Month: August 2013

Why Fashion Matters in the Mission Field

First off, I hate the term “mission field”. It’s too closely related to battlefield which makes mission feel like some kind of war. But in this case it provided some nice alliteration, so why not.

Secondly, some may say I’m beating a dead horse by returning to a subject so many got offended by once upon a time. Over a year ago I started this blog with the post 10 Biggest Fashion Mistakes By Mission Teams and Aid Workers. And to this day it remains one of my most popular posts ever, but also one of my most hated. “Why do we have to be fashion models when we’re just trying to do something good in this world?” Commentors have questioned. So okay, I moved on to more critical analysis of nonprofit structures and mission approaches. But I’ve had some more conversations with my Haitian peers lately that have brought the subject back into light and demonstrated how really fashion does relate to everything else going on here. It’s about much more than just looking good. And apparently there are enough people that decided my advice was insignificant, and it continues to have an effect on their quality of service offered to the Haitians. So, I’m returning. Those readers who are already annoyed can turn back now. Those who love this stuff can read on, and know that I’ve got a couple more posts coming on this subject.

I know, it can seem petty to consider that coming to a poor country one might have to worry about being fashionable. One of the biggest reasons I hear people give for their fashion choices in a country like Haiti is that they don’t want to wear nice clothes because they think that if they wear nice clothes a) it might cause anger or jealousy from the locals who aren’t able to afford nice clothes, and b) they don’t want to be targeted for a crime because they look like they have money. Which are both, actually, very good reasons, one would think, to make more modest fashion choices when in a place that is more materially impoverished.

But the strange thing is, that wearing less attractive clothing actually has the opposite effect, because trust me, if you’re white, you’re not going to fool anybody by wearing different clothes. Even if you’re not white, at least here in Haiti, you’re white. No matter what clothes we wear, people assume we have money if we come from a more developed country (like I don’t know, the USA). So we might as well take pride in our appearance and look good too. Because the simple act of traveling suggests the presence of money enough to look decent so it becomes offensive if we don’t put in any effort. If they, who don’t have any money, still make an effort to look nice, why on earth would one who has a job with an income and department stores on every corner still choose to wear such boring rags?

Here’s how it was explained to me by a Haitian friend of mine recently: if you wear crappy clothes then you must have more money because you’re obviously not spending it on clothing. A Haitian will look at someone who wears cheap looking clothes and assume that they have more money than someone wearing the nicest “fresh-air” as they call it here. Because someone who spends their money on nicer clothes has less money to keep in their pockets. But someone who is clearly wearing only hand-me-downs, thrift store swag, and free church or school t-shirts, probably has more extra money in their pockets.

And honestly, it’s not even just white folks (whiteness just gives more weight to the assumptions). But Haitians actually judge each other this way too. If they go to a soccer game or a club or even to church, they assume that the guy with the most expensive looking fresh-air there is probably the one with the least money on hand. There’s actually a fine line of looking good enough to still be respectable but not going so far as to make it look like over-compensation.

And we as visitors to this country need to allow ourselves to get to know the real culture beyond the mission myths that we were told in our orientation. If we think we are only going to encounter poor people, lost people, hopeless people, less fortunate people, we are going to make poor clothing choices ourselves. But we need to realize that there’s much more to the culture we’re entering. We need to go to those soccer games and those dance clubs and those churches. If we just go to the food distribution site or the construction site, and then back to our isolated mission base, then we’ll never get to see what the people are like within the parts of their culture that they enjoy most. It at the beaches and the parties and the concerts and the bars that the real Haiti shows itself. This myth that poor people (or people in countries considered to be poor) don’t wear nice clothes is absurd. And anyone who’s taken the time to actually look, and see, when they visit one of these places will notice that. But the idea that they would actually be offended by nice clothes is even more ridiculous.

The same way that we expect people providing us with certain services in the States to look professional, the people receiving our services in a foreign country expect us to look professional too. Putting on decent clothes provides credibility to whatever mission we have. Otherwise we become just some other schmuck who chose to spend money on a plane ticket but would never spend money on a new outfit. Doesn’t seem like a person that has much common sense let alone the qualifications to contribute effectively to community development.

And here’s where my seemingly irrelevant fashion obsession comes full circle for this blog. Mission teamers and short term volunteers would never have these skewed ideas on mission clothing in the first place if we who are leading the nonprofits and the mission organizations would quit portraying poor people on our websites and brochures through naked children, beggars in rags, and dirty peasants. That’s not the real world that we work in. It’s inaccurate and offensive even if it does bring in dollars. If we all who work in aid, mission, philanthropy, etc, would quit trying to think of ourselves as the heroes out to save the world, then our egos wouldn’t be so inflated that we miss the fact that we actually look like we couldn’t even help someone cross the street if we had to. If we would open up our eyes and begin to realize that our skin color alone is not enough to prove us to be qualified to help someone else, then maybe we would start to think a little more about the other aspects of our appearance that are going to be responsible for our reputation among people who can’t speak the same language as we do. Sure, a smile can go a long ways but only if people aren’t so distracted by ugly shoes and knee high socks that they won’t even look up to see the smile.

No one expects us all to wear the latest fashions straight off the runways of Paris and New York, but can we at least wear something that didn’t come out of the lost and found? Is it too much to ask to wear shirts with sleeves and pants with zippers? Something not stained, faded, or with holes in it? Something that doesn’t look like it was designed by a 6-year-old or a 90-year-old? This is all I wish for my humanitarian fashion revolution. Oh, and on that note, unless you’re actually in the military, can we please try to avoid looking like we are going into combat? Although I may be waging a war on bad fashion in the mission field, you won’t be catching me in any camo and big boots. Want to join me in the revolution? I’ll be offering a change to register soon.

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Organizations That Don’t Suck – Deep

I’m envious of organizations that get to focus their mission so specifically on one substantial purpose and are able to carry out that mission with extraordinary results. We don’t have that luxury here in Haiti where there are too many needs surrounding us to keep our focus narrow. But another org working in the US, specifically in Savannah, Georgia, has always impressed me in this aspect. They don’t screw around trying to save the world, they’re just teaching kids to write. And through those kids and their ability to express themselves, I have no doubt this world is in for some change regardless. For this edition of Organizations That Don’t Suck, I present to you Deep. I learned of this group back when I thought I was going to move to Savannah and was researching other nonprofits in the city. This one really stuck out to me as being one of a kind and the more I learn about it, the more impressed I become. Not only does Deep not suck, but it pretty much rocks. Another organization right there in your own backyard, USAmericans, that’s doing incredible work that’s worth supporting. If for no other reason than for this, from my interview with interim Executive Director, Joanna Dasher, “Truly, we don’t give anything to these kids, but we ask a lot of them.” How refreshing is it to hear a nonprofit leader say that! Below is the rest of my interview with Joanna from Deep:

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GM: First off, just tell us what is Deep and how and why did it get started?

JD: Deep, as we know it today, was founded when two organizations merged back in 2009. Deep was started as an arts education nonprofit in Savannah when Edgewood Arts came to town in 2008. Edgewood Arts started as a writer’s residency for poets and authors from around the country who came together to live and write while mentoring a few kids in writing their stories once a week. Once the leaders of these two organizations (Deep and Edgewood Arts) met, they knew they were on to something and decided to merge. In 2009, they combined to form the Deep Center, Inc., a community of local writers who help public school kids write and share their stories. We do this today by recruiting local writers (our Writing Fellows), training them to run workshops, and sending them in teams of two to our public middle schools once a week for three months to run writing workshops for 12 kids (our DeepKids). During those weekly writing workshops, they read a bit to get inspiration from great writers, but they spend the majority of their time working on basic composition skills, drafting original works of poetry and prose, and revising thoroughly until their writing meets our publishing standards of original content, vivid description, and fearless style. After the last workshop, Deep publishes every kid in a professional book that is carried in our local public libraries and sold at a huge book launch and literary reading downtown. The DeepKids are invited to the launch, and the 50 top pieces are read on stage by their young authors before an audience of nearly 600 people. (We call this event Deep Speaks!)

