Author: Lee Rainboth

The Haitian proverb says "Don't throw rocks at a green mango." I'm a green mango. I'm constantly learning, discovering, and developing as a human being in this big messed up world. I'm no expert on anything but in this blog i will share my opinions based on my experience currently living and working in Haiti. I am an artist, writer, musician, and human being. I am a green mango. Don't throw a rock at me yet. *The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of an individual and in no way represent the position of any organization or group that the individual may work for or be involved with.

Don’t Read This Unless You’ve Already Read A Bunch of Articles by Writers of Color on Charlottesville

It’s been over a week now since the events of Charlottesville and I’ve remained fairly quiet about it all. I’ve been busy and haven’t even sat down in front of my laptop all week to type anything out. When something traumatic like this happens I always need to sit and linger with my feelings a bit before crafting any sort of meaningful response. That being said, I can’t say that what I’m about to write will actually be meaningful in any way. I feel like most of what can be said or needs to be said already has been said by others much more eloquent and informed than me. But I’m still gonna write what I can because 1) maybe everything’s already been said, but it hasn’t all been heard or absorbed by everyone that needs to hear it and maybe adding my voice will reach an extra ear or eyeball or two. And, 2) “writing it out” is always a necessary reconciliation for myself between my mind and my heart whether or not anyone else reads these words.

It’s also been a daunting prospect to write because simply, my soul is weary and overwhelmed. My privileged white soul is weary and overwhelmed even though I never have to worry about being the victim of racism myself. The most overwhelming part is the knowledge that my brothers and sisters of color in this country have been screaming into the void, trying to get us to wake up, for ages, but they continue to have to fear for their lives everyday in a country that pretends to be for all people as they watch their sons and daughters continually killed, imprisoned, and oppressed. How much greater the toll a week like this has on them and yet they continue to be denied and dismissed. No matter how many politicians “condemn bigotry and hatred” people of color in this country know that condemning the neo nazis with the tiki torches in the streets is not going to ultimately change the policies that make everyday life for them a head on battle with discrimination. The racists in the polo shirts were yelling their racism out loud in blatant and unavoidable language. But for years our government has been legislating just as appalling of racism with laws suppressing the votes of black people, and making sure that black people are more likely to go to prison and serve longer sentences, and making it more difficult for black people to own homes and get jobs, and creating access to quality education only outside of communities of color, and turning a blind eye when those communities of color are poisoned by their drinking water . Everyone’s angry that the president defends white supremacists as fine people, all the while our vice president and secretary of state and senators can say that the KKK is a scourge on our society, but we all know that the next day they’ll be signing laws that the klansmen would applaud, just with sneakier, less outrageous language. But the end result is the same.

People of color have known these things forever. The difference now is that the events in Charlottesville have held a mirror up to white people to show them that the racists actually look like them and it’s forced many white people to start to acknowledge their own complicity in the system. It’s come out from under hoods and shed the robes and it looks too familiar. This is a white people problem and we have to accept our duty to dismantling the system that benefits us. Speaking out in times of crisis is not enough. We have to actively deconstruct the inherent system of supremacy that has skewed the balances of power so far in our favor. How do we actually do that? I don’t really have the answers but there are resources out there with good suggestions if you Google it. But I would start by stopping the tweeting about monuments and what Donald Trump said. Those things are important but mostly symbolic at the end of the day. Start looking at how you can do your part to change the system. That means looking at how you vote, it means looking at what organizations you support, it means rethinking about where and how you volunteer in your community, it means being conscious of the media and news that you consume, it means considering your involvement with your children’s school and keeping your chosen place of worship accountable for social justice issues. It means having actual conversations with people of color who are affected by the systems everyday and actually listening to what they have to say without trying to advise them or help them. Amplify their voice if possible. It means, if you’re white, being willing to take a back seat in conversations about race. In fact, if you’re reading this, I hope you go read at least 5 articles by writers of color on the issue, their voices matter more than mine here. Maybe at the end of the post I’ll include some suggestions.

Now I’ve made it this far in my blog post and I’ve completely deviated from the content that I set out to write because once I started typing I guess I just needed to rant a bit.  I intended to write about the nuanced intersections of racism in the United States and effects of global racism on the little country of Haiti where I live, but I guess maybe that will have to be a completely different blog post. Now I’ve passed the point of no return. And I need to continue to rant a bit as I still wrestle with how to understand the situation myself and what my own role is in the big picture.

We can’t continue to condemn the actions of the racists in Charlottesville in such ways that we pretend it’s some far off novelty carried out by a small group of wack jobs. No matter where we live in the United States, there is racism in our backyards and there are systems in place that affect all of us that maintain white supremacy. We have to be prepared to have the uncomfortable conversations, with compassion when possible, but with severity when necessary. We need to confess the places where we’ve embraced the benefits that white supremacy has afforded us, and as my pastor in Iowa said this weekend, repent and change our minds about how we live within those systems moving forward.

There are a lot of white people these days who have begun to admit that they benefit from white privilege, but it’s much more difficult to actually accept that that privilege is a product of white supremacy and the systems that uphold it. We may not be in the streets yelling out that whites are the supreme race, but we willingly welcome the better education access, the better protection from the law, the freedom from being followed and side-eyed at department stores. I, myself, have benefited greatly from my white privilege. The very work that I do and life that I live would not be possible if I weren’t a white, middle-class, college educated, cisgendered male. I love being able to work as an artist and community organizer in my region of South-eastern Haiti and collaborate with such dynamic groups of Haitian artists on both a local and international level. But if I had been born a black man, to a single mother, in Detroit, and decided in my late teens that I had a dream to do work similar to what I do now, there’s no way, NO WAY, in this country of the United States, that fulfilling such a dream would actually be possible. Because of where I come from and what I look like, when I began to pursue working in Haiti through the arts, it was very easy for people to assume that I was going to be “doing good”, “helping others”, and “making a difference”. And because of that, I was able to get the support that I needed to actually succeed in that pursuit and make a life out of it. I won’t say that it was easy to do so, but it was an absolute breeze compared to how difficult, nay impossible, it would have been if I had come from a more urban, less economically advantaged place, and had darker skin and different life experiences.

My white privilege allows me the opportunity to do work in Haiti that Haitians themselves aren’t able to do in their own country because of the inherent white supremacy systems that impact access to resources and power. Early on in my career in Haiti when I was young and starting out, I was enthusiastically encouraged on all sides to pursue specific projects, but when young Haitian men, my own age, with just as much intelligence and potential, attempted to do the same exact projects for their own communities, they would be criticized as being too ambitious, only out for their own good, having ulterior motives. Everything from their sex drives to their taste in music would be used to discredit them while at the same time I would be praised for changing lives. Seeing this, I made it my mission to raise up those same young men as leaders in their communities and empower them to prove the naysayers wrong while trying to take a more supportive, less dominant role in the community work myself. And yet, no matter what I try to do to push them to the forefront and communicate that they are the ones doing the work, I usually end up getting most of the credit, because our systems of white supremacy have taught us to assume that white people are the saviors even though history would suggest that white people are usually the oppressors.

