#Selfieblan (or How to Take Photos in Haiti)

I received a message from a reader recently who was frustrated and simply needed to vent. I maintain this invitation to any of my readers, especially those who work in the nonprofit sector: if you ever need to get something off of your chest and can’t do so publicly for fear of offending donors, volunteers, or board members, you can vent to me. I’m a good listener/reader. If you lived in the Jacmel area I’d invite you to come sit on my porch, have a beer, and complain about whatever it is that’s got you stressed. Because I understand. But for those without access to my porch, my inbox is open to you. And even if you say something that inspires a blog post on my part, I promise to keep your rants anonymous. I think that it is one of the greatest problems facing the nonprofit sector that the majority of people think that it is uncriticizable because they’re all “helping” people. The individuals who carry out the work who have the closest perspective to the situations at hand and the most real relationships to the beneficiaries and the greatest sense of understanding are silenced in an attempt to allow the people who are giving the money and making the decisions to live blindly disillusioned about whether they really truly are helping or not or helping in the most effective way. It’s a crime, really. But I digress.

Back to my reader who wrote me. She works with children’s programs in Haiti and in her rant she said, “If have one more person come down to take selfies with [the kids in our programs], I’m going to scream!” Later in the message she referred to these people as “selfieblan”, which honestly cracked me up and I call upon all of my readers to make that hashtag go viral immediately. This subject has gotten a lot of mileage lately with articles like The Onion’s, 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture, and the Tumblr account, Humanitarians of Tinder. Some of my fellow Haiti expat bloggers have also shared personal experiences such as Jillian’s Missionary Confessions, When in Haiti Bring Your Camera, but Also Bring Your Respect. (<– Seriously, click on those if you haven’t seen them yet.) So I don’t need to repeat anything that’s already been said, but I do want to add my voice to the common cry that implores volunteers and donors who visit programs in cultures not of their own, “Quit offending local people with your photos!” It’s not that difficult. It is understood that you need to take photos to tell the story of your trip and hopefully to promote growth of the projects you’re visiting, but there’s a better way to do it with dignity for everyone involved. Especially now with the pervasiveness of social media in our lives now we need to be extra sensitive to the images that we’re sharing of others that will be out there for the world to see. So here are a few of my simple Green Mango suggestions of things to remember when you’re on a volunteer trip with your camera or smartphone in your hand.

Remember, it’s not about you.

Although modern voluntourism has become much more about the experience of the person on the trip than the benefits for the local people they are tripping to, the truth is that all of your Facebook friends already know what you look like. By simple virtue of having taken the photo, you’ve proven that you were there. You do not need to be the center of attention. Use your photos to show off the beauty of the place and the people that you are visiting. Use them to share things about this world that your Facebook friends might not already realize.

People are not Props!

Do not use local people in your photos just to make yourself look like a better White Savior. Jesus told all of the little children to come to him so that he could show them how God loves them, not so he could take a selfie with them.

from kevinwgarret on flickr

from kevinwgarret on flickr

Use photos to represent relationships.

If you won’t be able to tell anyone the names of the people in the photos with you later, then you probably don’t need to be taking their photo. If you’ve made good friends on your trips and want to remember the times you’ve enjoyed with them, then take pictures with those people. The little boy that you gave a sucker to in the street, probably not. The old woman that asked for some money to feed her kids, probably not. The cooks that made your meal every day and laughed with you when their piklies was so spicy that it made your eyes water, sure.

Ask Permission!

The fact that I even have to say this makes me ashamed of humanity. Don’t ever take someone’s picture if they don’t want you to. If you want to take pictures of vendors in the market, buy something from them first for crying out loud, then ASK if you can take their picture. If someone just walked into your place of work and started taking photos of you without any explanation, I doubt you’d be too happy either. Just ask. And if they say no, move on with your life.

Haiti 1744

A photo from my early days in Haiti. I have no idea who these half naked boys are and never saw them again.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Or in their parent’s shoes. How would you feel if a stranger came up and stuck a camera in your face? How would you feel if you knew that strangers were taking photos of your children and would be posting those photos to the internet as if they were best friends with your kids? Do you want your photo taken when you’re not feeling your best, are sad, or sick? Or just when you haven’t bathed for the day, had your coffee, are still in your pajamas? What if you had a flat tire and someone stopped to help you but before they leave they ask to take a picture to share with all of their friends? You’d know that person was just looking for a pat on the back and wasn’t really interested in helping another human who just needed help.

Make it come back to the subject.

If you’ve asked permission and they’ve agreed to let you take their picture, they’re probably doing so with the expectation that you’re going to take that photo and use it to promote programs and raise funds that will benefit them in some way. I learned to be even more specific with individual’s who ask to take photos at our organization, like at our school. If you want to take photos of our school and the kids there, then you’d sure better be sending some money back to us sometime in the future. You had better take those photos and tell everyone who sees them exactly how they can donate to us. Don’t use our programs and our participants to simply share with people about all of the need that you’ve seen. Be actively searching for ways to help satisfy those needs that you’ve seen through those photos. Otherwise the subjects just end up feeling used and exploited.

Hire a local photographer.

The first time I see a volontourist or mission team do this, I will give them the Do Gooder of the Year Award. There are people here who make a living as photographers and are able to get a lot more interesting photos than you because of their existing place within the culture. Hire one of them to join you for the week and take photos of all of your activities. You’ll be providing another local person with a job, you’ll be getting better photographs, you’ll be free to focus on the work that you’re doing and the people that you’re getting to know, and you’ll end up in more photos yourself without looking like a vapid narcissist. It’s a win-win for everybody!

There you have it. Happy picture taking! If you have any funny examples or stories of you breaking these rules, post them in the comments below.

The Transracial Temptation

Every time that my 88-year-old grandma walks into my studio in Iowa the first thing out of her mouth is always, “So you’re still painting black men, huh?”

“Yep, Grandma, still am.”

She doesn’t mean for it to be racist, she just really doesn’t understand why I don’t paint flowers or a nice lake or something once in a while. She doesn’t understand why, I, a very white man from a very white family in a very white small town in Iowa, would choose to make artwork with subjects whose skin color is so different from mine and my family’s and the majority of the people’s who view my work in shows in the Midwest. IMG_0177She knows that I live in a place where everybody except me is black, so the images that I paint reflect the world that I see every day. But the reality of where I create most of my art and where I display and sell most of my art is very different. And to grandma that doesn’t make sense. But to me, it wouldn’t make sense to paint anything else. Beyond the color of their skin and the texture of their hair, the people that I paint most effectively represent who I am as a human and as an artist. I would hope that other viewers of the work, no matter what their skin color is, would also be able to find something about the subjects of my paintings that reflects who they are. But the truth is that a lot of people will still see black men painted by a white man and not much more.

So, this week when I heard the news of Rachel Dolezal, a leader in the NAACP who had been living as a black woman for years despite having been born to white parents with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, I started to listen closely. It’s a strange story that has people of all races confused, some angered, others amused. And as I read through the news stories of her life, and all that she went through to convince people that she was black, I was a bit confused myself. But then I read a story that pointed out that in college as an art student she once submitted a portfolio of work that was all portraits of black people. This little bit of information, which might get lost on most readers, was used as proof of her delusion even back then. That’s when I started to see her side of the story a bit clearer. When someone makes the claim that “because she was a white person painting black people” clearly she’s not right in the head, then I start to get a little defensive. Clearly the debate is not actually about her artwork but about how she used her ability to pass as a black woman as a way to become a leader in an organization that represents the interests of African Americans. But all of these pieces of her past are used to suggest that she has been “appropriating,” “fetishizing,” and “exploiting” a culture that does not belong to her for years. IMG_0178-4

Now this is where I think we have to be very careful of labeling any white person who feels more naturally a part of black culture with these labels. In the dialog surrounding Dolezal, the word “transracial” has come up, mostly to be discredited completely by the media as absolute bullhunky. And this is where I start to feel myself more personally pulled into Dolezal’s story. Because although I would never try to alter my appearance or claim that I was actually black, in almost every aspect of my life, I identify much more strongly with black culture than the culture that I was born into as a white man. My favorite visual artists, writers, and musicians are all black. I listen to hip hop music and watch films by black people, filled with black people. I feel most fully myself when I am surrounded by black people. All of my closest friends are black. Most of the people I’ve ever dated are black. I now live in the world’s first black republic. I speak a very black language. My white friends back home frequently comment on how much happier and more alive I seem when I am here living the life of a black Haitian. And yet my skin is very white. You can ask the sunburn that is currently making my forehead peel. White.

Still, to my grandma’s chagrin, I continue to make paintings filled with black men. And the only thing keeping my artwork from being labeled appropriative, fetishizing, and exploiting, is the fact that the subjects are Haitian and not African American. So instead of being considered cultural appropriation, they can be called humanitarian activism or cross cultural awareness. Because even when compared to black Americans, black Haitians are still considered less than, in need of help, deserving of pity. So when I live a life entirely defined by black Haitian culture and become a leader in an organization working on behalf of black Haitians and make art of black Haitians, I am considered to be helping and advocating and doing good work. But when Rachel Dolezal lives a life entirely defined by African American culture and becomes a leader in an African American culture, and makes art of African Americans, she is considered to be harming and offending and reversing progress.