DSC_0677GM: One thing that I’ve always respected about Deep is how focused it is on it’s specific mission of teaching kids to write. Tell us a little bit about why you feel this is so important and have you ever thought of expanding your programs beyond that?
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JD: We believe that being able to articulate and share a story with skill, confidence, and courage is extremely important for a students’s cognitive development, social-emotional learning, and basic communication. In almost every circumstance, being an articulate and compelling communicator provides a person with a better shot. More than 75% of our DeepKids are low-income, meaning that they are on the free or reduced-lunch program at school because of economic need. Our DeepKids are learning to give themselves a better shot by becoming expert storytellers, communicators, and published authors. We work exclusively with middle grades kids (6th-8th graders) because research shows that at this stage in their cognitive development their brains are developing at such a rate —the only other time when their brains develop this quickly is when they are 2 years old—that the things they spend time doing now will stick with them for the long haul. We also hope that Deep has long-term effects on Savannah’s abysmal public high school graduation rate, which was under 60% last year. (This remains to be seen—our first DeepKids will be seniors this year.) We have no immediate plans to expand our program now that we are offered to every public middle school in Savannah.
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GM: Can you share with us a personal story of one of the DeepKids and how the programs have impacted them?
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JD: Definitely. CaSonya Johnson was in sixth grade when she started Deep last fall (2012) at Myers Middle School, which is a Title I public school. Her mother was afraid she wouldn’t pass sixth grade, much less ever get to high school. She was invited to Deep and attended for three months, right there at her school, from 3 to 4:15 once a week. At the end of the workshop, CaSonya published several pieces in the anthology. One of CaSonya’s poems won third prize in the Georgia Poetry Society state-wide youth poetry contest (I’ve attached her photo and the award-winning poem). The contest is open to public and private school kids in grades six through twelve. That means that CaSonya beat 12th-graders with her work. Not only that, but CaSonya was invited to read at a conference in Atlanta alongside the US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey. Her mother is immensely proud, and when I sat next to her at a poetry reading a few months ago (to which CaSonya had been invited as a guest reader), she said she never knew that things like this existed or were possible for her daughter.
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GM: What makes Deep different than your usual after school program?
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JD: Most after-school programs are meant to keep kids out of trouble. Many are treated like a study hall, and most are run by educators. Deep is meant to get kids to take risks—intellectual and emotional risks—by doing something really difficult. We challenge them with the task of writing something and sharing it with the group and, eventually, with the world. We bring in local writers who are passionate about and practiced in the craft of writing, and their enthusiasm and expertise rubs off on the kids. The workshops are intense and demanding (and fun). Truly, we don’t give anything to these kids, but we ask a lot of them. And they seem to appreciate that. The challenge that we present our kids with is what sets Deep apart, I think. [Also, in case it wasn’t clear, Deep is completely free to every kid, and we are not subsidized by the school system. We are independently funded and directed.]
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Candid_EBroadGM: Tell us a little bit about the fellows method of working with the children?
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JD: Our Writing Fellowships are highly selective and demanding. We require a resume, an original writing sample, and application, and an interview from each applicant, and our fellows volunteer more than 100 hours a year. Once selected, each new fellow attends a two-day training event at which they learn to plan and run writing workshops. Every weak, Writing Fellows spend 4-5 hours in total on Deep. They work in teams of two and meet every week to come up with a lesson plan, then they teach together for 75 minutes once a week, and they comment thoroughly on every piece of writing produced every week. Kids get comprehensive comments on everything they do. Together with their fellows, the DeepKids read something and write every week. Over 11 weeks, they spend 3-4 weeks on basic skills like using description and figurative language, they spend 4-5 weeks drafting, and they spend the last few weeks revising and preparing their projects for submission to the “publisher” (aka the Deep Center).
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GM: How many children are involved in your program and how many fellows do you have?
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JD: We publish nearly 400 kids from 16 different schools in Savannah each year. We have 32 Writing Fellows (2 per workshop) on staff.
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GM: Besides the fellows, what are other ways that people can get involved?
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JD: We have a few creative and staff internships available for local artists and professionals. And one of the most powerful things that one person can do is to be a Deep Patron. Patrons, who make a small monthly gift (just $12/month) that sponsors a Young Author Scholarship for one kid. For the cost of three lattes each month, a person can completely change a kid’s idea of what they’re capable of. You can be a patron by signing up at this link: http://deepkids.com/patrons/
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GM: If you got a donation for $10,000 tomorrow, undesignated, what would you use it for?
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JD: A $10,000 donation would keep Deep in one of our sixteen Partner Schools for four years, and that’s exactly where it would go. The sustainability of our Deep is important to us because stability is incredibly important to our kids. They’re used to things going away, and we do not aim to contribute to that.
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GM: I read a lot of inspirational writing from your kids even just on Facebook. Could you share with us a piece or two that Deep kids have written that you’ve found particularly impressive lately?
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JD: I’ve attached a couple of my personal favorites (a letter poem and a short story) from our spring 2013 program. Enjoy!