And now I’ve taken this post in a different direction again and gotten away from Charlottesville with my rant. But maybe that’s the point. Charlottesville was not an isolated, insidious incident. It was a symptom of centuries old structures that affect our lives every day on a national and a global level. And for centuries the victims of those unjust structures have been calling out. It’s time for those of us who benefit from the structures to stop and listen to what they have been saying and to actively work to break down those structures with them so that together they may be rebuilt in a more equitable and just way.

As for suggestions on voices of writers and commentators of color to check out, my good friend, Gwenn Mangine, put out a blog post this week about listening to priority voices with some good suggestions. Gwenn’s not a writer of color, but it’s easier to share her list than make my own. So check that out here. I’ll add podcast recommendations for the most recent episodes on Charlottesville from Politically Re-Active, It’s Been a Minute, and Black on the Air. For articles, check out this one from my girlfriend, Roxane Gay, and this one from Vann R Newkirk at the Atlantic, and this interview with Patrisse Cullors. Also, although not directly commenting on Charlottesville, I recommend reading Kara Walker’s most recent Artist’s Statement. It is brilliant and tremendously relevant to the situation.

Is This Artist African American?

This is a post that I wrote for my art blog but wanted to share it here as well thinking that it might be interesting to my Green Mango audience too. I am sincere when I say I hope to open conversations around these topics, so I welcome any feedback my readers might have on the subject.

The Art of Lee Rainboth (Concepts Blog)

I’m back in the US for a bit, showing my art in some shows again here in the Midwest, which always makes for new challenging interactions and feedback from viewers of my work. I don’t mean challenging in that the interactions are difficult, but they challenge me to reconsider what my art means to different people in different contexts. This is good and necessary for me as an artist because I get used to creating the work in my usual Haitian context and the immediate feedback that I always get on my paintings are from the Haitians themselves. But once I remove the work from that context and exhibit it in a different place with different histories and relationships to race, religion, culture, and community, and each person that views the work has their own personal histories and relationships, the art can send a very different message.

I’m currently participating…

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10 Reasons Why Haiti hasn’t Broken Me Yet

I am knocking on wood here. Because Haiti is a place that destroys people. The majority of outsiders that come here don’t last long and the ones that do last a while are broken by the time that they leave. It’s why Haitians themselves are frequently described with the detestable label of “resilient” because they find ways to survive and find joy in life despite all of the odds against it. When we say “Haitians are so resilient” what we really mean is, “I just don’t understand how they live in such a hellhole!” Those who come in from the outside come with a privilege that makes them much less resilient, because when things get tough, they can always choose to leave. And most do. I, for some reason, however, have not. After ten years, I am still here. It is certainly not because I am any stronger than others who have tried, but it seems that fate has simply aligned in such a way that I have managed to avoid many of the circumstances that often lead others to be broken. This does not at all mean that I haven’t experienced my fair share of trauma here (um, hello, earthquake) but my certain combination of Haitian traumas have never been enough to break me to the point of no return, and that has to do much with the way that I have chosen to live and the community that I live with. But also, because I have never had to deal with the following ten things that many, many people have encountered and each one chips away at resolve and the chance for resilience.

  1. I’ve Never Felt Unsafe

There are, indeed, reasons why Haiti is still under a travel advisory from the US for security reasons. Even though I personally have never been a victim of those reasons, there are plenty of others who have been. I live in a rural area where crime is low and everyone looks out for one another, even those who aren’t from around here. There are places in this country where the sound of gunshots can be as common as the sound of donkeys braying here at my home. I’m one of the rare white people in this country that doesn’t live in a large walled in compound with an armed guard at the gate 24/7. I don’t even lock my doors at night or when I leave. And I’ve never once thought twice about it. My vicious guard dog, Buttons, has to keep herself busy by harassing school children and old market ladies because she has nothing to actually guard me from. A lot of people say that I should be more careful, but Haiti has yet to give me a reason to be.

  1. I’ve Never Gotten Anything Valuable Stolen from Me

After ten years, of course, I’ve had a few inconsequential things stolen from me: a telephone and some cash in the middle of the carnival crowd, an inverter that was a hand-me-down to start with, and one of my favorite t-shirts (right off of the laundry line). But that’s about it. We had two solar batteries stolen from Living Media once, which was expensive to replace, but not all that devastating. So after ten years, I count myself very lucky on this front. It also is worth stating that I have never had anything stolen from me from someone that I trusted, which is a very frequent story that I hear from other expats. But it’s also hard to have your stuff stolen when you live with an attitude of sharing absolutely everything anyway. My roommates and I have no boundaries when it comes to sharing. Underwear? When laundry days don’t line up, sure. Toothbrush? When we’re away from home and in a bind, yep. So when nothing’s really for me anyway, it’s hard to ever really consider anything stolen.

  1. I’ve Never Gotten the Worst Diseases or had Traumatic Hospital Experiences

There is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t have had malaria, or dengue, or chikungunya by now. I take no precautions, I don’t use bug spray, I don’t sleep under a net, nothing. I have been daring mosquitoes to upset my health for years, and what do they do, give me a little zika for a day or two? C’mon! Even beyond mosquitoes, I’ve gotten off easy. The one time I had TB, it remained inactive and I got it treated before it ever gave me any symptoms. I’ve never once had to be hospitalized for anything here, and thank God. The horror stories of trying to get treatment here alone are enough to make someone give up on everything. Among expats who live like I do, it’s usually a sort of badge of honor to be able to compare who’s survived the most exotic diseases, and all I can say is, “I had some bad lobster once that made me puke a lot”.

  1. I’ve Never Been in an Abusive or Destabilizing Romantic Relationship

This one, people. Many of the other things on this list are purely fate that I have been able to avoid them and have come despite all of my efforts contrary to what is considered prudent, however, this one. This one right here, I get to say is because I make good choices. I have seen way too many good people get destroyed here because they give their heart to the wrong person, they get in bed with the wrong person, and they sacrifice their trust for the wrong person. Haitians are beautiful, passionate, sexy people that make you want to fall in love with them. And some of them are worth falling in love with. But this culture makes legitimate love and healthy relationships almost impossible no matter who it’s with (just ask the ones who have been able to make it work). But far too many foreigners here have gently laid their hearts in the hands of a Haitian only to have it ripped apart because of cultural differences and that choice carries consequences on every other part of their life, often destroying the other good work they are trying to do.