To me it’s a very strange sort of evidence of modern day imperialism and the White/Western Savior Complex still rearing its ugly head. Because black Haitian culture is still considered by so many as something needing help, I am encouraged as a white guy to paint black people and record hip hop music and study voodoo culture and still be seen to be helping the poor black Haitians through it all. I cannot be seen as simply appreciating the beauty and the power and the message within those cultural mediums, I have to be seen as helping in order to make it legitimate. I am not allowed to really feel a part of them but have to be seen as lifting them up from the outside because that is what the “white man’s burden” is. But African Americans still maintain their dignity enough to a point where a white person appreciating their culture is seen as the opposite of helping. A white person immersing themselves in African American culture is an unwelcome slap in the face. All of the good work that Dolezal has done, which the NAACP continues to stand by, gets criticized because of an underlying understanding that African Americans are still Americans and we don’t share our identities with anyone unless we can impose them upon them.

So the real difference and the real offense in Dolezal’s story comes down to the fact that she lied about it. And this brings me back to the term transracial. It makes me wonder if much like in gender identities and sexual orientation identities and religious identities, maybe we need to start allowing some space for a grey area when it comes to racial identity. Because I have a feeling that if Rachel Dolezal was ever given the freedom to consider herself transracial from the start, she wouldn’t have ever had to lie about being black. She could have openly identified as a women born with Caucasian skin, but identifying within her spirit much more strongly with black culture. She would not have had to reject her family or build such an elaborate fairy tale. But because that option was never given to her and because even now that option is being discredited as nonsense, she felt like she had to go to the extreme lengths that she did in order to live the life that felt most natural to her. And in that sense, I have to defend her right to live that life. I have a feeling that given the option, there are more people than we realize who might truly identify as transracial throughout history. There are certainly examples of others changing their race not for survival but simply because they want to feel more themselves. This certainly is not said to discount the histories of the many people who have had to pose as different races for their safety and freedom, their trials should be remembered and celebrated as truly contributing to the progress of civil rights. But to me, Dolezal’s story is much more one of individual rights, one that I, and I think many others, can sympathize with on some level. It’s true that she can never know what it’s like to have grown up black and endured the discrimination and overcome the obstacles that come with that. But it’s also true that her wanting to be part of the present and future struggles of that group by making herself culturally, spiritually, and even physically a part of that group didn’t hurt anyone. So why can’t there be a space allowed for her and others like her to feel welcome to express their identity how they want?

So I’m not going to say that this is or isn’t racism or that transracial is or isn’t a thing because I believe that those who’ve experienced racism are the ones who get to define what it is. However, if I was ever offered the option to identify as transracial, would I? I can’t say for sure. I typically don’t like labels of any kind for any reason and I prefer to perceive people according to their deepest parts rather than their outside parts. But in this case, I can guarantee you that I’d be tempted. I would be tempted to get comfortable in that identifiable grey area.

So tell me what you think. I know I’ve got readers of all races on this blog. Is Rachel Dolezal delusional or brave? An insult or encouragement? Offensive or misunderstood? Or something in between that we as a society aren’t quite ready to recognize yet? Are there any parts of her story that you can relate to?

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A Green Mango Pilgrimage – Part 1- Devil’s Tower

IMG_2368

My life is in Haiti right now. But sometimes I have to travel back to the US and when I do my time is usually filled with fundraisers, meetings, and administrative catch up. When I’m lucky I get to invest some time in making art and visiting with friends and family. But my time in the US seldom includes room for investing in my own spiritual well being or exploring new ways of experiencing God in different spaces and environments. This time back to the US I have made a decided commitment to change that. All of those other things that I have to do require me to do quite a bit of traveling and so I’m adding it to my agenda in each new place that I pass through to visit a certain sacred space and spend some time encountering the unique holy histories that exist in each one. Although this is a personal journey, I believe that we never truly can experience God ourselves unless we are willing to discover and affirm the ways that the Sacred presents itself to other humans who are each on their own journeys as well. So I will be sharing my experiences here on the blog in the hopes that others can find something of value in what I learn myself. Feeling the journey is primary, but sharing it will also be important to me.

