Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

From Haiti to Pittsburgh: New Arts & Lectures head looks to build community

A man in a suit smiles at the camera.
Dave Munch
Sony Ton-Aime begins work Oct. 1.

This is WESA Arts, a weekly newsletter by Bill O'Driscoll providing in-depth reporting about the Pittsburgh area art scene. Sign up here to get it every Wednesday afternoon.

Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures launched its season Monday night at Carnegie Lecture Hall with a talk by novelist Zadie Smith — and with the informal public introduction of Sony Ton-Aime, who had been named the group’s new executive director just days earlier.

Though he’s currently director of literary arts at New York’s venerable Chautauqua Institution, Ton-Aime is not a new face here. He’s been coming to PAL events occasionally for a decade.

But, in some ways, Ton-Aime will be unique among arts leaders in town: He was born and raised in Haiti, and English is his third language.

Most news Americans hear from Haiti today involves poverty, political instability or earthquakes. But Ton-Aime recalls his childhood as a time when people came together almost every night to tell stories. “That’s where my desire to be a writer, or to be a storyteller, first started,” he said in a phone interview last week.

Ton-Aime acknowledges Haiti’s travails, but he emphasizes Haitian vitality. “I’ve never been in a place where resiliency and joy in the face of struggle, right, has succeeded over and over, than in Haiti,” he said. His home country, he said, is also where he absorbed the sense of community he hopes to foster in Pittsburgh through the literary arts.

He didn’t set foot stateside until he enrolled at Kent State University, in 2010, at age 19. College also marked his first encounter with English: Ton-Aime grew up speaking Haitian Creole at home and French in school, and said he spent a semester in Kent States’ English as a Second Language program.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Love stories about arts and culture? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

As a boy, he loved reading, became editor of his school magazine, and dreamed of being a writer. The language barrier made writing seem an infeasible field of study at first, so he majored in accounting. After graduating, he worked as an accountant back home.

But what stuck with him was the passion for poetry he nurtured within Kent State’s writing community. Eventually he returned to earn a master’s degree in poetry from the Northeast Ohio MFA Program. He envisioned a space for himself in arts administration. “I saw that I could use my accounting background and my poetry,” he said.

Professional administrative experience followed as a graduate fellow at Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center, where he helped coordinate readings and other events, guided a group of interns, and led community-outreach efforts.

Next came a short stint as a program coordinator at Lake Erie Ink, a Cleveland-based nonprofit that offers creative-writing opportunities to youths.

The jump to Chautauqua, in 2020, was a big step up in scale. The fabled organization in upstate New York inhabits a sprawling campus dedicated to the arts, education and recreation during a summer season that hosts some 100,000 visitors. (In August 2022, during Ton-Aime’s introduction of Salman Rushdie and City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Henry Reese, a knife-wielding man rushed the stage, gravely injuring Rushdie; Ton-Aime said the incident’s aftermath taught him “how people can come together when they really feel like they are part of the community.”)

At Chautauqua, Ton-Aime booked authors like Matthew Desmond (“Poverty, by America”) and Pulitzer winner Elizabeth Kolbert to speak at the 4,000-seat amphitheater.

Those are also the sort of writers PAL presents. Kolbert visited in 2015; on Oct. 2, his second day on the new job, Ton-Aime will introduce Desmond to the PAL crowd in Oakland.

He recalls visiting here as early as 2013, driving in from Kent State for a talk by George Saunders.

“Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures has always been a reference to me in my career,” he said. “Those are the writers I want to invite!”

He also admires PAL’s Made Local series, spotlighting Pittsburgh-area authors.

Ton-Aime is the first person of color to head PAL, and he’s part of a new wave of arts leaders of color in Pittsburgh, from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Indeed, Ton-Aime is among the youngest of the cohort: At 32, he’s been on the planet exactly as long as Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures itself.

He has appreciated the diversity of PAL’s lineup of speakers under his predecessor, Stephanie Flom. But he said he wants to continue efforts to broaden the group’s audience via outreach. “Our audience should also feel … that this conversation is happening because of them,” he said.

Ton-Aime seems most excited by PAL’s potential for creating community. After all, he recalls the poetry workshops he led at Lake Erie Ink as “very dear to my heart.” And his signature projects at Chautauqua included teaming with the African American Heritage House to launch a monthly book discussion called the Mirror Project Reading Circle, and an initiative at neighboring Jamestown High School to lead writing workshops and get the results broadcast on a local radio station.

He wants to build on PAL’s Authors to Schools program, which last year put published writers in the room with some 2,700 area students.

“My goal is one day for the next writer that we have [at PAL] to be one of those kids,” he said.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: