Month: December 2012

A Notable Difference

I recently held a fundraiser for my organization, Living Media, during which, along with the other activities of the evening I gave my typical slideshow presentation on what we do in LMi and why everyone listening should support them.  After the program, as people were leaving, I had one woman come up to me and tell me how refreshing it was to see a slideshow that actually showed people working and actively getting involved in community development.  She remarked how it’s not “typically what you’d expect from a charity type organization.”  Although I cringe anytime the word “charity” is applied to my organization, I knew what she meant and I was glad that someone noticed.  I was encouraged that our marketing was notably different than those that typically ask for donations to help people.  It was especially nice because this was a woman who I know hadn’t read my blog and hadn’t really kept up with our organization before this night.  So I knew that her comments were purely based on what she’d seen that night, which was nothing more than art, music, and people coming together to celebrate some beautiful things that are happening in Haiti and learning how to grow the beauty in those things.  No pity, no guilt, no begging.  No “for the cost of one cup of coffee,” no “donate or children die,” no “you can be a hero and change the world.”  Sure, if I used those tactics, maybe my organization would be raking in the donations a lot faster, because those tactics work.  That nonprofit that I wrote about a couple weeks ago brings in over $1 billion in donations every year.  But what is the true cost of a human being’s dignity?

I’m on my way back to Haiti right now and I know that when I get down there I will have to defend myself to my Haitian staff for doing the marketing the way I do again.  When we are struggling to fund some of our core programs it’s sometimes easy for even our Haitian staff to want to throw in the towel and resort to whatever lengths necessary to bring in the bucks.  So then I’ll tell them, “Okay, go put on your dirtiest, poorest looking clothes, rip some holes in them if you can, and gather around all of your younger siblings, and cousins (we’ll call them siblings) and have them put on their crappiest clothes, or even better, just bring them naked.  And we’ll go to the driest, saddest place we can find and take photos of you all frowning.  Then we’ll tell everyone how miserable you are, and how you need saving because your lives are in danger.  Oh, and then we’ll inflate some Bible verse with a sense of duty so people know that they’re disappointing Jesus if they don’t donate.  That’ll work great at Christmastime because no one wants to disappoint Baby Jesus.”  Doesn’t sound like such a good idea now, does it?  Figuring out better solutions for representing those intended to benefit from our programs may take more time and we may have to go through some rough patches in funding because of it, but I still hold on to the belief that it’s worth it in the end.  And my staff usually agrees with me when they look at the possible consequences of taking the easy pity route instead.  They may not always be there to hear the comments like the ones from the woman at the fundraiser, but they always choose to be known as the talented, hard-working Haitians with tons of potential rather than the poor needy Haitians to be felt sorry for.  When given the choice, wouldn’t we all choose the prior for ourselves?

Unfortunately too many people in this world aren’t given a choice.  They’re told by nonprofits “We’re going to help you, but we need to share your story with the people who can help us help you.”  So they get their photos taken and they tell their stories, the most pathetic parts of which get quoted in the brochures and on the websites.  That’s the lucky ones anyway.  The unlucky ones get their photos taken by photographers hired by the organization to swoop in and snap shots without ever knowing the subjects but they might grab a couple words from a language they don’t understand, but just assume the gist is always that they’re crying out for help.  I know because I’ve made money by being that photographer before.  The good photographers pass on only the dignified images to the organization and permanently delete  any others from their memory cards that could get misused at the subject’s expense.  The good photographers only see beauty, whether through tragedy or celebration, but don’t even search for the pitiful and miserable that some nonprofits look to make money off of.  It’s true that often people in poverty face extremely difficult circumstances, but the good photographers and the good nonprofit managers and the good marketing directors see the people behind the misery and they find ways to portray their vast potential as humans rather than their circumstantial misery.