This is something that I’ve felt propelled to do for some time now, but last week I decided to officially start the pilgrimage while in South Dakota by making a visit to Devil’s Tower (actually in Wyoming), which is considered a sacred site by many native tribes including the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Sioux. It seemed like an appropriate genesis for my journey considering the traditional stories attached to it are about transformation, escape, and rebirth. The legends vary slightly from tribe to tribe but are all similar:

Seven young children were out playing one day, collecting flowers and berries, and chasing antelope. They had wandered far from home following where nature led them when they realized that they were lost. They looked all around, each pointing in different directions, but they could not find the way home. Then one of the children noticed a giant bear coming towards them and yelled to the others. They all turned to run away as fast as they could and the bear chased them swiftly running behind. After running as far as they could they slowed and found that even more bears were now closing in on them, all great and terrifying. With no where to run they knew that they would soon be devoured by the bears so they all gathered close together and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit had pity on them and the ground beneath them began to tremble and raise up from the earth. The bears dug their claws into the rock tower trying to climb it as it rose into the sky but they only slid down it as it continued to rise with the children on top higher and higher out of the bears’ reach. The children now rose into the sky and the Great Spirit turned them into the constellation Pleiades, which still shine over the tower and the plains every night.

IMG_2401This is a powerful narrative to me. Anyone who’s read my book knows how much I love a good metaphor of people turning into stars. So I went up there last week to get in touch with the sacred energy that exists there and spend some time reflecting on what it means to be lost and desperate for salvation in this world. I had driven past the tower from a distance before but never had actually been up to the base on the hiking trail to spend time within the hallowed environment there. And yet, it is difficult to truly call it hallowed because it is indeed a sacred space, but it has also been turned into a tourist attraction as well. So one must be very intentional to find the Sacred there despite the tourists and the rock climbers and the guides. But if you go with that intention, and take a step off of the trail and just take a deep breath, then it is impossible to deny that you are in the presence of something holy and powerful. And I think that whenever you do have to opportunity to stand in that presence, you must allow yourself to surrender to whatever the Spirit has to say to you.

So I took the chance and found a large rock to sit behind for some meditation where no guide could yell at me for leaving the trail and I wouldn’t be able to hear the tourists talking about their zumba classes and kids’ last weeks at school. I had to take a moment to escape from the bears that may be chasing me down in this world. Sometimes living in Haiti and trying to do work that you know is good can feel like that. So many outside forces constantly after you, impossible to escape, and everyday you feel like they’re about to devour you. It makes you want to cry out to the Great Spirit, “I don’t get it! I just came out here to pick berries and now I’m running for my life! I just want to go home!” But then you realize that the Great Spirit is made of Love and will lift you up, place you in the sky, and give you a new home. Salvation when you’re lost. But in order for any of us to find that new home ourselves, we must first find the place within ourselves where the Great Spirit may be at home.  As I continue to visit other sacred locations within this world, I think that the real part of the journey will be discovering the sacred space that resides within me and being more conscious of what I allow into it. Those other influences can keep clawing away, trying to get at me, but I have to make a covenant with myself to continue rising above.

IMG_2386One of the greatest parts of praying at Devils Tower is knowing that you’re not alone. All around the tower are prayer cloths tied to the branches of trees. Traditional practice by native tribes of the area, these cloths are left behind so that their surroundings may be anointed by the prayers and intentions of the maker and act as a blessing to those who may come into that space after them. It serves as an inspiration to me, a solitary sojourner, to see these remnants of other people’s sacred encounters in that place. Although I don’t know who they are or what they prayed for and they don’t know me, I know that they were there with the same Spirit that I am there and they left behind a blessing that I am now a part of.  They don’t kneed to know what tribe I am from or what name I have for my God or the Spirit that we are connected through, with their prayer cloths, they welcome me into that space to commune with the sacred energy of nature and humanity. They invite me to draw my eyes upward, gaze into the heavens, and discover salvation. Discover peace.

I am not sure where my next step in this pilgrimage will land, but I hope that you will continue to join me as I journey. If you have any suggestions of places I should visit, I’d love to hear them. For now, if you do get the chance to visit Devils Tower, please take it and know that behind a large rock on the south side of tower there is a prayer left for you from me.

 

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Top 10 Posts (My 100th Post)

When I wrote my first Green Mango post 3 years ago, I never expected it to become such a sustained endeavor. I didn’t set out to create a platform that would be a space for dialog on such serious issues. Mostly I just wanted to make fun of fanny packs. But now, it’s I00 posts later, and I’m extremely grateful to all of my readers who have joined in the discussion, encouraging me, and often times challenging me as well to see as many sides to the stories as possible. So, in celebration of me making it to 100 posts, I’m sharing my top 10 posts so far. These aren’t necessarily just my most viewed or most shared posts, but also some lesser viewed posts that I, personally feel are important. Here’s to staying green; learning, growing, exploring, for as long as possible! Leather_Fanny_Pack 1. Top 10 Fashion Crimes Committed by Mission Teams and Aid Workers

My first, and by far my most read post ever, this is the one that started it all.

