1. Building Relationships
This is the most important thing to do if you’re going to work in a different culture. There’s a medical team that comes into my area that I think are a great example of this. They have been coming for 5 years and when they first started they did their medical mission the same as most teams that come in. They set up a week long clinic and spent the entire time handing out Tylenol and Tums to people whose health concerns were minor and just wanted to stock up on medicines for the next time they might get sick. There were a few emergency cases that they saw, but for the most part nothing that would have been a serious issue had they not been there. Now 5 years later the focus of their mission has drastically changed. They still do their medical work but spend much more time actually fostering relationships with the patients that have become important to them in the past years. Now they visit their homes, they get to know their family’s most pressing needs and work together to address them. They laugh together, they cry together, they talk about the future together. It’s become much more than checking temperature and blood pressure and handing out pills. It’s become a serious investment in the holistic health of several families. It’s become much more than just treating a few physical symptoms of Haitians that they’ll never see again with faces they’ll never remember. At the same time this team builds relationships with their translators, their motorcycle drivers, and their cooks much more than other teams. More than 20 teams come through here each year, but this is one of the few teams that people all over the community continually ask about by name. That represents significant cross cultural barriers being broken.
2. Supporting Sustainable Programming
If the programs that you are involved in will only exist as long as you are there or another foreign team, then they’re not sustainable. Imagine if the government of Haiti made it as difficult for foreigners to enter their country as the United States makes it. Then the Haitians would just have to do things for themselves. Serve in such a way that that very thing could happen at any moment. Serve as if the Haitian government could suddenly pass a law that forbids all foreigners from visiting their country. Make sure that whatever you’re working on while you’re there and what you continue to support once you leave will be continued. Also make sure that a plan is in place so that it is not always dependent solely on your donations either. Help them get it started, then let them run with it. Also, it’s good to do the math to see if you are donating more money to local programs than you are spending on living and travel expenses to visit the place where you are hoping to help. If not, then you probably need to rethink why you’re going there.
3. Doing No Harm
In everything you do, analyze whether it has the potential to carry any unintended negative effects. Ask yourself, could it encourage dependency or entitlement? Could it damage the dignity of those I’m trying to serve? Could it imply that any of their local products, customs, or beliefs are any less valuable than what I’m offering? Is it being done because the receiver truly needs the thing or the service or just to make yourself feel good about helping someone? Are you giving out charity that cheapens the sincerity of the gift or are you contributing to development strategies that will continue to grow beyond what you can see?
4. Investing in Local Economies
Do your research ahead of time to make sure that you’re not bringing in items to be given away that could be purchased locally, or that would have a suitable alternative locally available. But if you search out ways in which all of your activities on the ground can also be channeling money to local vendors and producers, then you’re making a difference not just to the people receiving your services but also to other local families who will benefit from your business. But also, abstractly, it represents a much deeper concept of you demonstrating that you believe the things of their community and their culture have value. In this way you avoid the possibility of the “mine is better than yours” implication.
If you’re going to come into a different culture hoping to do some good, do something new, or do something old in a completely new way! Don’t try to do the same old mission-y things that have been done for years, because they obviously haven’t changed things all that much. If we want to make a difference, then we have to do things differently, and that takes creativity. A great example of this is how a good friend and a Living Media volunteer decided to deal with the issue of handing out used clothes to the people of Haiti. Mission teams do it all the time, right, leave your clothes for the local people who could use an extra shirt or pair of pants. Sure, but doing it with dignity and equality is difficult. So, this volunteer, after noticing that Haitians also have a lot of interesting t-shirts that visitors would love to have such as political campaign shirts and carnival shirts advertising Haitian brands, set up a clothing exchange where Haitians can come in and shop for slightly used clothes that teams have left behind in exchange for their unique Haitian t-shirts. The Haitians get to pick out what they want and have fun doing it, while the visitors also get to invest in the local economy as they come eat a meal at the local Haitian restaurant located in the same building as the clothing exchange. Then they drop off their used clothes to make their luggage lighter on the way home and take back a Haitian t-shirt that will be a conversation starter when they return. That’s a creative solution to an old problem! Whatever you’re doing it, look for innovative ways to do it without following the same old formulas. It may take a little more work of the bat to get it going, but it will have a greater impact in the long run.
6. Creating Jobs
Are the projects that you’re working on employing more local people than there are members to your team? If so, then your presence is making a big difference for those individuals and their families even if it’s just for a week that they find work. They may not have had that chance otherwise. Just make sure to do your research ahead of time to make sure that you are paying them fairly by local standards. Nothing will ruin your team’s local reputation faster than being stingy when it comes to paying those who are helping you carry out your work (except for maybe fluorescent team t-shirts of course). They’ll remember that when you come back next year. Just this morning I visited a motorcycle chauffeur who was employed for a week by a visiting team recently and is now putting a new roof on his family’s home because of the income that he made that week. And that was just one driver. If your team searches out ways to employ as many local people as possible, then it can have a widespread effect on the community.