Jessica Chamblee – From Father to Daughter

Adera Lewis – A Trip To Grandma’s Final Resting Place

Okay, did you read those? I hope so. They’ll probably make you a better person if you do. And better people make a better world. I hope that some of my readers will honestly consider becoming a Deep Patron.  Seriously, $12 a month can teach a kid to be that strong of a writer which makes them a stronger person and gives them reason to believe in their ability to learn and create. It’s a no-brainer if you ask me. Of course, if you have that $10,000 laying around too, feel free to send it their way. You can find out more about Deep and how to support them by visiting their website or liking them on Facebook. Like them on Facebook just so you can get some snippets of their writing. Every time they post something, I find myself inspired. Also, Joanna has a blog of her own that you all should probably be following. It’s called Serving On and it’s about transitioning from military leadership to social leadership. As a veteran herself, Joanna shares a unique perspective on the nonprofit world that she has now found herself in. So check it out!

Follow Up to Being Racist

On my last post about racism, I got lots of sympathy for getting called a racist. Thanks. But that still wasn’t really my point. The post might have come out a little like one of those finger diarrhea writings, but after publishing it I’ve thought a little more about it and here’s where my problem really is with the whole situation:

A beggar in the street can single me out to ask for charity when he wouldn’t ask another Haitian that passed by him simply because I’m white, but if I politely apologize for not being able to help him out, I’m the racist.

My staff expects me to find all the money to pay their salaries even though we’re all equally responsible for the management of the organization. Why? Because I’m white and being white is perceived to mean having access to money. Yet if I’m a day late with that money, I’m the racist?

A guy on a motorcycle passing by can yell an insult at me without even knowing me just because I’m white and he saw me and wanted to use me to represent an entire nation or culture of people. Yet if I respond to him, I’m the racist.

A girl at a bar or a soccer game can hit on me not because she is particularly attracted to me, but just because I’m white and assumed to be filthy rich and she likes nice things and is looking for a sugar daddy. Yet if I reject her, I’m the racist.

This is not a commentary on Haitians being close-minded hypocrites. This is a commentary on the fact that white people being so racist throughout history has ruined the possibility for any other white person to effectively interact with another culture. The problem is that the world already perceives us as the racists of the world. That’s the reputation that we have.

Because my ancestors spent years and years enslaving and exploiting and raping and using and demeaning their ancestors, now they have every right to be racist towards me and still blame me for it somehow. Because people who look like me will still shoot people who look like them for no other reason than their scary skin color, and get away with it, now I can’t get even get away with telling a Haitian guy to quit being a stubborn jerk when he’s actually being a stubborn jerk. But he’s black, so I must be a racist. It’s a very backwards, very inverted sort of racism that white people in non-white cultures today have to deal with.

And we in the US are very conscious about having this sort of national dialog about the issue and how it affects us within the US, but we never stop to realize that even having that dialog has effects way beyond our own little American bubble. In that bubble it’s safe to discuss race and point out injustices. But when an American steps outside of that bubble and into one that’s much blacker, he carries all of that cultural self-absorbancy with him and his skin color publicizes it to all of the more melanin-blessed individuals around him. White people to the rest of the world are automatically assumed to be racist, and if you look at our history and the current news that we spread to the world, it’s a very legitimate assumption.

I have to fight like hell here to prove that I’m not a racist. Even to my staff and friends who have known me well for years, once in a while in moments of frustration, my culture’s tradition of racism is used against me. And as I’ve said before on this blog, even wanting to help someone, if it’s perceived to be because they are black, can be viewed as racist. If you’re white and you want to help Haitians in need of help, but once you’re here you assume everyone needs help the same just because they’re Haitian and all look the same, and Haiti has been labeled “poor”, then that’s a form of racism. My recent review of the TOMS approach is a good example. “They’re Haitian so they must be in need of our foreign shoes.”

The vast majority of messages that people in this country are receiving about white people is telling them that we’re all racist. And it’s because we as white people, whether we’re waving the white pride flag or we’re burning it, we’re drawing attention to it. Even the fight against racism shouldn’t be about racism. If you’re telling someone not to be racist, everyone outside of that interaction is going to remember the fact that there were racists in the first place.