2. Poor Isn’t A Dog

So much of what I write on this blog is inspired by my roommates, and this post more than any other represents them and it resulted in some of the best advice I’ve ever received from my roommates, “Just eat the potatoes.”

3. 17 Expats You’ll Find in Haiti This one became popular because everyone (including myself) could find themselves in the list. The takeaway: it takes us all working together no matter how crazy we are.

4. Let Your Soul Poop Its Pants Because it just feels soooooo good to let it all out.

5. 11 Things I’m Tired of Hearing You Say in Haiti Out of any of my controversial posts, this is the one that I paid the greatest price for personally, but also the one that got shared in the most public ways beyond social media. A lot of frustration went into the writing and I’ve tried to find better ways to get my point across since. Still, this one gets many more views than its positive counterpart, 10 Things I Love Hearing You Say in Haiti.

6. Whatever You Do, Don’t Start Your Own NGO Maybe the most important advice I can give from my own experience.

7. 11 Reasons I Don’t Go to Church Anymore Because everyone’s always looking for reasons. These are some of mine.

8. Not Spiritual Enough I can’t believe how many times I keep hearing stories like this from expats in Haiti who are doing incredible work but keep getting judged by the people who are supposed to be supporting them based on how spiritual they think they should be. Seriously, World, please stop doing this.

9. Dear Chikungunya, I Hate You This mostly makes the list because it provided the perfect opportunity to use some perfect gifs. But also because it’s important. A year later it still affects those who were infected.

10. Don’t You Just Hate Getting Asked For Money? People love to praise us for all of the good work we do but as soon as we ask for money to keep doing that good work, their attitude changes. These are some thoughts for anyone who ever donates money to anything.

Thanks for reading! I  hope that you stick with me for hundreds more posts! If there’s a topic you’d like me to write about or a question you think I should address in the future, please send me an email with your ideas at thegreenmangoblog@gmail.com. Peace. Donate

Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010

There’s been a trembling in my soul ever since I heard the news about the earthquake that has devastated Nepal. Since I just came back to the US last week, the images coming from the disaster zone have been bringing up too many memories. I have intentionally tried to avoid them as much as possible because I don’t need to see them to know what they look like. I have other similar images burned in my memory already. I don’t need to hear the stories to know what they say. I have 5-year-old stories that sound the same that replay through my head every day. I don’t need all of the details to understand the horrors and the trauma that the people of Nepal are living through right now. All I need to hear is the word “earthquake” and a mention of the ever climbing death toll and my heart and my spirit are already there with them because a large part of my heart and my spirit are always lingering back in Haiti, January 12, 2010.

And yet, I know that Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010. And for this reason, I have stayed silent. Because I know that the last thing that the people in Nepal need right now is one more person comparing them to Haiti. I know that the last thing that the people in Nepal need right now is one more person trying to tell other people where they should donate to or how they should help without any personal knowledge of the situation on the ground. I know that they don’t need more people a million miles away using their current plight to pretend that they care about humanity by donating some money through Facebook or to the Red Cross. I know that they don’t need one more person feeling bad for them. They’ve had their hearts ripped out and their lives turned upside down and all the truths that they thought they believed to be true about the universe suddenly challenged by something they cannot understand. So as long as their most basic needs are met, right now, I’m assuming that all that they need is some space to grieve. Some time to process. Some arms to hold them up when they feel weak and can’t stand in between the sobs that come without warning. They need something solid to lean on in midst of the fear.

This is what the trembling in my own soul would tell me because that’s what I needed in Haiti in 2010 but the only place that I could find it was through the Haitians who had been through the earthquake with me. Not from any other outside source. No organizations or volunteers or aid workers or government agencies. Other survivors.

Nepal 2015

Nepal 2015

Haiti 2010

Haiti 2010

But Nepal 2015 is not Haiti 2010. So I hesitate to offer any words at all to heap onto the situation. Words, after all, are what made the burden so heavy five years ago. This puts a writer into a difficult place who is used to expressing his feelings with words. And right now I feel so many things for Nepal that I had to write this down and get it out there. I hope that it builds up and does not only make the load heavier for anyone in Nepal who is already carrying around what may seem like tons of emotional rubble with them. Because I do not know what they are going through, I can only guess based on my own experience. I’ve read too many articles already of others trying to project their own emotions onto the victims and trying to predict what the near future holds through the relief effort and trying to prescribe solutions that I assume none of the victims are actually interested in right now. Yet at the same time, with something so personal, I cannot remain silent forever.

