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


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.



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.



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


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.


Whatever You Do, Don’t Start Your Own NGO

I have often been asked my advice for individuals who are starting their own organizations and after years of nurturing my own start up org, being involved in starting and encouraging a number of others and now on the brink of starting another brand new one, my best advice is: DON’T DO IT! This is a case where I implore all off the other justice-loving, peace-fighting, hard working, big-dreaming hippie do gooders out there to do as I say and not as I do. I’m too far into the deep end of the intoxicating rush of designing logos and crafting mission statements and training staffs and mobilizing groups around common goals to make it out alive. But you still have a chance to save your own soul! Whatever great idea you have for the next life changing organization to introduce into the world, take a moment to bathe in the the very brief euphoria of the hypothetical, and then quickly abandon all of your brainstorms and swiftly run in the other direction. The truth is that there are better ways to channel your lust for making a difference than making one more well intentioned acronym to add to the global alphabet soup of good deeds.

I’m not writing this to rain on anybody’s parade but to lend my support to the idea that the way that humanitarian work is done is truly changing and the future does not need any more MONGOs (My Own NGOs) to flourish. I am also not saying this because I regret starting my own or because I think others have been mistakes. But the way we do things even since I founded my first 5 years ago has changed drastically. We collectively have learned a lot and we’re at a tipping point where things must change to improve and even maintain the prestigious reputation that humanitarian work has held in the past. We have learned a lot from the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and all of the failures that followed. We have learned a lot from Greg Mortenson and Somaly Mam and Yele Ayiti and Invisible Children. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs that weren’t equipped to handle fame and recognition and the support that comes with it to carry out their grand visions. We’ve learned a lot from MONGOs with very big ambitions and even bigger hearts but absolutely no cultural or professional expertise.

IMG_1219-001I, personally, have learned a lot from all of the ego inflating highs and the soul sucking lows that I’ve gone through myself in my MONGO experience. Luckily I’ve been able to make it through all of those highs and lows, as have the organizations that I’ve been involved with, while maintaining some hope still for the future, but there have been too many days along the way where I have seen the humiliating gateway to failure looming dangerously close. And although I and the orgs have survived in the big picture, there have been too many smaller failures in the process of learning to survive that make the bigger picture much less enjoyable to believe in. (Somewhere in there there’s a metaphor about seeing the forest for the trees.)

The truth is that you shouldn’t start an NGO of your own because in order to succeed you have to give up too much of yourself and You are too precious of a thing to sacrifice so completely to some greater abstract notion of altruism. I know, I know, cynical old crabby doom and gloom. But here’s the glimmer of hope, the crocus pushing up through the cold, icy snow: You can make a difference! But in order to do so, You have to remain the beautiful creature that you already are. The beautiful creature that believed it was possible to do something great in the first place. That beautiful creature that dreamed of a world better than the one they knew and thought that they could play a role in making it come true. Be that beautiful creature and don’t destroy it by trying to start another NGO. It’s the most guaranteed way to crush those beliefs and suffocate those dreams. The people that you think will be there to support you and encourage you along the way will end up being the ones doubting and ridiculing and criticizing you. Or you might find that you get so much support you don’t know what to do and the next thing you know you’re wandering in the street naked babbling like a crazy person while someone videotapes you in secret to share with the world.

So, now if you decide to follow through with your idea for an NGO anyway, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe you’re just a little masochistic like me and are drawn to the suffering. This is one of the reasons I refer to myself as a green mango. They’re masochistic little fruit. Mangoes actually need some sort of trauma to thrive. When nature is the harshest, mangoes love it. And in order to maintain the right kind of crazy to run your own NGO you have to have some of that attitude where you welcome the pain and the failures and turn them into opportunities to thrive. Welcome the bitter reality and still find a way to turn it into something sweet. But even then, even if your desire to help others trumps the logic that says it’s not possible, there are better ways to follow through in this day and age than by starting your own NGO.

And yet, I realize that sometime’s it’s simply safer to stick with what we know. And for years we’ve been told that NGO’s are part of the answer to the world’s problems. That’s a large part of the reason why I am standing at an impossible intersection that leads to building another MONGO right now. Despite everything, it’s what I know, and it would be a shame not to apply everything that I’ve learned in the past 5 years to something that means so much to me. You want to know more about it? Check out the Facebook site for The Mountaintop BAZ Foundation. Make a donation if you want. As far as MONGOs go, I think this one’s pretty damn sweet.

But, I repeat, just because I’m doing it doesn’t mean you should. Especially if you are new to the NGO world, I urge you to carve out a different path than the one that I and many others have found to work. The fact is that it won’t work forever, it may not even work for much longer, and I know that you’d rather be a part of the future. Create the future if you have to. Make it one full of more beauty and dignity and less institutionalized begging and pathetic logos and websites. Make it more about justice and less about charity. Make it a future that down the road, old fart humanitarians like me can say we were proud to be a part of when we were.