Anyone perceived to think they have all the answers and are here to provide them to everybody won’t be received well. For those who have been offended by my previous posts because I seemed to have this attitude, then this proves how the Haitians feel whenever anyone comes in and tells them everything that they need to know. This is why I’ve called my blog The Green Mango blog, because Haitians say “You don’t throw a rock at a green mango.” You must be a green mango in this culture, with a willingness to learn, to grow, to develop – to ripen. I’m not ripe yet. Yes, I’m giving a lot of opinions in this blog, but I don’t claim to have all the answers. I am learning every day and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I admit that. I think that’s why most Haitians respond positively to my methods here, because I’m always willing to learn and never in a hurry to think I understand anything. I’ve been here for 5 years and I’ve learned a lot, but if I was still writing this in another 5 years, I know things would be completely different. Because I continue to search for ways to keep learning. I never accept what the first person tells me, keep asking questions and discover more truths buried deep. I’m sharing some things that I think I’ve discovered. Doesn’t mean that I’m right. Tomorrow I will learn something else that could change everything. Come in learning and don’t stop.
8. Having Fun
But not too much. Have as much fun as possible with the Haitians, and allow yourself to experience what they believe to be fun. Don’t come in with your outside perceptions of fun and expect them to laugh along with you. But if you let loose, experience their forms of entertainment, and invite them into yours and your teams, they will see you much more as a brother or sister on this planet rather than someone attempting to save them. And as I’ve said before, the number one thing for you to pack is a sense of humor.
Don’t do anything if you have to do it yourself. Don’t do anything if there isn’t at least 5 Haitians beside you wanting to keep doing it once your gone. Don’t do anything that they didn’t already think of doing before you got there, but were not able to do on their own. Collaborate. Walk alongside the Haitians in whatever they are doing, have been doing, or hope to do. Before doing anything, ask them what needs to be done. Tell them what you are able to do and ask them if it’s even needed. Tell them what you planned to do and ask how they would do it. Ask them what their dreams are. Collaborate to make life more beautiful.
10. Doing What Few Others Can
If you are coming in offering skills that can’t be found locally, then with the right plan with a local organization, you can do a lot in a short time here and your presence will be appreciated. But always check whether what you’re doing could be done by a local Haitian and whether or not your doing it results in the replacing of a potential job for a local. If you don’t have the specialized skills to do what the Haitians can’t do, then I suggest doing what the Haitians don’t want to do. I recently had a team here that spent the majority of their week here carrying cement blocks around on a construction site. Could a Haitian do that? Of course they could, but the Haitians actually really appreciated these Americans doing this job that they viewed as minimal because it freed them up to spend their time doing the specialized construction work that they’re trained to do without having to run all over the work site looking for blocks. At the same time, this team also donated almost 3 times as much funds to the project as they spent on travel and living expenses to be here to carry those blocks. That’s the kind of team that I love to see come here. Willing to do anything and seeing the big picture to make good use of their funds.
Be an inspiration. Even if it’s for a short moment. I encourage visitors to consider things like workshops and training seminars much more often than physical work projects. Their effects can reach much farther. There was one particularly large group that came into the area to work on a construction project. They spent the week slinging cement and sifting sand. But there was a pastor/artist on the team that I talked into coming down to our center and giving a day long workshop on Creating Something Out of Nothing. We had over 40 young adults from various programs of ours attend, and afterwords, within two days I had one participant tell me that he had started a community garden because of what she had motivated them to do and another that had started an art class for children at a local school. What were the effects of the rest of her team? Some masonry work that could have been done by any of a large number of qualified local Haitians. But because of her few hours of creative training, a sustainable community garden and an ongoing art class for children were established that would never have happened without her spending that little time encouraging them to start something new for their community. And I could share dozens of other stories just like this where trainings held had large ripple effects as opposed to momentary physical actions that end as soon as the visitors leave. I know that people back home want to see photos of you sweating and playing with smiling children too, so a photo standing speaking in front of a group of adults isn’t so glamorous, but think about making a lasting impression on the minds of young leaders at the same time that your doing your other projects.
12. Being Flexible
No matter what you think you are going to do before arriving, I guarantee you it’s going to change. It’s going to change and it’s going to change frequently. You have to go with the flow. That’s how Haitians have survived everything that the world has slung at them. Take a lesson from them in flexibility. Allow your rules to be malleable. Allow your plans to be editable. Allow your expectations to be debatable. The Haitian proverb says “The sea breeze blows the pelican where he wants to go.” Let the sea breeze blow you and you’ll be pleasantly surprised where you end up.