I did an art show once of my own work where a woman came up to me at the reception and said to me, “I like the work, but how come you never paint about the starvation?”  Because that’s exactly what you would expect, isn’t it.  But as I’ve said before, as an artist my job is to do exactly the opposite of whatever is expected.  This is why I think more artists should become nonprofit managers.  If we really want our world to change than we have to be willing to change our expectations and redefine the accepted limits between us all as fellow human beings.  The “Feed the World” “Help the Children” and “Save the Poor” organizations have been trying to fix the world for ages and made very little change.  If we want our outcomes to change than we have to change our methods and that begins in the way we view those we share this planet with.

Maybe I’m repeating myself with all this.  But maybe what I’m saying is worth repeating.  Now at the end of another year maybe I can hope that next year brings something different to talk about.  It’s time to be different.

When God Prays

I’ve asked the question
In times of tragedy before
Does God pray?
Can God pray?
Before the tragedy was my own
This time it falls somewhere else
Yet we all try with efforts in vain
To understand
But no one can tell anyone what anything means
There is no sense to be made
So we look around
We look higher we look within
We look to God and we can pray
We can pray, we can pray
But God knows nothing himself
What can he say?
They say he knows all but not now.
Omnipotent our Creator
But today he dwells
He dwells in our confusion
Our anger our grief
In the “Why did this happen?”
He dwells and he prays
He prays that we would not let this happen again
He prays that we would see what we do to each other
He prays that we would do something to protect his children
His planet his creation
Not knowing who hears his prayers
He sends up earnest pleas
Hoping someone is listening
Or feels or knows what he is praying
Because he does not know what to do
He has lost control of a world he created for good
And now all he can do is pray that it changes
He is God and he tells us to fear not
But today he is scared just the same
We have given God reason to fear
What else does he have to do but pray?
Watch.  Cry.  Pray.
Wait to see what we will do next.
Those who get to Heaven
They show up and they say
“So here I am, where’s God?”
St. Peter signs them in
He says, oh he’s here
He’s at his house down the street
But he doesn’t take guests anymore
He doesn’t sit on his throne
He just sits inside his house
In a dark corner and cries
All the time he cries
What’s he supposed to do?
He’s in danger of dying of heartache
And we’re the cause
If your expectation here
Was to praise him eternally
Sorry to disappoint
But he just doesn’t feel
He deserves it these days
Because there’s still a world in need of love
And he can’t force them to love
He can’t make them see that they are all the same
That there is no you and there is no me
And there is no them because he dwells
In all he dwells
In forms we cannot recognize
His dwelling his prayer
He prays that we’ll hear
That we’ll feel that we’ll know
That we’ll change so tomorrow can be different.

Donate or Siyovle Dies!

I was innocently reading some news article online recently when this advertisement assaulted me from the sidebar:

Food for the Poor

It was just a single advertisement with the text at the top fading between the two.  And no I do not have permission to reproduce it on my blog, but they wanted their message advertised to the world, so I’m just helping them share it with even more people.

Now I don’t know where Food For The Poor found Siyovle (whose name means “If They Want” by the way) or why anyone is still donating to a nonprofit called Food For The Poor in this day and age, but Siyovle doesn’t look too happy about getting his picture taken, probably by some white person in a floppy hat and an outfit with lots of pockets.  Who are they to interrupt him while he’s playing with his tin cans in the dirt?  And if the king of tin can world wants to rule his kingdom in the dirty nude, then so be it!  Yet the marketing team at Food For The Poor definitely took the opportunity to make him look as pitiful as possible and make the need to donate look as urgent as possible.  The urgency emphasized by putting the “Please Donate” in blood stopping red against the muted sad colors of the rest of the ad.  Because, if you don’t donate, poor little Siyovle will surely die, at least that’s what his mother is afraid of.  Why oh why must we be so dramatic?