If I bring an African American friend to one of my mashed potato family gatherings and my uncle happens to tell a racist joke without even realizing how offensive it is, then my grandma goes and retells the story at her beauty shop in front of all the town gossips, pretty soon every one in town has heard that my uncle is a racist but no one cares that there was actually a black person present who brought a delicious dish of spicy mixed vegetables. Those ladies at the beauty shop would probably love the recipe but they never got it because they were too busy marveling at how racist my uncle is, probably while making racist comments of their own. (For the record, I don’t think my uncles are racist. Although I can’t defend their taste in jokes either.)

This is what I see happening in the world as I pass through it as a white man outside of the white bubble. People in Haiti, for certain, hear about all of the racial injustices that happen in our country and they’ve personally experienced all of the injustices that have been exported to their country. They also want to prove that they aren’t ignorant to that reality and are ready to stand visibly against those injustices if they see them potentially affecting them individually. And we need to realize that continuing to send good intentions wrapped in white is not going to change this.

And I’m not sure that anything can change that. Like I said, maybe we’ve ruined it already and it may take generations of living differently for that change. Living differently, speaking differently, and seeing differently. Although I’m quite certain I’ll probably spend the rest of my life surrounded by people with a more interesting skin color than my own, I assume that I’ll still have to carry around the burden of what that skin color says about racism in our world just as long. But if we can each start to commit by ourselves towards living differently, it needs to begin with talking about these things and realizing the depth of what they mean. That’s how we can begin to see differently. Speaking differently and even thinking differently will take an honest effort, but living differently will evolve from the rest as we continue to have authentic interactions with one another about colors no matter what colors we each are.

So please, don’t feel sorry for me because I got called racist. But realize that you do play a role in whether it does or does not happen again. We all do whether we’re black, white, purple, American, Haitian, African, or other. If we want different outcomes it’s not enough to just talk about how wrong the existing outcomes are. We each have to be willing to live differently with one another.

Now hold hands with the person nearest to you and sing “We Are The World”!

How to be a Racist

Step 1: Be white in an all black community.

Step 2: Do something. Anything.

Clearly I don’t think I’m a racist. But the racist never does. The racist is always the first to shout, “I’ve got tons of black friends!” However, I do admit a tendency towards bluntly honest interaction with people which sometimes leads to people getting offended. No race is immune to this tendency, I am honest with any human I encounter without even considering his or her skin color. Yet, because I am a white man in a very not-white community, any time that someone doesn’t like something I say or do, it runs the risk of automatically getting labelled as racist. If I don’t want to eat the mayi moulen (corn meal), I’m racist. If I don’t give 10 gourdes to the beggar, I’m racist. If I’m a day late on getting my staff paid, I’m racist. If some Haitian guy yells an insult at me because I’m white and he doesn’t think I speak Creole and I yell back an insult on his mother, I’m racist. If I don’t sleep with the Haitian girl that’s hitting on me because I’m white and perceived to have money, I’m racist.

I’ve gotten used to it, although it still hurts to hear. As someone who has always tried to live without letting racial, cultural, socioeconomic, or religious labels define me, being called a racist is one of the most offensive things possible. And it’s got some stiff competition because I get called plenty of offensive things here (and I’m the white guy that people actually like). But if someone wants to yell something nasty out at someone, it’s always going to land most easily on the guy whose skin reflects the most sunlight. The one who’s a different color always makes an easy target, I get that. And I don’t let it bother me too much. I simply embrace being blan. But when it’s someone that you’ve known for years and have helped out in many ways who is supposed to know by now what your intentions really are who takes the easy way out of anger by blaming it on racism, it exposes some realities of our human race that are hard to accept.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this recently and it was so upsetting to me that it brought me to tears, and I’m not a person that gets emotional easily. The person calling me a racist, one who I considered a close friend, didn’t think anything of it, because it made sense within the moment that he was pissed off at me and looking at my white skin to call me a racist. There are a million other things that I wish he would have called me if he was that mad that would have been completely appropriate within the situation, I won’t name them here because my mom already thinks my language is too dirty on this blog, but you can use your imagination. ANYTHING would have been less hurtful than racist.

But after having a little talk with myself I started to think about how we’re taught that racism is such a horrible thing in our culture even though our ignorance leads to greater racism. We talk about it all of the time. Any chance we get to turn a news story into a racial issue, we do it, in many cases legitimately. I was just on a news site today and there were stories about racism in Martha’s Vineyard, racism towards Oprah, the Trevyon Martin’s still being talked about, we make sure that everyone knows what an issue it is. We at least are willing to have a national dialog about it, whether we’re making progress is still debatable (evidenced by the many news stories). And that’s the culture that I come from, so I make it into a very big deal when someone calls me that.

