25 years an American, 7 months an Observer and 1 week in Haiti

Neg Marron (Iconic Symbol of Freedom for the Haitian People)

This post will reflect my 25 years as an American citizen, 7 months observing the situation from a far,  4 days in Cap-Haitien and 2 1/2 in Port-au-Prince. I was only in Haiti for a week, the 1.3 million people left homeless as a result of the January 12th earthquake will likely live there for life.

What I saw in one week taught me more than I learned in any one sitting as a undergraduate or graduate student. I spent the bulk of my time with an inspirational group of people from Sonje Ayiti working towards developing one city. They showed me the side of Haiti that most Americans never see on TV. I saw Haitians helping themselves and helping each other. I saw Haitians making great things out of meager resources. I ate with them, prayed with them and slept under same heat as them. I walked the streets of Limonade, visited the local hospital, saw what a typical Haitian classroom looks like, took showers using a bucket, swatted mosquitoes, rode over unpaved roads and smelled mounds of trash. I talked with them, learned more about their stories and of their dreams for the country. I walked through the tent city outside of the Haitian Presidential Palace. I saw statues of the  nations heroes surrounded by the very people they were fighting to secure a better future for since the 1700’s.  I saw the direct result of too many people, too little public administration and too many NGO’s in a small area.

Presidential Palace of Haiti

I saw a lot. To be honest, I’m having a hard time digesting it. I’ve visited townships in South Africa, poor communities in Guatemala and seen shantytowns in mainland China.  I’ve lived without hot water and heat in Chicago. But I have never seen the things I saw while in Haiti. The experience left a deep impression on me to not only grieve but to act.

Since my visit I’m more angry at; 1) People who are against taxes and 2) People who think Wyclef Jean was a viable option to be President of Haiti.

Taxation functions as a means to pay for public goods and services. They are meant to serve the common good. Imagine this…no trash pick-up, no one to call when the electricity goes out, no running water, no one to report landlord abuse to and no public schooling for your children. Taxes pay for all of those things in the U.S. American’s STILL mismanage and take them for granted. Live in Haiti for a week and your mind will change quickly. Today a friend pointed out how taxation and tax appropriation are two different things.  We could do better on both fronts in the States. I’m not arguing for big government, just arguing for the presence of a basic element. In Haiti, the basic infrastructure isn’t nearly non-existent. Be grateful and work for the future you want.

On Wycelf Jean. I have very simple remarks. Would you want him or another musician with the same history and experience as President of the United States? We have more infrastructure and resources. I’ll take this to a smaller scale. Who you want the same candidate to be Governor of YOUR State? Probably not. His nomination has been romanticized by Americans who have likely never lived in a tent city, never had to choose between paying for school uniforms or selling water on the streets. Do the Haitian people deserve any less than what we expect for ourselves? No. Low expectations are like a festering sore in Haiti, human beings deserve better.

United States Agency for International Development
(These Tarps were all over Port-au-Prince)

Whether you donated to a Haiti Relief Fund or not, your tax dollars are being spent abroad (or are supposed to be). We have got to do better. We know better and can do better. Yes, the Haitian people are resilient; but no one should have to be so resilient all of the time.

As an organizer I follow the concept of organizing around the injustice we hold the most anger towards. I hate to see people living without basic necessities, dignity and the opportunity to be happy. God willing, I’ll head back to Haiti in January. I have a lot of ideas for working with the women and youth of Limonade. They are pretty much organized and just need more technical and financial support. I’m interested in working with them, not over or just for them. The road to achieving those things is just as rocky as any side street in Port-au-Prince, but it is possible. Change is always possible.


The Five Senses, plus one

The Heroes of Independence, where the Haitian Revolution was won.

The city of Cap-Haitien is Haiti’s second largest city and is home to over 800,000 people. Since the January 12th earthquake over 40,000 survivors have relocated here. Driving through Cap-Haitien for the first time was slightly jarring. Everyone seemed to be moving in some direction, where I’m not sure. The unemployment rate is at 95%. The only place I can compare it to is East St. Louis, Illinois. There African Americans face a similar plight with 90% + unemployment rates, poor housing, along with high poverty and disease rates. East St. Louis does not however have the same historical significance as Cap-Haitien, the Haitian Revolution started here. This is King Henri Christophes town. I am surrounded with great Haitian history. But I am also surrounded with the legacy of colonialism, political corruption and deep poverty.

Tuesday morning we went to visit a brother and sister Gaby knew in the largest hospital in North Haiti. The claim to “largest” is not what you would typically think. Words can not express the despair and sickness I saw there. When we entered the compound there were people milling around. Walking up to the surgery ward I saw a small dog laying in the middle of the steps surrounded by people who paid it no attention. The dog looked half dead. The structure is unlike what most Americans think of when they think of hospitals. There was an emergency ward, a surgery ward and separate wards for women and men. However, you will find no receptionist to tell you where to go. You will find no halls and no separate patient rooms. The room held about 25-30 beds all with patients who looked like they were at deaths door. Any patient who stays here must bring their own linens, their own food and basically fend for themselves. I still cannot remove the stench of sickness from my mind. I will never forget the smell of pending death. Now you may ask why I am designating these people to death, I’m not. I did not see one person in the recovery phase. There we flies open air bed pans and an extreme lack of sanitation. The emaciated look of these human beings was stark and it would take nothing short of a proper medical facility to improve their quality of life.