Now I don’t have children of my own, but I don’t know many parents who don’t worry constantly about their children’s safety and well being.  They walk across the street, you worry that they’re going to get hit.  They get on the bus you worry that they’re not going to get in an accident.  They eat some chicken nuggets and you worry that they’re not chewing thoroughly enough.  Parents worry about  their kids.  I’m not saying Siyovle’s mother’s concerns for her children aren’t reasonable.  Indeed they are very substantial because children in Haiti statistically do have a much lesser chance of living to adulthood than in most other countries in the world.  I personally have seen far too many children in Haiti die much too young from causes that could have been prevented.  It’s tragic and it’s heartbreaking and something definitely should be done to avoid it, however, the approach taken in these ads is not the way to raise funds for such life saving efforts.  There are ways to garner support for such efforts without sacrificing the dignity of those who need the help and without misrepresenting the culture that they come from.

What do I mean by saying they’re misrepresented?  Well, look at Siyovle again.  Now here’s a few pictures of what the children that I know in Haiti who are about Siyovle’s age look like:Lee 689


Blondine Roger

Lee 053-001

I’ve said it before, pity is the ultimate enemy of progress.  Why do some continue to think that it’s the answer to raising money for “helping” people?  Why are some so obsessed with creating categories of Others who are somehow considered lower?  Guilty giving only cheapens the gift.  Part of it has to do with design and marketing methods that don’t line up with modern humanitarian principles.  The way we design things matters just the same way the way we dress ourselves in other cultures and the words we say matters.  Without even knowing it these things can betray the best of intentions and leave scars that struggle to heal.  But ultimately it’s all a larger issue of how we view one other that we share this planet with and we choose to interact with those we encounter on a day to day basis as well as in extraordinary circumstances.  I choose to focus on promise, potential, and beauty.  But they can continue to choose pity if they want.  Si yo vle.

It’s Not About Me…

This week I watched two television programs designed to honor the great men and women in the US and around the world who dedicate their lives to serving others and making the earth a little better place to live through nonprofits and charities.  One was the Chase Giving Awards and the other was the CNN Heroes Ceremony.  Both events were full of very inspirational stories from inspirational people doing inspirational things for others.  I happened upon both by accident while channel surfing, but followed the programs for a while because it’s always nice to see what others are doing in the nonprofit field and what kinds of creative ideas the public is responding to most.  And although I have a tendency to critique methods and models in these circumstances, while watching these shows I was significantly struck by one permeating fact from all of the people that they honored.  They would get up on stage and receive their trophy, then in their speech the first thing they would all say was along the lines of, “This award isn’t for me, but for all of the people that we serve in our group,”  or “This award represents those struggling every day with such-and-such a problem and it’s for them,” or “I accept this award on behalf of the many many men and women who help us do what we do.  They are the true heroes.”

Although I’m not winning these awards, I still consider myself in the same category as these honorees and feel like I understand where they’re coming from.  As I watch the show I wonder what I would say in an acceptance speech, the same way I imagine aspiring actors do when they watch the Oscars.  I know how strange these people must feel to even walk up on that stage, in their fanciest clothing, in front of hundreds of people and on national television and have everyone applaud you.  It feels upside down and backwards, because it was never about you.  It’s in our nature as social innovators to be selfless and not want to ever accept the credit for our good deeds.  More than any other profession I think that we are all very aware of the multitudes of people that it takes to ever accomplish a task or reach a goal.  Whether we’re responsible for the original idea and the original motivation behind a movement, we still recognize that we could never really do anything good on our own and taking credit for any of it always seems like a betrayal to all who have served alongside us.

I’ve always loved the story of the young Buddhist monk who was asked by his teacher to tell him something about himself and after a brief pause he responded, “Myself?  My name used to be Me, but now it’s You.”  I’ve felt like this is the attitude that we are either born with or come to adapt, those of us who are crazy enough to believe that we actually can make a difference.  We’re the crazy type of people who will work like mad to do something great, but as soon as the spotlight is turned on we prefer to hide in the background and let others shine.  We’re the crazy type of people that rather than fighting our way to the top, we prefer to build others up and celebrate in their successes.  We’re the crazy type of people who typically don’t know how to take very good care of ourselves because we’re always so concerned about caring for everyone else.  We’re the crazy type who all secretly wish for recognition for what we do, but as soon as we get it, we say we don’t deserve it, at least not by ourselves.  Because we are the crazy ones who don’t define ourselves based upon our own individual existence but can only find meaning within our coexistence with others.

