When Kizzi Belfon, was crowned Miss Grenada USA in 2012, she was crystal clear as to her vision.
Since winning the award, the young Grenadian has used her title to improve outcomes in the field of public health. In 2013, she launched a public health campaign, in partnership with SGU’s Public Health Department and the Caribbean Health and Environmental Safety Services, which aimed to help students in Grenada to live healthier lives.
Her commitment to addressing health issues in Grenada and in her adopted home of New York is far from a passing fad; during her undergraduate studies at NYU she majored in biology and her master’s degree in public health had a specific focus in epidemiology and biostatistics.
Kizzi is also the president of the Grenadian-American Young Women’s Association (GAYWA), and she was honoured for her work with the youth organisation by the Grenada Independence Anniversary Committee of New York earlier this year.
And if that weren’t enough she’s now appearing in Brango, a web-series created by her fellow GAYWA sister, Marisa Mitchell. “What I hope to achieve with the show is simple: to start open conversations among women—and men—about topics we usually leave for the kitchen table. There is so much power in sharing your story and we’re hoping to harness that power,” she explains.
Where did you grow up? How would describe your formative years?
Gosh, I’m always so proud to say I grew up in Grenada! Specifically, in a small community nestled in the heart of town, affectionately known as ‘Four Road’. I probably have more “town” pride than I do country pride.
My formative years? In one word? Serious. I think I’ve always had a serious energy. I grew up around serious and determined—my dad is a cop. I was goal-oriented and was always trying to get into everything. There was a lot of soul-searching and self-actualization but I suppose that marks everyone’s formative years.
I had a strict upbringing. Every year, I knew exactly which events I could attend and I’ll tell you, it wasn’t more than three per annum! But that helps with my life now. I’m very good at balancing fun and work. I don’t ever have a serious bout of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) when I can’t make an outing. I spent most of my adolescence “missing out” and I know I’ll live to see another day.
What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome in getting to where you are now?
One hurdle that stands out to me was what I call the transitional period. It was when I first started NYU, a predominantly White university with a Black population of 3.4% and a Caribbean population of an almost negligible percentage. I was gobsmacked by how different I was. It was a lot to process. I went from having identities like “Grenadian”, “town gal” and “convent girl” to just having one identity, “Black.” It was my identifier. The way people treated me or reacted to me was because of that. To compound the racial struggle, I was a non-American – a double “other”.
There were moments when I felt like a fish in an aquarium, looking out, people looking in, trying to communicate but they didn’t speak my language. It was difficult to navigate that world but eventually I found my niche. I found my voice. The prejudice was still there, the racially charged encounters still happened but I was able to cope and I grew exponentially. And you know what? I appreciate having gone through that. It made me cling to my culture in a way I never had in the past, it taught me the importance of standing up against prejudice of any kind and it gave me undying pride to be a Black woman living in America.
Why did you enter the Miss Grenada/USA Pageant? What advice would you give to any aspiring entrant?
I entered the Miss Grenada/USA pageant through the relentless encouragement of pageant organizer, Miss Cicely Mason. At the time, I was in a different space — I had recently graduated from college and was about to start my masters. Even though I’ve always been a behind-the-scenes type, I thought it would be a good challenge since I pride myself on loving new experiences. Additionally, I knew, had I won, it would be an ideal platform to create projects to give back to Grenada and luckily, that was the outcome
I would encourage any aspiring entrant to just take that leap and participate! Even if you’re mildly interested, ride with it. If you’re scared, use that fear to motivate you; it will be the reason you spend hours and hours rehearsing and preparing. Honestly, you grow so much from the experience that anyone would feel grateful for having done it, win or lose.
For those who haven’t had the chance to experience it, how would you define the Grenadian community in New York – characteristics, strengths, weaknesses etc?