  1. I’ve Never Gotten in a Serious Moto Accident

I don’t need a lecture about wearing a helmet, thank you. It’s certainly not because I haven’t seen the gruesome results of tragic moto accidents though. Close friends of mine have been victims and others have fully positive experiences in this country until they’re thrown to the pavement and the pain and injury of the collision breaks not only skin and bones, but also their devotion to the country. It becomes such a more attractive option to return to where the streets actually have rules and cars have airbags and streetlights actually work.

  1. I’ve Never been Touched by a Death that I couldn’t Grieve Healthily

Death has crossed my path plenty of times in Haiti. It is one thing that you have to get used to. You become a professional at attending funerals. Some of those deaths have even been violent or unexpected. But through it all, Death has stayed out of my most intimate inner circle. In my entire time here, I have not lost any of my closest friends, my Haitian family, my staff or co-workers that I’ve come to depend on. That is a rare, rare gift in this place. I try to never take it for granted because I know how much harder those deaths can hit in this context. The culture of grief here is so different that for those of us who must straddle cultures, a death like that can topple everything that holds us together. I know that none of us are immune, however, so I’d be perfectly happy for all of those closest to me to outlive me and those who don’t, to die comfortably of old age. But I know Haiti doesn’t give that gift to anybody forever. Besides, if I ever lost one of my roommates, I don’t know whose underwear I’d borrow when I forget to plan ahead.

  1. I’ve Never Been Betrayed by Staff

I know a lot of expats will read that and think, “He’s lying. He can’t be serious. That’s not possible in this country. What kind of magic does he possess?” I’m going to tell you the truth, without trying to sound arrogant. I honestly don’t think it’s because I have always worked with or chosen staff in my organizations that are any more pure and trustworthy than any other Haitians. I have always had incredible staff, but they have always still been susceptible to the constraints that this culture puts on them, and sometimes, in other cases, that leads local staff to make decisions for the sake of their survival or their own integrity that makes expat staff feel betrayed. I think I have never been on the receiving end of this because I’m a very good listener and I have always made space for my local staff to feel like their voices are heard and I always let them guide as much decision making as possible. This isn’t always possible in all situations in other organizations, but because I’ve been able to do that, I’ve never had a staff member feel like they’ve had to do something behind my back or betray my trust. I’ve always been ready to accept and adapt to the culture where others would simply see betrayal because they are looking at things through the lens of the culture that they come from. This results in certain situations where, if others were in my shoes, they might feel like a line had been crossed, but my lines are always blurrier than anyone else’s. What’s black and what’s white, what’s betrayal and what’s fidelity, is always more fluid with me.

  1. I’ve Never Felt Taken Advantage of

This is closely related to the previous one, but even outside of work situations, as a white person, it’s easy, even common to be taken advantage of here. From beggars in the street, from vendors in the market, from participants in your programs, it seems Haitians are always looking for ways to exploit you as a person from a place of means or exploit their relationship to you for access to those means. But whether they are or aren’t actually taking advantage of me, I’ve never felt taken advantage of. Because here’s the thing, Haitians, as a whole, come from an entire history of being taken advantage of and exploited by the rest of the world. And to many of them, I represent the rest of the world and its history of exploitation. My skin color does, my language does, my passport does, and my privilege does. So I’m usually prepared to understand where they’re coming from. This doesn’t mean that I make myself a doormat, a healthy sense of sarcasm and measured use of Creole profanities helps with that, but I never fault a Haitian for trying to benefit off of my foreignness because it’s usually more of a survival tactic than it is malice.

  1. I’ve Never Felt like a Failure

Sure, I’ve had plenty of small failures along the way on specific projects but I, myself, have never felt like a failure in the bigger picture. Have I been disappointed? Plenty of times. But I learned early on to temper my expectations so that the successes, when they do happen, can shine brighter and have more power in defining my experience. In those times when I have failed in smaller ways and I lament those failures to my friends, they usually remind me that no one asked me to do what I was trying to do anyway. They remind me that the success of the community as a whole does not and never did depend on the success or the failure of my projects. They point out that they, personally, don’t care one way or the other. They’re just glad I’m here. As an American who grew up in a society that measures everything by results, it’s taken some time to adjust to such a mindset, but it has helped me keep a clear head about my reasons for being here and avoid breaking down when things don’t go as planned.

10.  I’ve Never Felt Alone.

After the earthquake, as an American in the situation, isolated and cut off from the rest of the world with no one from my home culture who could really understand what I was going through, I experienced one of the most immersive senses of loneliness possible. Yet it was at that same time that I was woven into the most intimate and indescribable sense of community and unconditional support from the local Haitians that were going through the situation with me. That is why I can say that I’ve never felt alone. No feeling of loneliness could ever compare to what I felt at those moments and yet it was the least alone that I ever felt because of those around me who were all going through the same thing, or even worse. And because nothing could ever compare to that, I know that as long I am here with this same community, I will never feel alone because I will never be alone.

That fact by itself is what has kept this country from breaking me. I’m not alone. I’ve got people. A lot of people, actually. The best people. And they’re all there no matter what happens. Even if I do get in a terrible moto accident or I lose control and fall in love with the worst person or I get everything that I value stolen from me. They are there and I know they will continue to be. To make me laugh, to make me believe in my purpose, to loan me underwear, and to hold me together when I’m in danger of breaking under the pressure of this country.

My Top 12 Podcasts of 2016

Originally, I was going to just add this on to the end of my Best Books post as sort of a bonus, maybe mention 5 podcasts that really informed, inspired, and entertained me this year. But as I started to make the list, I realized there were way too many really good podcasts that got me through this year that they deserved their own post rather than a supplement to another. And then as I was making the list, I couldn’t even keep it to 10 as was my original intention. In the interest of editing my list, I didn’t include any podcasts that are just audio versions of TV shows like Rachel Maddow or Bill Maher. (I know, I know, “Lee, zip up your Iowa farmboy, your liberal hippie is showing.”) This is the year that I became obsessed with podcasts and there were so many good ones out there to fill my earholes. Here are my favorites.

12. There Goes the Neighborhood

square-with-logos_imgThis year I became a little obsessed with the concept of gentrification and this podcast fed that obsession in a very understandable way. It unpacks all of the issues related to gentrification at all levels by speaking directly to people affected by it on all sides. Specifically focusing on the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, it shares interviews from those who are being displaced to those who are replacing them to the housing developers and politicians making the decisions. It takes a broad but comprehensive look at a  specific place that is wrestling with a reality that has started to affect cities all over the USA.

