at his alma mater, Queens College.

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