So, if I have any words at all that are worth contributing to the situation, here they are:

To my good-hearted American and Western friends:

I know you want to help. But the truth is that unless you have a direct connection to Nepal or at least a secondary connection to someone with a direct connection, there’s not much you can do. The most crucial parts of the relief have already been done by the people on the ground and the fact is that the victims will probably be able to find food and water and a tent regardless of whether you donate now or not. After that the rebuilding needs to be done by the ones who did the original building in the first place. Donating to organizations to rebuild homes or schools or temples does more harm than good unless those organizations are the ones who built the homes and schools and temples that got destroyed in the first place. It just takes agency out of the hands of the ones who have to deal with the consequences in the future. The Nepalese citizens who right now and in the coming weeks, are going to be hungry for nothing more than a sense of control once again. This, I can say from experience, was the most difficult thing to lose, a sense of control. And the more that donors put the power into the hands of NGOs, the more the common citizens lose control of their own situations. So, if you do have the direct connection to help those victims regain control of their own lives, do so by donating directly to them without any strings attached. And if you definitely want to donate to an organization, search out one that is locally led and was there before the earthquake and has sustainable plans to be there long after. Then once you’ve found it, make a long term commitment to supporting them on a regular basis. Next year, or in a few years are when they’re going to need the support the most.

To the Nepalese people now reeling from the loss and trauma:

I can’t feed you any BS about it how it’s going to get better because I know right now that would be of no comfort to you. The truth is that whatever sorrow, bitterness, anger, confusion, despair, fear, or whatever emotions you’re feeling right now, it’s okay. And it’s not going to get better anytime soon. It will eventually, but you’re going to be stuck in these feelings for a long time while everyone else around you tries to fix things. Take your time. And in those moments, cling to those around you who know what you’re going through. Lean on them for support and be there for them when they need to lean on you. Share your story as much as possible. Tell it to anyone who will listen because the more you keep it inside the stronger the aftershocks will be within you down the road. Cling to your faith and remember that you are more powerful that you may ever realize. No matter how many walls around you crumble, there is a sacred beauty and strength within you that cannot be destroyed. Allow it to push you forward.

To my Haitian brothers and sisters who remember what it’s like:

I know they gave you Cholera, forgive them. I know you lost 100 times more loved ones than they did, but the loss of even one to such tragic circumstances affects us all. Take a moment to grieve with them. I know that you don’t have any money that you can send or even have the ability to connect in anyway to the Victims in Nepal. The best thing that you can do for them now is to provide them with proof that it does get better. Show them that there is hope in the life that lies beyond the rubble. For the sake of the Nepalese people who are suffering right now and for the sake of the memory of our own that we lost 5 years ago, don’t take for granted the opportunity that you’ve been given to continue to make life in your communities as beautiful and as worthwhile as possible. I know that you were used as an experiment in aid 5 years ago, and that experiment didn’t go well. Don’t let it be in vain. Don’t let the world forget the lessons that they learned. Continue to tell your stories and remember who you are as Haitians. Remember the revolutionary spirit that has gotten you to where you are and allow it to push you forward. I know there are still aftershocks in your soul. If you ever need a shoulder to lean on, you know where to find me.

As far as what I’m going to do now with the own trembling in my soul for Nepal, I’m going to spend some time trying to form some direct connections in the coming months. And through those connections, I’m going to do some work with my artist friends in Haiti to try to build some bridges and lend some support emotionally, spiritually, and hopefully even financially to those in Nepal. I have a very strong sense that right now if anyone can help the people of Nepal, it’s the people of Haiti. I’m going to do what I can to be a part of making that possible.

I always have a donate button at the end of my posts here on the Green Mango. Usually if you are kind enough to click that button and donate some money, it just goes to keeping me alive. But this time, if anyone donates through that button in the following week, I’ll be using those funds to get this cross cultural project started between Haiti and Nepal. I’ll be sharing more details about the project over on my art website when I have worked them out more but for now, if you trust me enough to contribute, I guarantee you that it will be going towards something unlike any other “help Nepal” project out there right now. Thanks.

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My White Privilege Wants Little Haitian Girls to Read

So the other day I was sitting, chilling with some friends here when I decided that I had a hankerin’ for some fried food. (I’m a farm boy from Iowa, so yes, I get hankerin’s.) plantainsSo Papi and I went to get some plantains and pork from our usual vendor, only on this day she didn’t have any fritay for some reason. So, since my roommate, Christophe was sitting right there, Papi and I borrowed his moto and headed up the mountain a little way s to the next vendor. At this vendor’s place we were given two chairs to sit on on their porch while they brought us two Prestige and a plate full of the best grio I’ve ever had in this country. Seriously, I’m officially transferring my fritay allegiance to this vendor. It was definitely worth the extra drive up the mountain. But none of that’s really the point. This isn’t a post about delicious fritay, it’s a post about race (again).