11. Accused

avatars-000247305943-o3mscu-originalIn a year that really capitalized on the popularity of true crime podcasts, to me, Accused stood out as one of the best. What I appreciated about it was that from the very outset in the first episode the producers and hosts were clear about the fact that they were doing the podcast in hopes of actually solving the unsolved case from the 70’s. They were also upfront with the fact that although they intended to present all of the facts as objectively as possible, they couldn’t completely abandon their own human tendencies to form opinions. Establishing these factors from the beginning made the whole podcast more captivating and less clinical for me. It pursues the case of the murder of Beth Andes in a small Ohio town in which a suspect was tried but acquitted and then the case was abandoned to never be solved. A couple other worthwhile true crime podcasts that didn’t make my list are In The Dark and Up And Vanished.

10. Serial

serial-itunes-logoI remain loyal to Serial after their second season knowing that it kept me invested and informed throughout once again. It remains the standard model and inspiration for so many podcasts that have come after it, and in many ways it can be credited for the popularity of podcasts in general today. Many people found season two less interesting than season one but I think that’s mainly because it didn’t provide the opportunity for listeners to play detective. But to me it still shone a clarifying light on a news story that I personally, at least, didn’t know enough about. And through their effective zooming out, they made me see how such a story effects us all. The story of US serviceman, Beau Bergdahl, being captured by the Taliban, is one that is easy to put into a category of hard to define war stories but Serial has a way of showing it to be much more than that.

9. The Room Where It’s Happening

ear_theroomwhereithappens_cover_1600x1600_final-300x300I confess, I’m a Hamilhead. And this podcast provides me with all the super fan Hamilton nerd goodness I need to keep from throwing away my shot (even though I’m really more of a Burr). Having theater and entertainment insiders get together every week and geek out over every detail of the musical makes me know I’m not alone. Every new hidden easter egg and background technical detail I hear about makes me love the musical even more. The best episode, in my humble opinion, was with the musical supervisor, Alex Lacamoire. I also love that it’s always available first thing Monday morning after a weekend without podcasts. Perfect way to start off the week.

8. Tiny Spark

ts_logo_without_taglineThis is the perfect podcast for nonprofit nerds like myself. Each episode takes an in depth look at the most pressing issues facing the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors through interviews with a variety of experts that are often on the cutting edges of these worlds. Hosted by Amy Costello, an experienced journalist whose work has often revealed some of the complicated inner workings of charity  efforts on a global scale. Also her voice is so steady and reassuring that it’s a pleasure to listen to and she always asks exactly the right questions.

7. Code Switch

wubpu46sThis is an NPR podcast that looks at issues of race and identity led by journalists of color, primarily Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol. For me, their topics are kind of hit or miss but when they’re good they’re really good. If you only listen to one episode, make it “Apocalypse or Racial Kumbaya?” But there are lots of good ones. While addressing issues that can typically be so contentious, the hosts maintain a level of professionalism and realism that makes the context of what they’re saying approachable while remaining challenging. It’s a great model of how to have civilized conversations about controversial topics. Plus, Demby closes out each episode with his standard “Be easy,” which I love because he’s the perfect model for such advice.

6. Sooo Many White Guys

indexYes, I’m also a huge fan of 2 Dope Queens, but I actually liked Phoebe Robinson’s own podcast more because while it maintains Phoebe’s always funny and refreshing voice, it conducts interviews with some of our generation’s leading thinkers on the current issues that define us. Rather than being just comedy its comedy + politics + pop culture. And honestly I’m just waiting for God to make my path cross with Phoebe’s somehow so that we can fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. YQY

5. About Race

downloadThis podcast is described as “a lively multiracial conversation about the ways we can’t talk, don’t talk, would rather not talk, but intermittently, fitfully, embarrassingly do talk about culture, identity, politics, power, and privilege in our pre-post-yet-still-very-racial America.” It’s got a stellar team of hosts, including one of my favs, Barathunde Thurston, that take a different topic each week that is consuming the current national dialog about race and they deconstruct and debate it often with a wide spectrum of views on each topic. The hosts always have a healthy debate where they often disagree with each other and ask all of the important questions that we should each be asking ourselves in our interactions with each other every day. It can sometimes get a little too intellectual and cerebral making certain perspectives harder to follow. But it’s successful at being real and raw and leading the way in a conversation that we collectively as a nation should be having.

4. Fake the Nation

ear_fakethenation_cover_1400x1400-1024x1024Hosted by one of my favorite comedians, Negin Farsad, this podcasts features a variety of unique voices, most of them from minority comedians, many of them Muslim. Each week they bring levity, humor, and a healthy dose of cynicism to the week’s political news. As voices that are typically othered in our political conversations, I appreciate this podcast for amplifying these voices instead. Negin frequently echoes the thoughts that I have in my own head, which isn’t necessarily constructive, but she expresses those thoughts in a much more entertaining way. And her guests always add nuance and diversity.

3. Politically Re-Active

podcast-2W Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu taking politicians to task and making us laugh with an incomparable lineup of guests, including politicians themselves sometimes, what more could you ask for? Unfortunately this podcast was only designed to go through the election, but I’m an optimist and believe that it was popular enough that they’ll bring it back again soon. It helped keep me sane throughout the year leading up to the election and often made me look at things in a new way. Their interviews with Rosa Clemente and Jill Stein made me see the Green party in a whole new light. Their post election episode with Roxane Gay was perfection. Keeping my fingers crossed that this one comes back.

2. We Live Here

indexIf I was in charge of giving out awards, I would give all of them to this team of local reporters at St. Louis public radio! They do such a stellar job on this podcast that each new episode can never come soon enough for me. I have a lot of podcasts on this list that deal with race, but none of them do it better than We Live Here. Their most recent episode on race issues in the contemporary art world brought me enough life to last through 2017 and beyond. But even before that, I loved every episode they produced. My only complaint is that they don’t come out frequently enough. What started as a podcast exploring “race, class, power, poverty, systems and the people they touch,” initially in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and the Ferguson protests that followed, has grown to project insightful analysis and absolutely essential investigation into how these systems affect all of us whether in St. Louis, elsewhere in the US, or around the world. From modern segregation, to implicit biases in schools, to housing crises, this podcast addresses it all and does so from the inside looking out rather than the outside looking in, which is what we get from the national media. I can’t heap enough praise upon this podcast! Even though it’s #2 on my list, it’s still the best in a lot of ways, especially from a local perspective.