This mindset typically runs contrary to the culture we must move through, especially here in the US, but it’s not like that everywhere.  There are places in this planet where society determines the value of an individual not on what he or she accomplishes, but on how he or she interacts with the community around them.  Identity defined not based off of one’s individual successes, but on how many other people are able to find success because of their relationship to that person.  This has been one of the most difficult adjustments for me as I get used to life back here in this country is rediscovering identity as an individual separated from those who have contributed to completing the sense of human wholeness for the past several years.

I know I’m sounding like quite the hippie here.  I might as well grow dreadlocks, wear clothes made entirely of hemp, move into a tree and live off a diet of pot and foraged berries.  But I really do have a point, which is this, if we are looking for role models, those who we call heroes, world changers, difference makers, they all seem to have one thing in common: an extreme resistance to seeing themselves as much more than a simple tool with which to connect others through a common spirit of hope.  If we ever truly want our world to change, then may we all adapt such a reflection on who we are.  May we reject ideas of “doing for” and “helping those” and “giving things” but rather evolve into a place where we can simply “be with,” “exist as,” and “live together”.  You may say I’m a dreamer…(you know the rest).

Top 10 News Stories From Haiti in 2012

It’s that time of year when everyone’s making their top ten lists, and anyone who reads my blog knows how much I like a good list, so I’ve come up with my top 10 news stories of 2012 out of Haiti.  This is my list of the ones that I’ve found most important or most interesting.  I think it’s good to look back on the year in Haiti and look at everything that happened because even though #1 might be a overwhelming tragedy, we too often base our entire definitions on the most glaring of disasters while overlooking everything else that was noteworthy in the country.  My top 6 all have come from the last 3 months, so either it’s just been an active time for Haitian news, or I pay more attention to Haitian news when I’m not in Haiti.  I’m sure there are some from earlier in the year that I’ve already forgotten myself, but it seems most of the stories from earlier in the year were all about “Where did the aid go?”  Not really news.  Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy this list and maybe learn something as well.  If there are other stories from Haiti that you found interesting from this year that I didn’t include, please add them in the comments.  You can click on the links to read full news articles on each story.

1.  Hurricane Sandy

A week before Hurricane Sandy ravaged the US East coast, it had already swept through Haiti leaving more than 200,000 people homeless and at least 54 dead.  Haitian president, Michel Martelly declared a nationwide state of emergency as the population prepared to deal with food shortages and rising costs of living in the wake of the storm which are still making things difficult.  This is after Haiti already suffered from Hurricane Isaac in August which left as many as 24 dead in the country.

2.  Sae-E Factory Opening in Caracol

In October the Korean clothing manufacturer, Sae-A opened a new factory in Caracol to much controversy.  The factory employs about 1,000 Haitians so far and claims to employ as many as 20,000 in the next 6 years.  This factory is the first to open in a large industrial park in Caracol which has been supported by Bill and Hilary Clinton as part of a plan to invest in Haiti’s economy under the label of earthquake reconstruction.  The effort is also supported by celebrities Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, Donna Karan, and more.  But Sae-A has come under great scrutiny for it’s sweatshop like labor practices and questionable treatment of employees and the plan itself has been criticized for it’s strange location and possible environmental concerns.

3.  Arrest of Clifford Brandt

Haiti - Justice : Clifford Brandt incarcerated in the Civil prison of Carrefour

On October 22, Haitian police arrested Clifford Brandt, a wealthy member of the bourgeois, on multiple charges of kidnapping.  Brandt was the leader of a notorious kidnapping ring in Port-au-Prince accused of multiple abductions and even homicides.  The arrest of Brandt along with 5 of his partners in crime represented a large victory for the people of Haiti as it proved that the national police were cracking down and committed to justice on the issue of kidnapping, but it also illuminated a reality of kidnapping as organized crime in Haiti beyond just the perceived delinquency of dangerous thugs from the slums as often portrayed by the media.