Why Can’t We Have Microwaves and Racial Justice?

I have a couple of very close Haitian friends who have recently returned to our community in Haiti after spending a significant amount of time in the US. Now that they’re back, of course, many of our other friends like to hear about their American experiences and often fantasize about visiting sometime themselves. As these conversations evolve under the mango trees and amidst the songs of chickens and crickets, it never takes long for the guys who have traveled to issue a warning along the lines of, “But being a black guy in the US isn’t always as sweet as it sounds” Then the others look to me for some sort of explanation.

Although I can’t say what it’s really like to be a black man in the US, I find myself taking a deep breath and doing my best to explain the complicated mess of race relations that currently exist in our country. I try to explain to them the stories of Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, and John Crawford III. I try to explain to them how those stories can exist in the same country as the stories of Barack Obama, and Oprah Winfrey, and Beyonce, and Wyclef Jean. I try to explain how Martin Luther King Jr. was an inspiration to millions but he was also shot for being so inspirational. And how some people think that inspiration isn’t supposed to come from certain colors I try to explain how in the US my Haitian friends there can indeed use the same water fountain as me and sit next to me on the bus, but the KKK still exists and functions freely. I try to explain to them that although, if they did come to my hometown, they would be welcomed in the community and greeted with kindness, they’ll also just as often be presumed to be thugs, and thieves, and gang members, and drug dealers. That if they decided to protest with me in the streets I might get some eyes rolled at me but they’d probably get spit on.

I try to explain all of this and still justify how we can call ourselves the land of the free and the home of the brave. I try to explain to them that the only real way to be completely free and brave in our country is to be white, Caucasion, heterosexual, employed, not poor, and speak fluent English. Anything else and there will be plenty of people finding plenty of reasons to hate you. And then they’ll defend their hatred in the name of the Constitution and the God that they claim to believe in. We’ll hate you if you’re Mexican, Arab, Muslim, Voudouist, Queer, Trans, homeless, handicapped, depressed, or just a little weird. We won’t say that we hate you because of those things because that would just expose our ignorance. We’ll say we hate you because of other less obvious reasons but essentially they all boil down to hating you because you’re different. Because you don’t fit the status quo that we’ve imagined to define our country’s alleged greatness. Because our ingrained prejudices and our undeniable Privilege suggest that your differences weaken the curve.

I try to explain this to my Haitian friends hoping, that me standing there among them, the only white in a varied spectrum of browns, makes me somehow immune to the injustices that we normalize in our US American society. I try to explain this hoping that they’ll recognized how ashamed I am to admit this reality of where I come from.

My friends who’ve been there have seen the stories on the news and have been able to imagine their own image in the place of the victims. But then they come back to Haiti and all of their friends think that they’ve just returned from the Promised Land. How does one explain something like that? How do we reconcile what we’ve created with what we claim as our identity? I’ve struggled with these questions as many have for a while now. I wrote about my feelings after Ferguson and then thought that somehow, leaving the US and coming back to Haiti would give me a break from all of the upsetting news. But now I just have to go over it again and again as I try to explain it all to my friends. And it still never makes any more sense than it did the first 100 times.

"2010 0515 rama 4 and sathorn 24" by Takeaway - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2010_0515_rama_4_and_sathorn_24.JPG#mediaviewer/File:2010_0515_rama_4_and_sathorn_24.JPG

“2010 0515 rama 4 and sathorn 24″ by Takeaway – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org

In the meantime, on the flip side, I am finding myself once again having to explain the riots in Jacmel to friends back in the States. How an entire city can be brought to a standstill for a week by burning tires and piled rocks and angry people and how at the same time that does not make the place a violent place. How most of the people don’t even know what they’re rioting for and there could be a hundred different reasons. This fiery roadblock could be because someone accidentally shot someone else in the foot while the one 100 yards down the road could be because teachers haven’t been paid at a local school and the next one could be because someone’s wife cheated on him. And all of that means that I’m not making it to the beach this week but it’s probably better because I’ve got plenty of housework to do. And somehow, you just get used to it all because it’s happened before.

I guess sometimes I wish the issues from the States were that simple. I wish that there were less complex reasons to our protests. I wish that we could say that people are organizing rallies just because someone’s donkey got stolen or a bridge is taking longer than expected to get built. I wish that talking about those issues resulted in nothing more than a temporary inconvenience to me rather than the more overwhelming realization that I come from a place that doesn’t value all human lives the same.

But of course, life can’t be that simple because we’re humans. In my conversations with my Haitian friends the ones who have traveled usually resolve their explanations with something along the lines of “But at lease the microwaves and washing machines and the departments stores and the internet are nice.” It would just be nice if we could have the microwaves and the racial justice at the same time. I guess you can’t have all. Maybe some day. MLK had a dream that we’re still waiting on and I’m gonna go ahead and keep dreaming too.