Imagine receiving a blood transfusion in a gas station bathroom. Think of that and you might be close to the reality these patients face on a daily basis.

With most things there is a silver lining. While walking through the different wards we did see several groups of young women being trained to be community health aides. They are being trained to go out into their communities and promote positive health. Basic things we take for granted in the States are not common knowledge or practice for many living in absolute poverty. Just as many of us learned to wash our hands, not to cross contaminate and how to care for cuts, the people in this city must learn too. These things are not just organically learned!

Once we left the hospital we headed to visit with the members the of local womens group, The Association of Valiant Women of Limonade (RAFAVAL). These women are a stark contrast of those we saw in the hospital. They are working to build power for themselves. I had the opportunity to talk to the women and learn more about the issues they face in Limonade. Domestic violence, family planning and assertion of women’s rights were among the greatest. I took some video footage of them singing a song about strength and power, the internet connection isn’t fast enough for me to load. I WILL load it once I get back to the states.

This is my work, to fight for our women- Ernise, RAFAVAL Coordinator (Pictured Right)

These were not women who sit idly by waiting for someone to save them. RAFAVAL boasts a membership of over 500 women from the 3 sections of Limonade. The women meet once a month. They organized THEMSELVES. Sonje Ayiti partners with them to produce and sell Cocoa d’Haiti. I’ve tasted hot chocolate made from this cocoa and it is WONDERFUL. The proceeds go back into the Koud-a-Koud project to help fund more micro-loans. I purchased some of the cocoa today and plan to share once I get back.

We are who we are because of what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. What we become is because of our vision.

My next post will focus on the concept of vision. I’ve seen the fruit of Sonje Ayiti’s vision and will share more examples. I’m headed to Port-au-Prince tomorrow. I’m not sure what I’ll see there, but I’m sure that it will leave one of the many everlasting impressions I have of Haiti. I am staying at the Haiti Response Coalition house and hope to shadow some of their organizers working with communities living in tent cities. Until next time…Peace

Sonje Ayiti…As if I ever could forget

(Me and Gabrielle Vincent, Director of Sonje Ayiti)

I touched down in Cap-Haitien yesterday morning. I was met by Gabrielle Vincent, Director and Founder of Sonje Ayiti, in a small yellow school bus.  I could tell a lot about her spirit when we first met. She was born here and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. She and her husband built a good life for their family, but she decided to start Sonje Aytiti due to the need and a personal responsibility to her people.

I had no idea what that day would look like. I was pretty much open to anything. Gaby took us straight to work! We drove about 25 minutes outside of Cap-Haitien to the town of Limonade. Limonade is a town of about 45,000 people and is where the core of Sonje Ayiti’s work takes place.

There I saw one of the organizations many community development projects.  A group of young men built 4 of the 30 planned incinerators for the municipality. Trash is a HUGE problem in Limonade, it’s lined up along the side of the streets, in the middle of the streets and scattered throughout the fields.

The local government provides little or no support for sanitation and many people simply throw trash on the streets. So instead of complaining and doing nothing, Sonje Ayiti and its volunteers are using meager resources to build incinerators to burn the trash and reduce volume.

Sonje Ayiti also runs a micro-lending program called “Koud-a-Koud.” Koud-a-Koud literally means “shoulder to shoulder,” but Sonje Ayiti takes the meaning to another level. With a 99% success rate, Koud-a-Koud lends sums of money (up to $500) to individuals or groups looking to start or support a small business. Since its inception 108 loans have been granted and only 1 has defaulted. 80% of the lenders are women and the types of businesses range from taxi to food services.  The Koud-a-Koud office space is a two room building. Its primary administrative staff is a young woman who is about my age. She was shy at first, but I think she has a great potential for leadership. The program is very popular and could use more funding.

(Pictured: Mayoral Candidate, Left. Student, Right)

In almost any developing country you will find someone, somewhere teaching an English class. The class I attended was unlike ANY I’ve ever been in! Haiti is currently undergoing political change. Limonade is not exempt. For the past couple of days the class has hosted local mayoral candidates. The candidate comes to speak and answer questions. I have participated in many of these and this one was DEEP! There were about 6 students, the instructor, myself and Gaby in the room along with the candidate. The students and Gaby asked concrete questions about his plan to clean up Limonade. He had none. As a pastor of a 300 member church, it seems as if this man was doing little for the community. I could see I look of anxiety and divestment in his face. I think the class agitated him a bit, hopefully to at least think about acting.