1. NPR Politics Podcast

nprpolitics_red1400px_sq-6bc03b536409ec88fd8d3abb637b560e93865bad-s300-c85I honestly don’t know how anyone survived the past year in politics without listening obsessively to this podcast. In a country that is so divided by partisan prejudices, every week, sometimes more, the NPR politics team was a breath of objective, nonpartisan, fresh air providing facts and context to all of the chaos of the election. And I am so thankful to still have them to help me understand the next 4 years. The beauty of it is that they have journalist on the team, that if they allowed themselves to, would have a right to extremely personal opinions on what is happening. Muslim, black, queer, Latino, women, and yes, even a couple old white men, all together using their superhuman powers of objectivity to cover the current political news. Any time you feel like you’re about to freak out and break down from all of the other news your hearing, NPR Politics shows up in your podcast feed and restores your faith in facts and truth and humanity. I am such a fan of this podcast that when one of the team members made a joke about the word “vocalness” sounding like a 90’s R&B group and that joke was embraced by fans to the point that they actually offered Vocalness band posters, I was one of the first ones to sign up. I’m so excited to know that I have a Vocalness poster waiting for me back in Iowa! And now, I have to give this podcast the credit they deserve, especially before they lose two of their best journalists, Asma Khalid and Sam Sanders. Thank you, NPR Politics team, for getting me and so many others through this past year!

Let me know what you think  of this list. Are there other podcasts that you enjoy that I need to check out? If you listen to some of these, do you agree with my assessments? Looking forward to the new podcasts that 2017 will bring us. I might just have to make one of my own. Until then, Happy New Year to all my readers!

If you appreciate what you read on The Green Mango Blog, then please visit my About page to learn more about the work I do and how you can support my efforts as an artist and writer here in Haiti. Thanks.

My Top 10 Books of 2016

This year there were a number of books that simply came into my life at exactly the right moment. I love the magic that occurs when a book is able to find you at a point where its words speak in identifiably profound ways to your current situation. So I’m happy to share these recommendations with you and hope that some of them are the right fit for the moments that you’re living right now too. As usual, these are not necessarily books that were published in 2016, but ones that I read during the year and would like to pass on to you. This year, however, I did try to keep my list to relatively new books that have been published within the last year or two. Although I did read some classics this year for the first time like The Alchemist and Devil and The White City, I wanted to keep my list to newer books that maybe my readers haven’t had the chance to read yet or maybe haven’t even heard of yet.

1. Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

23209924In addition to being my favorite book of the year, I also think that it is one of the most underrated books that has come out recently. It imagines a world, specifically a USA, where water has become so scarce that life hangs in the balance and people use the possession and trade of water to acquire and maintain power and control the population. The book follows a spy and a journalist whose paths collide through a roller coaster journey of murder, corruption, and the pursuit of the truth and justice. It paints a harrowing dystopian picture of the future that seems all too plausible considering what’s going on between droughts, wildfires, water sources threatened by pipeline leaks, and entire cities poisoned by shoddy infrastructure and corrupt politicians. I think that’s what made me really love this book, the fact that it seemed so far-fetched and at the same time, so frighteningly real. Once the writing hits its pace, the action tears through the narrative dragging the reader along with it on a thrilling ride to fit all of the pieces together to uncover who’s to blame. The byline for the book is, “someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink” and as a reader in the end you’re not sure whether you’ve been implicated or exploited but you know that you’ve been entertained and left to look at our most precious resource in a whole new way.

2. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

winters_undergroundairlines_hcI downloaded this as an audiobook to listen to during my ride to Indianapolis where I spent a couple of months this fall. When I decided to download it, although I had read the summaries and was interested in the story, I had no idea that it was actually set in Indianapolis. The book asks one very big question, what if the Civil War never occurred? It’s set in modern day Indy, often referring to places around the city that I came to know well while I was there. The main character, Victor, is a former slave who made a deal with the government for his freedom in exchange for working as a secret agent to hunt down escaped slaves to return them to their owners in the southern states where slavery still exists. While following a runaway through the city, Victor uncovers many layers of government secrets that he, himself, has been unknowingly involved in. While following Victor on this journey the reader also is confronted with questions about our modern society, how we interact with one another, and how we each are complicit in the inequalities and injustices that undeniably exist. The story itself touches upon the sacrifices that we each make to become who we want to be and the consequences of those decisions. Normalization is also a theme as characters adjust to the reality that they live in.

3. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

gay-an-untamed-state-jacket-art-9780802122513This was the year that I officially fell in love with Roxane Gay as a writer, speaker, and consistently calm, but critical voice of current issues. I was exposed to her genius through some of the podcasts that I listen to, but once I found out that she’s actually of Haitian decent, I became an even bigger fan and looked into some of her previous writing. Although she’s more known for her writing on feminism, when she draws upon her own identity as Haitian and her immigrant family’s experience, she’s able to weave narratives that are incredibly engaging. In An Untamed State, she tells a fictional story about a Haitian American woman from an elite wealthy family who gets kidnapped and held for ransom while visiting Port-au-Prince. At first I was skeptical of the basis for this novel because I hate supporting anything that perpetuates the stereotype of Haiti as the kidnapping capitol of the world. But Gay handles the story with such a skilled voice and builds such intriguing characters, that the setting becomes less of a social commentary and more of a tool to approach issues of trauma, family, class and wealth, the limits and powers of love, and the feminine spirit. There’s a constant ebb and flow of the reader’s sympathies and frustrations towards the characters, forcing us to question our own assumptions of what we would do if we ourselves or one of our loved ones were ever in such a situation. It’s a book that’s devastating and difficult, but so good.

4. The Tusk that Did the Damage by Tania James

22318387This book is told from multiple points of view, including an elephant named Gravedigger and the different humans that he comes in contact with for different reasons. And of all of the characters featured in the story, the elephant becomes the most relatable in many ways. As he fights for survival and revenge in the countryside of southern India we follow his journey on a tale of greed, resilience, and loyalty. Through all of this it manages to also be a gentle love story set against remarkable circumstances. While enjoying the story, I also learned an incredible amount about the ivory trade and it’s effects both on the animals who are it’s victims but the communities that are involved in it. But the true beauty in its craft is that it doesn’t come off as an informative documentation but rather a splendid story from a unique perspective that leaves you in reverence of the formidable creatures that teach you through their wisdom.