4.  Opening of New Airport

When Michel Martelly was elected president last year, one of his first promises to the Haitian people was that he would rebuild the Toussaint Louverture International airport in Port-au-Prince.  Ever since the earthquake of January 2010, the country’s only major airport has been in critical condition with visitors coming into the country being received in a building that’s basically a large shed.  Just last month they finally finished all of the repairs and renovations to the airport and held a joyous opening ceremony to mark the occasion.

5.  Protests in Jacmel

This is one story that I was following closely although may not have been that big of a deal on the national stage.  Just a couple weeks ago the people of Jacmel took to the streets in a series of protests that included burning tires and roadblocks to demand justice for the murder of a local man and the kidnapping of a child.  The protests were also for increased security in the city including better electric service.  They seemed to have worked as the child was soon returned and the electric company responded with electricity later in the night, although the perpetrators of the crime were not caught.

6.  Adoption Reform


This is breaking news as it was just announced this week that Haiti will be making major changes to its legislation regarding international adoptions.  The system is widely considered a broken one in Haiti with as many as 50,000 children living in orphanages in the country, but only 133 were adopted in 2011.  With many children in orphanages that aren’t actually orphans and very few regulations enforced on how the orphanages are operated, many children end up suffering the shortcomings of this broken system.  This new legislation could make the process for adoption more attractive to foreigners looking to adopt and bring a much needed change in what adoption means in Haiti.

7. Mirebalais Hospital

The l’Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais built by Partners In Health with the Haitian government, held it’s ribbon cutting on November 6 signifying the beginning of a long awaited effort to bring this state of the art medical facility to the Haitian people.   A positive example of reconstruction efforts coordinated between public, private, and nonprofit sectors, the teaching hospital is now the largest and most technologically advanced in the country.  It is planned to eventually be completely managed by the Haitian Ministry of Health as PIH has helped get it started.

8.  Digicel Underseas Cable

Haiti - Telecommunications : 200km high capacity broadband submarine cable financed by Digicel

In March of this year, Haiti’s largest communications company, Digicel, announced it’s ambitious project to install a 200km underseas cable to Haiti to allow for improved internet connectivity in the country.  With a telecommunications infrastructure that’s always struggled to keep up with the population’s evolving needs and abilities, as well as having been significantly damaged in the 2010 earthquake, this initiative by Digicel represents a huge step for keeping the country connected.  With more and more educational programs in the country requiring students to use internet as well as much business starting to be done online, the cybercafes of the past decade will be insufficient for the country’s changing needs.  This cable is a hopeful step towards something new.

9.  Carnival des Fleurs

Different than the Kanaval annually held in February across the country, this year Haiti held Carnival des Fleurs again in July for the first time in years to celebrate the country’s beauty and productivity.  Similar to the February celebration with parades and music and costumes, Carnival des Fleurs is smaller in scale and has more flowers and feathers rather than giant paper-mache demons, but still proved to be a huge occasion for the Haitian people to celebrate their culture and look towards a bright future.  Implemented this year by President Martelly, who is a famous Kanaval performer himself, the event was intended to bring in a boost in tourism during the summer months as well, especially to a downtown Port-au-Prince which did not host an earlier Kanaval in 2012 as it moved to Les Cayes instead.

10.  Plastic Bag Ban

This is the biggest news story from the year that never really was.  In September the government placed a ban on the use of all plastic bags and Styrofoam boxes in an attempt to improve the country’s litter problem.  These bags and foam products that are used by all street vendors to give their customers their purchased items or food to take away are then discarded in the streets and washed into the waterways and sewage systems.  It presents a large problem, that the ban was intended to improve, but without acceptable alternatives available it has been nearly impossible to enforce.

Bonus News Story: Dominican Salami Controversy  My take here.  An article in French here.