But it’s very different to be called racist when you are the clear minority. We usually think of racism as something that is perpetrated upon the minority, not by the minority. How can I be racist when I’m the only white guy here? Of course, there’s lots of things going on here, going back to Haiti’s scarred history with racial exploitation and its current state of being portrayed as victims by the humanitarian world, that makes it almost make sense here.

It’s not that it’s not talked about here but it’s talked about in a much more generalized shared struggle sort of way in which all Haitians are the victims of the world’s racism. Which is strange, because being racist is a pretty accepted part of Haitian culture. The things you’ll hear said about Dominicans here are horrible and one of the greatest insults you can call someone here is Afrikan. (I’ve written 742 words and I still haven’t gotten close to what I’m wanting to say about this.)

Let me put it this way: I’m white. I come from a very white place. I grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa where my father would gather every morning with other local farmers at the neighborhood repair shop to drink bad coffee and tell racist jokes. All of my siblings, cousins, and extended family are married to other white people and they have lots of white kids. Our family get-togethers are about as diverse as the bowl of mashed potatoes that Grandma whipped up for the event. (Ingredients: potatoes, milk, sour cream, maybe some salt). It’s a family that I love, but none of them can deny just how white we all are. I’ve brought friends to these family gatherings that are very not white and everyone’s always very friendly to them but in the back of my mind I still hear Sesame Street singing “One of these things is not like the other…”

But I’ve never brought these friends to family gatherings in an attempt to provide diversity, I simply bring friends that I care enough about that I want them to meet my family, they just happen to not be white. But at the same time we all know that we can’t just pretend like we’re all the same.  I don’t expect my uncle to pull up a chair next to my friend and excitedly ask, “So, tell me what it’s like being black!” Yet there’s got to be a healthy dose of awareness that this bowl of mashed potatoes is pretty weird to them too.

Yes, race provides us with different life experiences, different physical attributes, and different communal histories, but really isn’t it time that we stop using it as an excuse for anger, for hatred, for misunderstanding, for generalized judgements that dilute the human spirit? Can we each please find a way to be proud of our own race without damaging the dignity of another? I know, judging by the news page it seems like a distant dream, but even if the goal seems far off, there are steps we can begin taking and it starts with being honest about the way we talk about it and not being afraid to talk about it in the first place.

I recently read the book, How To Be Black, by Barathunde Thurston. It’s actually the reason that I got called a racist by my friend who wasn’t fluent enough in English to understand the satire in the title. But even in the US I would be reading it in public and get pretty strange looks from people, because obviously, why would a white man want to read about being black? Because black people exist on the same planet as me and some of them are pretty damn funny, like Thurston. Because race is a real thing and we’ll all be better off acknowledging how it affects our lives without allowing it to detract from our ability to live life together on this same planet. Because sometimes you’re gonna get called racist whether it’s true or not and your best defense is knowledge and understanding where the other is coming from.

Shoe Snobs and Bad Art

toms

That is 2 of my roomie brothers wearing TOMS shoes. I’ve got six roommates and they all recently received a pair of these as part of TOMS buy one give one method of aid where every time they sell a pair of their shoes to someone with money to spend on a “Band-aid stuck to a piece of cardboard” then they also give one pair to some poor person who needs shoes. This isn’t the first time that my brothers have all received TOMS. In fact, it seems to be an annual giveaway here. Unfortunately they don’t ever drop shoes large enough for poor people with big feet, otherwise my roomies would have even taken a pair for me. And I would have proceeded to paint them and use them as beer coozies.

Although I’m happy my friends have some slippers to wear around the house now on my cold tile floor (laces are such a hassle, after all), it irritates the hell out of me to see so many of those flag logos in my house because of the whole principle that my brothers are not the ones who were supposed to receive those shoes. Or at least they’re not the ones who TOMS claims receives their shoes in their advertising. They’re not the poor people in need of something to put on their feet for health and dignity purposes. In fact, although being far from the wealthiest people in town, my roommates probably have some of the most and coolest shoes in town. Because I always bring them back for them from the States. And I KNOW cool shoes. I believe that it’s one of every human beings’ inalienable rights to own at least one pair of Converse Chuck Taylors. And I make sure that my boys are enjoying that right as human beings. I may even be legitimately accused of shoe spoiling my roommates. But hey, I’m not the one on trial here. Just trying to say that if TOMS actually did their research to find the people that really needed their shoes, and live up to their claims, then my brothers would definitely not make the list.