5. The Sellout by Paul Beatty

22237161This book was written with one of the most unique voices of any book I’ve ever read. The protagonist and narrator of the novel looks at the world in a different way to say the least and leaves the reader scratching their head throughout but keeps you invested in his story nonetheless because you can’t wait to see what he says or does next. A black man, living in the ghetto of Los Angeles, he embarks on a mission leading to the Supreme Court, with the objective of reinstating slavery and segregation for a myriad of unbelievable and often hilarious circumstances dating back to his childhood and upbringing by a cooky sociologist father and his racially charged experiences that followed. The language in this book certainly isn’t for everybody and the writing style takes a little time to accept and ride along with. But once you adjust to those, the narrative itself proves to be so intriguing because through it’s humor and one-of-a-kind style, you almost forget all of the really heavy social and racial issues that you’re confronting with each page.

6.Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

bn-oc968_gyasi__jv_20160520165430Another book told from multiple perspectives and following multiple characters until their stories converge, Homegoing is a deep, layered story of two half sisters tracing their histories from the source of the slave trade in West Africa through subsequent generations of their families to show how different each individual’s destiny may be despite where they come from. It pulls you along from character to character through the years tracing the branches out from the roots through slavery and exploitation on one side to wealth and a very different kind of exploitation on the other side. Rather than being just a story about slavery and racism, the ripples reach out to draw you into very human emotions through the personal and genuine treatment of each character you encounter. It’s an absolute study in storytelling while taking a very dark and complicated part of history and putting it in a new light through the skilled fiction craftmanship.

7. The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

27213247-_uy200_I read this book right after the election, and it proved to be just what I needed to escape all of the drama. A light-hearted, comical account of a group of elderly friends who become disenchanted with their lives at the retirement home and decide to bring some excitement into their lives by going on a crime spree of theft and fraud. The inspiration for their decision to enter the world of crime is based on the fact that they figure they’d be treated better in prison then they were treated in the old folks home. The characters are so well defined and so relatable that you find yourself visualizing them as people you know in real life based on their personalities and their individual quirks. It’s not earth-shattering, it’s not mind changing, it’s just fun. It’s Golden Girls meets Oceans Eleven and it’s a pure delight the whole way through.


8. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

150709_sbr_coates-cover-jpg-crop-original-originalI questioned whether or not to include this on my list simply because it’s on all of the best books lists and has almost become a cliche symbol for white allyship to racial justice. It’s become a trophy for white people to prove how woke they are by whether or not they’ve read it. But the reason that it has reached that status is because it truly is a brilliant piece of writing taking a unique approach to racial issues. Its creativity in writing is what makes it so accessible to so many people and yet it attacks very important racial issues with gravity and sensitivity. Written as one extended letter from a father to his son this work tackles the tough questions of race in America in an intimate and provocative manner. It’s a survival guide to a young black man in a country and a world that make survival difficult for such youth. As a white man reading it, there are implications that are impossible to escape yet it’s written in a way to leave any reader room to agree with and understand the warnings that are so powerfully translated. 

9. The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

6a00d8341c9ac653ef019b02063899970dI had purchased this book before I ever decided to foster parent an orphan child earlier this year, but didn’t start reading it until shortly after the child was in my custody. So although it follows a very different story of orphans in very different times and places, much of its underlying commentary was especially meaningful to me at the time. Through the unlikely friendship of a moody teenager in the foster system and a wealthy elderly woman, Vivian, we are exposed to the story of Vivian’s past when she was an Irish immigrant orphan who boarded a train on a dramatic journey towards finding a family and a home. Through the intersectional stories we’re taken on a journey where each person is searching for a place to belong and a loving place to land where they can be accepted as their true selves. 

10. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

18803640In recommending this book, I would also like to recommend that you treat yourself to the audiobook version of this one. Narrated by the author herself, her voice becomes such a peaceful, almost meditative presence that it lends a whole new layer of poignance to the book. The author’s own process of grief after her father’s death is married together with the science of training falcons in a breathtaking narrative that, on the outside, seems like what would be a discordant premise. But it is so fully integrated into the author’s personal story with such a magnificent written voice, that you as a ready become completely immersed in her world and will come out of wanting to go out and get a hawk of your own. It never for a moment reads like a science book nor does it depress you with the grief. It finds it strength in the discovery of victorious flight in traumatic times. 

To Read in 2017

1. They Can’t Kill Us All by Wesly Lorey

2. Gentrifier by John Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill

3. Swing Time by Zadie Smith

4. The Nix by Nathan Hill

5. Pond by Claire Louise Bennet

Let me know what your favorite books were this year and which ones you think I should add to my bookshelf to read in 2017. If you’ve read any of these let me know what you thought. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have. I wish all the best for my readers in the new year! May it be one filled with new discoveries, opportunities for laughing and learning, and more books that inspire us each to become more of who we were created to be. Peace, Love, and Light.

The 10 Most Haitian Things to Happen to the United States in 2016

I haven’t written much on my blog this year. Part of the reason for that might be that I usually write from an American perspective in a Haitian environment and context, but this past year it was often hard to tell the difference between Haiti and the USA judging from the news and current events, so I was confused about what to write about. So now, in review of this crazy year, I’m sharing my top 10 most Haitian things to happen to the United States in 2016. I’m gonna try to hit the blog hard now over the next few days to make up for my lack of posting over the rest of the year. Several year-end list coming up, but this is the first. Sometimes it seems like my purpose as a writer is to write about how crazy and chaotic life in Haiti is, ruled by the ideology of making decisions based on whatever makes the least sense, but this past year, up was down, and right was left, and the USA was making Haitian levels of senselessness. So here’s to putting 2016 behind us and moving on to see what we can create for 2017.

10. Citizens Believed in Revolution Again

Haitians are a people who have Revolution in their DNA. The idea of revolution is central to their very identity as Haitians and to this day it permeates all they do in their daily lives. As USAmericans we don’t cling to such a revolutionary identity. We’ve learned about “the Revolution” in history and maintain it as something that happened it the past but doesn’t define our modern life. This year, however, the word “revolution” started to take on new meaning as it was specifically used in political movements like Bernie Sanders’ whose campaign inspired voters young and old to believe in a completely different approach to politics and public life. Although that particular revolution was unsuccessful it did energize many to embrace the idea of radical change.

9. People were Late to Things

From Hillary making it back on the debate stage late after a bathroom break, to Frank Ocean’s new album finally coming out after multiple postponed release dates, this year seemed to be the year where USAmericans started to embrace the fluidity of time that Haitians have always allowed to guide their schedules. Life’s too short to be chained down to our schedules. In Haiti, any appointment you make always comes with a “give or take an hour or so” assumption. We may not have relaxed our chains quite that much in the USA, but we’ve accepted that sometimes a bathroom break takes a little longer than expected, traffic just doesn’t flow like it should, and the creative process can’t be rushed.