Because here I was, at this new fritay place, just enjoying my pork. I didn’t know this vendor or any of her family. I couldn’t tell you any of their names although they all clearly knew me and acted like I was an old friend that they’d been waiting to see for a long tie when I showed up there. Then, while Papi and I were eating, here comes the vendor’s husband with a sly grin on his face, dragging their little daughter behind him. He stood her right in front of me in her bright pink checkered kindergarten school uniform, looking ashamed to be alive.

“Mister Lee,” the Dad said, “I want you to have a talk with this girl. Every school book I buy for her, she just rips the pages out of. She doesn’t understand how important and how valuable these books are. She doesn’t want to learn. No matter what I do she just doesn’t respect her education and she keeps ripping up her books.”

I looked at him like he just asked me to tell a fish how to fly. I racked my brain searching for reasons why this stranger would think that my encouragement would hold any weight on this young girl’s scholastic future. Because I’ve built a school so clearly he knows that I believe education is essential for all children? Or maybe because I’ve coordinated sponsorship programs that prove that I believe that every child deserves a chance to learn as much as possible? Or maybe because I’m a writer and have published books myself, so obviously I hold books, in general, in very high regard? Maybe somebody told him what a great blog I write for? But even if any of these reason meant anything to the father, they clearly meant absolutely nothing to the 4-year-old girl that he drug behind him. So, why on earth would hi think that she would give any extra respect to what I had to say about books and learning opposed to anyone else? Because I’m white. He didn’t ask Papi who was sitting right next to me, and has spent 2 years in the US, and was paying for the fritay and beer what he thought about her books. He asked me. Because my skin is white. And having white skin in this country means that I”m automatically assumed to be more educated, more sophisticated, and more worldly than all of the darker skinned Haitians around me. And so when my white mouth tells this little black Haitian girl not to rip up her books, it means a lot more than if any of the other black Haitian adults around her every day told her the same exact thing.

So, realizing this, rather than getting irritated by the inverted racism behind it, I embraced it and used it for the sake of this little girl and her relationship with reading. I reached out my hand and told her to come talk to me. Taking her hand, I gave her my best impromptu lecture on the importance of reading and how she should treat her books like friends of hers rather than destroying them. I tried to encourage her to embrace her schooling as a vital step towards building a brighter future. (And then a rainbow stretched out over my head and songbirds sang.)

“Do you understand?” She nodded her head.

“You won’t rip up anymore books?” She shook her head no.

IMG_1051“Promise me?” She nodded again. Then I let go of her hand and sent her back to her father. He smiled at me like I had turned water into wine and walked away with his daughter leading her into a future that was apparently looking a little brighter because my white privilege wanted her to read.

I don’t know if my motivational speech really made any difference in how that little girl will think about books from now on, but I do know that her dad will always have it to use to remind her. Whenever she doesn’t want to read or wants to rip her pages, I know her dad will be saying, “Don’t you remember what the white man told you? I don’t think the white man would be very happy if he saw you right now.” And although it’s true that a very large part of me is very uncomfortable that that is how our world operates, if my being white helps that one little girl to grow an interest in reading, then so be it.

Those of us who actually possess this privilege based on absolutely no merit of our own but based on the tone of our skin need to ask ourselves what we’re using that privilege for. Are we acknowledging the privilege and using it to make our voices heard as a force for good? Or are we denying the privilege and yelling at everyone, “Don’t call me blan!” pretending that we don’t see color?” There’s a very fine line between using white privilege as a tool for effective allyship and advocacy, and falling into the white savior complex where we exploit the privilege to establish an illegitimate superiority. But being aware of that line and being sensitive to the complex histories and feelings that exist on both sides of it make it worth trying to find more ways to fall on the side of using racial influence for sincerely positive progress. Whether it’s for fighting for more just law enforcement, more diversity at the Oscars, or just trying to get a little Haitian girl to read, we can’t pretend that race doesn’t matter. And the sooner that we all recognize that and find ways to work through it together, the sooner we’ll arrive at a place where someday, maybe, it really won’t matter at all.Donate

PCAP

When Bad Logos Happen to Good People

PCAPLast year I took this photo at the beach in Jacmel. I took it thinking that it was one of the worst logos and worst names for a nonprofit that I’d ever seen and thought that I’d probably want the image sometime to refer to of exactly what not to do. I knew it would probably come in handy for the blog sometime. So I’m a logo snob. I studied art and design so I’m particularly sensitive to how we communicate things visually. But this one was especially bad. Why is it so horrible, you ask? The image itself implies an offensive hierarchy where the giver is seen as being higher, superior to the bottom dwelling receivers who are so desperate that they are reaching out for pity. In the name, the very first word, the primary description of the children is “poor” which demonstrates a skewed focus from the start which dehumanizes the individuals who are supposed to be served by the project. Not to mention that the logo and the name are both too general, too vague, and too inflated with a very long expired approach to charity work where there are rich people giving stuff to poor people without any collaboration, empowerment, or true development.