Before I moved here, I had a sort of defensiveness about what being “culturally Grenadian”, and essentially, “Grenadian”, meant. In my eyes, if you weren’t “born and raised” then you couldn’t claim it. I have seen that perspective change drastically from being immersed in the Grenadian community in New York. Here, you would find some of the most committed Grenadians; cultured Grenadians; passionate Grenadians; Grenada-first-minded Grenadians that exist. And that’s one of the strongest characteristics of the Grenadian community in New York.
What’s especially great is seeing it in first and second-generation Grenadians. In many ways, it’s a part of the fabric of the community here to commit and be passionate, although that manifests itself in various ways and is especially different across generations. Living in Brooklyn, you can definitely get the home away from home feel at times; whether it’s from buying produce like breadfruit imported straight from the Caribbean at Labay Market or going to Greenz United Mas Camp every Sunday leading up to Labor Day. The only wrinkle is encountering the individuals who are too idealistic or too jaded about Grenada, then you feel exasperated and that’s never fun.
How relevant is the island for the younger generation who were born in the US?
From what I’ve witnessed the degree of relevancy of Grenada to the younger generation varies. For the most part, the food and music aspect of our culture is particularly relevant to them. There are many examples of Grenada’s relevance in the younger generation. Soca artist Yung Image, who calls himself the “kid from foreign”; he collaborated on one of the hit songs for carnival 2013, “No Worries” and continues to produce soca every year.
A couple months ago, I noticed the promotion for a fundraiser organized by a young party promoter (of Grenadian descent) to assist victims of the Gouyave fire. And of course, I would be remiss to not mention the women in my organization, GAYWA (the Grenadian-American Young Women’s Association), who live for Grenada. A little more than 50% of the group are young first-generation women either seeking to get in touch with their culture or just doing what they believe is their obligation, nation-build.
What does your role as GAYWA president involve? What impact has the group made so far and what are some of the organisation’s strategic goals?
What doesn’t it involve? Ha! You have the typical roles like chairing meetings and making decisions, but I think a lot of it is about coordinating personalities, developing ideas, maintaining group rapport and providing direction and focus for the organization. Also, lots and lots of logistics, I’m always buried in a mountain of logistics.
In my view, one of the biggest impacts GAYWA has had is on its members. We’re a group of young women all trying to put our stamp on the world so inadvertently, what’s created is an invaluable support system and inspiration pool. Additionally, our presence influences men and women in our generation to be purposeful and give back. In terms of our community initiatives, our domestic violence campaign, “Take a Stand” has been influential through our PSA; supplies sent to the Cedars Home for Abused Women and their Children in St. Patrick’s; and reprinting and sale of copies of a book written by blind author and domestic violence survivor, Denise Alexander.
Since we’ve idealistically “adopted” the Cedar’s home, we hope to maintain a long-term relationship with them, improve conditions, implement programs and provide resources and skills training for the women there. Founder’s Day in Grenada was adapted from a recommendation made by GAYWA at the Diaspora Consultative Conference in 2011. We also have a focus on youth development and plan to create a multi-disciplined after-school program for junior high students in Brooklyn.
What are your future plans? You’re active in so many areas, what ultimately want to achieve?
Such a great question! What’s abundantly clear to me is the fact that I want to effect change within the healthcare field in Grenada. I often go back and forth about exactly how that would manifest itself. Ultimately, I would like to be a public health physician. I’m in the process of applying to medical school and I am hoping that my public health masters would provide a distinctive frame of reference to that education.
Why have you chosen to specialise public health?
For most of my life, I’ve wanted to be a doctor and I never questioned it until senior year of college, a period of time when I did the most introspection so far in my life. I came out of it not exactly having clarity about my aspiration to become a doctor, but I did have clarity that the health field was where I wanted to start my career. There was so much I wanted to address health-wise within low-income communities in Brooklyn and in Grenada, especially after completing a senior project on HIV/AIDS in Flatbush, NY. That’s when public health began to make sense. Here I was talking so much about wanting to make change on a mass level. Well, that’s exactly what public health is, population health. I wanted to be forced to think about health from that perspective, to saturate my thoughts around interventions, policy-changes, measurements, monitoring of systems and most importantly, prevention. That’s what my degree has done for me.