8. The Water Was Undrinkable

As someone who has worked on multiple projects to improve access to clean water here in Haiti, I look upon so much of the news from the US in disbelief as it seems we have made water into a privilege rather than a right. It’s been over two years, and the people of Flint, Michigan, still don’t have clean drinking water and have to use individual bottles of water for bathing and cooking. And politics continue to impede progress despite the heroic work of many local individual’s in their communities there. When I read the stories of Flint mothers having to fill their bathtubs one 16-oz bottle of water at a time for their children to bathe, I have to count myself lucky here in the rural mountains of the hemisphere’s poorest country that I have a cistern full of pure rain water to bathe with and 5-gallon jugs of Culligan water for drinking. The situation in Flint is indefensible and the sad part is that, although it is the most notable, it’s not even the only place in the States with poisonous tap water. As certain people of power begin to be held accountable for the atrocity, hopefully 2017 doesn’t go by without comprehensive change.dsc_1557

7. Natural Disasters Drove People from their Homes

This has been a reality that continues to affect more people in the USA every year and it’s only going to get worse the more that we allow climate change deniers and environmental enemies into positions of power. Any more when I read a news story of cities being evacuated because of hurricanes or floods I have to double check whether it’s in the States or in Haiti. Of course, I know, that if people actually have the infrastructure to safely evacuate before a disaster, then it’s clearly the States, whereas in Haiti, we just read the death tolls that occur in the aftermath the disaster. That’s the difference.

6. Everyone Blamed Everyone Else for their Problems

It was Comey. It was Russia. It was uneducated white men. It was Hamilton. It was SNL. It was the media. It was some 400-pound guy in a bed somewhere. No puppet, you’re the puppet! I think maybe USAmerican politicians this year all participated in a collective workshop led by some Haitians on how to never take responsibility for anything and find someone else to always blame for your problems. Because Haitians are experts at this.

5. People Drowned their Disappointments in Alcohol

The only thing left to do once you’ve blamed everyone else for your problems is drink until you can’t remember that it was actually your fault in the first place. Alcoholism in Haiti isn’t really regarded as an illness or an addiction, but rather as the only logical response for someone whose difficulties in life have left them with no other options. In the USA this year there were at least 2.8 million people who were left disappointed and disillusioned with the fact that they lived in and were represented by a system that overruled their voice. And many of them turned to alcohol because there was no human way to make sense of it all sober. A very Haitian response.15749132_10154195965727844_2133452842_o

4. A Foreign Country Interfered with the Election to Install their Chosen Candidate

It’s hard to look back overtime and pinpoint an election in Haiti’s history that wasn’t tampered with by foreign influence. Sometimes more blatantly than others like in 2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually had to show up and have a sit-down big-boy talk with the exiting president to convince him to convince his party’s candidate to concede to the other leading candidate, cross-dressing konpa singer, Michel Martelly. All of this after a series of very controversial votes with accusations of widespread fraud. The US knew Martelly would be more in their interest so they waved their privilege around as the Western Hemisphere’s most notorious bully and pulled the necessary strings to get the result they wanted. Even before that, though, the US has been meddling in Haiti’s presidential politics almost nonstop from electing leaders, to deposing leaders, to reinstating them again. So when news broke, and was ignored, then broke again, that Russia had meddled in our election in the US, not only Haiti, but all of Latin America found the hypocrisy of the USA’s outrage a bit absurd.15749705_10154195965562844_43955809_n

3. Protests Actually Made a Difference

Haitian’s are professionals at protesting. It’s part of their revolutionary DNA. When they see a violation of justice, they know how to interrupt life in such a way as to get changes made. Roads blocked with rocks and downed trees, burning tires, crowds of people gathering to make their grievances known, Haitians will not allow their protests to be ignored. And often times this results in changes being made whether it has to do with the payment of public school teachers, or violence gone unpunished, or roads and bridges in need of repair, Haitian protests frequently put the wheels of justice in motion relatively quickly. In the USA, our protests usually go about with no official response. They’re regarded as a simple nuisance, or often times as a reprehensible crime. Because of our militarized police forces we are able to weaken protests and prove that people do not truly have any power in our society. But this year, the water protectors at Standing Rock maintained their protest with diligence and bravery until action was actually taken at the highest levels and the pipeline construction was halted. Even though it is, indeed, a temporary and partial victory, it is a victory nonetheless for people in our country who very seldom see action in response to protests.

2. A Rich Misogynistic Inexperienced Celebrity was Elected President.

Hey USA, you think you’re being original by electing someone different, an outsider, to the presidency. Haiti’s way ahead of you. Haiti elected a politically incorrect chauvinist because of his fame and manipulation of the media years ago. Long before Trump was saying blood was coming out of Megan Kelly’s whatever or we all heard him on tape saying that he could grab women by the p***ies, Michel Martelly was telling female journalists to come on stage so he could have sex with them in front of crowds and was waving his genitals around in front of thousands during concerts. That’s right, Haiti gets to be hipster about this one, because they elected that kind of guy way before it was cool. (And by the way, they also survived his time in office.) The whole time that the USA was enjoying economic growth, a decline in unemployment, heath care expansion, and a new wave of rights for all people, all under the first black president, Haiti was like, “nah, we’re gonna put this guy who knows how to sing and make us laugh in charge of our country.” Of course, referring to #4 on this list, it’s debatable whether it was actually the Haitians who made that decision or not. Regardless, when they look at Trump, Haitians can be like, “yep, been there, done that.”

1. Black Lives Didn’t Matter

Most people might think that the election would be the biggest news, at the top of the list from the year. But I put this one in the #1 spot because I believe that it is the most important to keep talking about. Certainly, 2016 wasn’t the first year that black Americans were shown how little their lives matter, in fact it was the 240th year that they were reminded of this reality. They saw another string of their black brothers and sisters killed by police brutality, more convicted and abused by a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets them, their children poisoned in Flint and elsewhere, their family driven from their homes in Baton Rouge, and across the country an education system and an employment system that continues to discriminate and segregate. There are endless examples. And they are still criticized for even daring to believe that their lives matter, for daring to say it out loud or typing it in a hashtag. Why this is on my list as the most Haitian thing, is because that revolutionary identity I’ve mentioned goes back to the very fight for black lives to matter. The Haitian revolution was carried out by slaves who were prepared to sacrifice everything to live their lives as human beings with value and freedom. It’s that same fight that is carried on through the Black Lives Matter movement to this day in the US. And it still is a fight in Haiti for them to convince the world that their lives, as independent black humans, matter. They are still viewed by the world as less then, inferior, charity dumps of pity, through the media and nonprofit messaging that define things. If their lives as black people really mattered, then when thousands of those lives get wiped out by a natural disaster, it would make a bigger difference to the rest of the world. If their lives really mattered, then more would be done to protect those lives in the future and set up a system for them to actually thrive in. The same fight that Black Lives Matter is engaged in on a national scale, the people of Haiti have been fighting for centuries on a global scale. A place at the table, a voice in the conversation, a share in the freedom, a life that matters.