TOMS allowing their footwear to end up on the feet of shoe snobs that aren’t bad off is one thing, but even worse is when their footwear just gets dumped without discretion and all the shoes end up for sale in the market. Fellow Jacmel import, Gwenn Mangine wrote a great blog post about this phenomenon about a year ago (during the last annual drop apparently). She effectively points out that there’s clearly no shortage of shoes in Haiti, but these charity slippers that are marked “not for resale” end up being sold in the market for 50 gourdes, which is probably what the vendor’s family needs worse than shoes. And since she had done such a good job providing witness to this absurd excuse for charity, I didn’t think that I’d have to write about it any more. (Seriously, if you’re not reading her blog, you should be.) But the more I see those shoes on my roommates’ feet the the more I feel the need to write about it more.

And although it’s no secret that I’ve never been a big fan of TOMS, I bring it up more specifically now because I’ve had some people ask me what I think about one of TOMS latest attempts at relevance which includes Haitian “artists” from Jacmel. I’m not the only or the first to criticize TOMS methods of saving people with shoes but it seems that they’re trying to take steps towards proving that they actually care about the culture and the needs of the people that they claim to help by creating a new line of shoes that are all hand painted by a collective of artists in Jacmel. Rather than just taking a pair of foreign made black canvas shoes and dropping them on some “poor” country for every pair of foreign made designed canvas shoes that some not poor person bought, now TOMS are taking the foreign made shoes, shipping them to Haiti, having artists in Jacmel paint each pair by hand, sending them back to the US, selling them for twice the price of their regular shoes, then still sending one of the plain black foreign made shoes back to Haiti to given to someone that they can call in need. You can read more about their description of the program on their website.

Oh, TOMS, you really are trying hard, aren’t you? I appreciate the effort. And for all of my issues with the company, I never have a problem with their original ideas, some of which I actually find pretty innovative. What I have is a problem with their follow through and their logic for why they do what they do. I have a problem with the fact that those free black scraps of fabric are on my roommates’ feet when if they wanted a pair of TOMS shoes any of them could have given me 40 bucks to buy them any pair they wanted online. When it comes to the Jacmel artists, however, what doesn’t make sense to me is the fact that the company seems to see that what people in this area need more than shoes is a job and income. So instead of keep sending shoes to a place that doesn’t really need them, why not use that extra money to help Haitians set up new businesses, even if they are selling shoes? Why not take that extra money and use it to invest in education programs for children instead of pretending like their shoes are allowing more kids to go to school? Why not take the time to find out what these communities actually need instead of just assuming that because you’re a shoe company, giving everyone shoes is really making a difference?

That’s my two cents as a nonprofit guy in Haiti. But, as an artist living and working in Jacmel who knows most other Jacmel artists closely and have been working with them for the last 6 years to try to help them promote their work and make a living off of it, this initiative by TOMS perplexes me on a whole different level. I’ve seen the shoes they’re selling, I’ve watched their video and walked through the streets that it shows on a weekly basis, I’ve even met some of the “artists” that they feature for the shoes although I don’t know them well because they’re not actually artists. Or at least they never were artists until TOMS plucked them off the street and told them to  paint something on one of their shoes. On behalf of the many artists in the city that I know who have worked hard their whole lives to make good art and support their families from their art, I feel like it’s a misrepresentation of the art of the city. Admittedly, I’m pretty sensitive for my artists, and I can’t be against anyone making an income off of their craft, but once again it just seems like TOMS didn’t do their homework before starting this program. If their goal was to encourage Jacmel artists, there are better ways to do it than to put crappy art on the feet of college students, hipsters, and evangelical Christians in the US. If their goal was to create jobs for Jacmel craftspeople, then they at least need to change some of their marketing language, but probably need to reanalyze how great of an impact they could have on job creation in Haiti if they really wanted to.  No matter what their goal, they’d probably be able to reach it more convincingly if they were to actually assess the needs and resources of their communities beforehand rather than just dropping solutions on them.

But since I don’t imagine that’s going to happen any time soon, I guess I’ll just thank TOMS for sending 7 more identical pairs of shoes into my household. We’ll look forward to another 7 next year. Okay, now I promise I’ll never write a whole post about TOMS again. Doesn’t mean I won’t mention them here and there. They’re just too easy of a target.