Not only were the logo and the name bad, but they were on the side of a bad truck. One of those giant trucks with cages on the back for the white people to ride in so that they look like zoo animals as they drive through the Haitian streets to wave at all of the little kids that stare at them. So I took the photo knowing that through some of the design consultation work that I do with different groups it would serve as the perfect example of what to avoid in branding. And since then I have indeed used it multiple times for that exact purpose. But I never used it for anything on the blog yet and that was a year ago.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I got a message from one of my readers who was going to be in the Jacmel area with a mission team and they wanted to meet me. They wanted to visit me in Mizak and learn more about the work that I do here and then see if I could travel back to where they’re working. They were visiting a children’s home in the nearby community of Camatin which their church back in Indiana supports financially, but they were hoping that I could come along to help them better understand the operations of this project that they were involved with. They had some questions on the way the children’s home was run and also the effectiveness of their involvement as foreigners and they hoped that I could help them figure out some answers by helping through the language barrier and interpreting the cultural situations that influence the work there. I always look forward to a chance to meet my readers in person and also to learn about initiatives that I’m not familiar with that are working within our local communities here, so I agreed to their invitation and we made plans for the exchange.

After they came to visit me in Mizak, I was to ride back with them to Camatin. It was starting to get dark out by that time, so I didn’t even notice the truck that we were climbing up into for the ride back. I didn’t notice, that is, until the next morning when I woke up in Camatin and walked out onto the second story porch where we were staying and saw the logo on the side of the truck in the driveway. It was the exact same truck that I had photographed last year! I started laughing out loud at the absurdity of this strange bit of serendipity until the leader of the group heard me and came out to ask what was so funny. Knowing that he was a reader of the blog and understood my critical perspective on so many nonprofits, I had to tell him the truth. I told him the whole story, how I saw their truck on the beach a year ago, probably with some of them even in it, and judged it very harshly for the logo and name. I had to tell him how I had used them as a bad example to other groups who were working on ethical branding. I told him how ever since I saw it on the beach I have frequently wondered about the organization behind the logo and what kind of work it actually accomplished in Haiti (because there’s no way I could actually know from their branding). Now there I was, having ridden in their truck the night before and having spent the night at their headquarters.

To my delight, he laughed along with me and told me the story of the logo. He said that it’s been around since the 80’s when some well intentioned Americans got involved with the children’s home which had already been established by a local Haitian businessman. They incorporated the home as a nonprofit in the States and gave it that name and logo. Those Americans and the churches that they were from that had first supported the home had long since cut ties with the organization, but the nonprofit structure in the States and the name Poor Children’s Assistance Project, have remained in tact with a 2 person board responsible for it. Yet, it seems that the organization lacks any real invested leadership stateside concerned with updating it’s vision or reconsidering their branding to be more appropriate for their current status as a single children’s home caring for a total of twenty young girls, with an uncertain future as regulations for orphan care and adoption continue to change. They also lack leadership in Haiti as the whole project depends on the direction of one single man who inherited the project from his father and doesn’t have such a heart for it.

Despite all of this there are 20 little girls in that home who depend on its operation for everything in their lives. And there are a lot of Americans and Haitians collectively who care deeply about these girls’ well being and their futures. During my one day with this group at the children’s home I learned that the issues facing their programs there are truly much more complex than a bad logo and bad name on a bad truck. But I also met the girls who stay there and the women who take care of them and the staff that work to make sure all of their needs are provided for. I learned of their needs that might have a better solution possible for resolving them but will probably be impossible to ever implement that solution because of the systems of decades old charity that their needs are woven into from the start which is too complicated to undo. I found myself wishing the absolute best for the girls there and the staff that’s responsible for them but found it hard to believe that the absolute best would ever be reachable for them. For those reasons I applaud those people who are doing their absolute best to support this project despite the imperfection of the situation and encouraged those supporters who were there that week to continue their support any way that they could. There’s a future that’s going to be available to these girls that might not have been otherwise, and that always deserves to be celebrated.

I may have cringed when I first saw the logo on the beach, but now I’m thankful for learning the story behind it and the lives that are connected to it and I’m thankful for the friends that I met along the way. But next time I hate a logo on a truck on the beach, or on a t-shirt in the airport, or on a building in the street, now maybe I’ll invite Karma to bring that logo’s story back around to overlap with my own story. You just never know.

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