This post is getting long, my bandwidth shorter and there is still so much to share. I think the next post will include my experience while visiting the local hospital. I still can not get the stench of sickness out of my mind. It will also cover my visit with a local womens group, The Association of Valiant Women of Limonade (RAFAVAL), working to build power for themselves. My mind is beginning to churn and ideas are forming.  I think the women of RAFAVAL would do that to anyone who sits and talks with them. Visiting with them lifted my spirits and showed me once again just how complex Haiti is…as if I could ever forget.

Slow Down Baby You’re Going Too Fast

The past couple of weeks have gone by so quickly. Planning my trip to Haiti has consumed my thoughts and time since the idea first entered my my mind. Consumed in a good way. I had to book tickets, figure out where I was going to stay and who I was going to visit with. Fortunately the good folks over at Sonje Ayiti, the Cap-Haitien Health Network, TransAfrica Forum and Haiti 2015 have been SO helpful.

So how has this affected my personal life? Well that’s been interesting. My friends and family have been amazing. The outpouring of financial, spiritual and moral support has been invaluable. I talked their ears off, pestered them with details and shared my fears about this whole journey. They helped me raise over $1,600 and counting….

Without the support of so many people, this entire trip would not be possible.

The day I left for Miami was not so hot. My day at work was mentally intense. I was stressed out and ready to go. I even went a bit dramatic on a special someone. Luckily he confirmed that, no, he doesn’t think I’m crazy. He said that I just need to SLOW down. By the time I walked out of the office at 4:30pm…I felt a release. I felt the weight of the stress caused by my job slowly lift off of my shoulders. This trip is apart of a larger need for freedom.

While in Miami, I’m staying with two friends who are daring and hopeful beyond belief. In fact their 1,500 mile walk from Miami to Washington, DC inspired me to dare to DREAM. Juan Rodriguez and Felipe Matos are two of the four Trail of Dreams Walkers. I first met Felipe and Juan in 2009 during a Youth Organizing Training for Immigration Reform. The two young activists/organizers left an impression on my life and how I viewed my role in the social justice movement. Last night we talked about the broader immigrant rights movement with them and other members of Students Working for Equal Rights (SWEAR). The conversation re-energized my mind and spirit.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the day. I’ve never seen Miami this way, through the eyes of two DREAMers in the neighborhood of Little Havana. Miami is so much more than clubs and beaches. It’s helping to slow down and get my mind right for what will be one of the most significant trips in my life.

My Body, My Mind, My Womb

(Photo: Gwendolyn Magee, Lift Every Voice and Sing)

I want control over my body, the freedom to decide what happens in there, who I share it with and when I share it.

The right to choose what to do with my body has never really been totally up to me. As a child, my parents made health-based decisions for me. They decided what I would eat, when and where I would receive medical care and even what information would go into my head. That level of control was ok with me, my parents were my primary caregivers and did what they believed was best.

As a woman of color in the United States; my body, mind, hair and womb is constantly under the threat of being auctioned to the highest bidder. Regardless of where you live in this country, women’s rights are hotly debated. Whether the auctioneer is the federal government or the local Planned Parenthood; someone else is making decisions and influencing what we can do with our bodies. For many women, the culprit isn’t necessarily some outside player; oftentimes our partners and friends influence the decisions we make with our bodies.

Everyone has an agenda. The government, faith based institutions and non-profit organizations all have agendas. Those who are champions of women’s rights oftentimes pose the largest  issues for me. I recently viewed a documentary called Maafa 21. The documentary outlined what the researchers believed to be a concerted effort, by Planned Parenthood, to extinguish the Black community in the United States. While this documentary is highly controversial, it did make me think about my stance on the “choice” issue. I’ve always described myself as a pro-choice woman. I believe that women should have the choice TO HAVE and/or NOT TO HAVE a child. Unfortunately, I find the messaging around this issue deeply flawed on both sides. On the “pro-choice” side, the messaging is around our legal right to choose not to have a child. On the “pro-life” side, the messaging is around the moral dilemma and physical act of abortion.

It’s not just about our partners it’s about deciding not to consent through INACTION.

Both ends often miss what I think is the most important factor; the woman’s right to choose even before she has sex. I personally know women who refuse to purchase condoms because they believe the man should buy them. I know women who refuse to explore their own bodies because they believe only another man/woman should do so. I also know women who are waiting for marriage and know nothing about their anatomy or how to protect themselves during marriage (yes DURING marriage). Many of our girls are lost. I worked with teenage girls on the South side of St. Louis. OH the stories I heard and oh…the things they had no clue about.

Educating ourselves and our girls about sex shouldn’t JUST be about the act of sex. It should be about having healthy relationships and engaging in healthy behavior. Sexual health starts BEFORE sex. What we eat, our mental health and what life we want for ourselves affect our sexual health.  Americans focus too much on the act and not enough on the circumstances. Once women collectively deal with the circumstances and have ownership over them, our bodies and our minds we will belong to us. We will have more power and of course…more freedom.