The Death Toll for Hurricane Matthew Rises to One Bagillion in Haiti

There are so many reasons why I despise reading the death tolls trackers in the news now, after Hurricane Matthew, but anytime that a disaster hits Haiti. And since I can’t be in Haiti right now to distract myself from the news by engaging in concrete action to help those who are still living, I’m just going to use my blog right now to vent about some of those reasons why death tolls have become meaningless to me.

First of all, let’s make no mistake about it, the truth is ZERO Haitians have died as a result of Hurricane Matthew. Allow me to repeat that, zero Haitians have died as a result of Hurricane Matthew. The hundreds that you are hearing about in the news have died from inescapable poverty, homelessness, deplorable infrastructure, the incompetency of nonprofits, the government, and social institutions, and the terminal disease of international apathy. When someone dies of cancer, but the final thing that made their heart stop beating was an infection, we don’t say they died of an infection, we say they died of cancer. In Haiti this week, Hurricane Matthew may have been the killer, but he was not the cause of the deaths. In Haiti this week, hundreds of people lost their lifelong battles with poverty during a hurricane. That should be what the headlines read. Because long before Hurricane Matthew made landfall on Monday, every single one of those human beings that are being counted in the death tolls were already victims. They were already waking up every day unsure if they would see the next and praising God when they would see the next because each day is a miracle when facing the deluge of impossible systemic obstacles that are heaped on the average Haitian by history and by today’s global society. In saying this, I am not suggesting that every day is a depressing mire of hopelessness for Haitians, I am pointing out that every day every Haitian has a tremendous battle to overcome and most days they are able to do so with dignity, strength, and unshakable resistance. On one day this week, however, hundreds of Haitians lost that battle with the final blow coming from the deadly storm that has captured the world’s attention when the other daily injustices cannot.

Secondly, People are not numbers! Anytime we reduce a human being to a number we automatically destroy our potential to empathize. The latest number that I heard before writing this was 330. But to those who loved each one of those victims, they are not one of 330. They are one. Period. They are one father, one mother, one child, one soulmate, one role model, one best friend. They are one individual human being that possessed beauty, and talent, and spirit, and dreams. Diminishing those individuals to some tally mark on a spreadsheet or statistic in a news report adds one more additional grotesque insult to their already tragic loss. But categorizing Haitians in this way, according to what disaster killed them, or what injustice they are victims of, is largely what has fed the international apathy that has put them in such a situation that makes them vulnerable to a hurricane like Matthew in the first place. Haitians are seldom, if ever, portrayed as real human beings with real human qualities. They are “the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere”. They are the ones that “still struggle to rebuild after the devastating earthquake of 2010”. They are “tree eaters and mud cookie consumers”. They “live on less than a dollar a day” and “live under a corrupt and dysfunctional political system”. They are the 330 that died in Hurricane Matthew, the 10,000 that have died from Cholera, and the 300,000 that died during the earthquake.  And as long as non-Haitians are allowed to control the narrative, that is all that they will continue to be defined as.

14608002_1794676280814412_76806803_nAnd let’s be honest, Numbers don’t really mean anything. It could be 330, it could be 300,000, it could be one bagillion. The death toll rising or changing should not be our sympathy barometer. What number does the death toll have to get to before you take action? Are you calculating your donation proportionate to the death toll? What’s the tipping point that the total has to get to to make you care? Heaping the total onto Hurricane Matthew allows us to ignore the role we each have played in creating the system that has made each one of those victims vulnerable in the first place. But if we each acknowledged our own complicity in creating that system, then even one death should be too many. When every day hundreds die of preventable causes the result of a failed system and we don’t take action to create a change, then why all of a sudden do we pretend that the 33o attributed to Matthew will make a difference? There are many people working everyday to do good work to change that system and bend the trajectory of the toll that will be taken by future disasters, many of them Haitian themselves, struggling to get their voices heard because of the categories that they’ve been predetermined to belong to. Those of us non-Haitians who work by their side day in and day out try to get their voices amplified but no one listens unless a disaster comes along to slap people in the face with an unsettling death toll. This isn’t the first time a tragic death toll has come out of Haiti, but the system continues unchanged, so you can’t blame us for being a bit cynical about whether those numbers mean anything.

The numbers, just like the people they represent, will be misused and exploited. We who are responsible for raising money for both the relief efforts as well as the ongoing sustained grassroots programming will go to great lengths to get the funds we need to do the work that needs done. The good ones out there will do so with images and stories that maintain the dignity of the victims but unfortunately there are plenty out there that will use the increase in attention and sympathy to perpetuate victimization, expand the divide between “us” and the “others”, and allow dependency to grow. There are also others who will use inaccurate images and stories to get money for completely different purposes. And all of that dilutes the trust that some of us work so hard to build when working in Haiti and with Haitians. But please don’t use the exploitation of a few as an excuse to not support any. Find an organization that you can trust, that you can keep in direct contact with, that works with local staff and volunteers and community leaders to accomplish the work in the most effective way possible.

I’m in one of those uncomfortable positions right now where I have to raise money because our community needs help and I have access to people who can financially provide for that help, but I am also aware of the distrust and compassion fatigue that exists. So in the process of fundraising I’m trying to do so in a way that seeks to accomplish clear, defined, realistic goals that match the capacity of the local organizations that I work with that are on the ground and ready get to work. I am hoping that that approach resonates with people who have been inspired to get involved in specific action but aren’t trying to change the world. If that resonates with you, please check out our efforts through the Mountaintop Baz and LaVallee de Demain and make a donation if you can. But don’t donate if you’re just trying to absolve the pity you feel from the news stories. Donate if you are willing to see, truly see the people affected by this and if you want to be a part of a sustained effort to change the system that fueled the vulnerability in the first place. If you are looking to just absolve your pity, then go ahead and donate to the Red Cross. A lot of people out there would tell you not to do that, but I’m telling you, if you want an easy. one time, feel-good place to donate that isn’t going to ask anything of you in the future go ahead and throw your money their way. They do do a lot of good work, despite what many people would want you to think based on that article about them only building 6 houses after the earthquake, which is extremely inaccurate and doesn’t help progress in the bigger picture. I know a lot of Haitian friends, dozens that I know personally, who are in houses built by the Red Cross, and many more who have been employed by their ongoing health programs. Of course, I’d rather have you donate to the organizations that I mentioned or one of the many other smaller, locally led, grassroots, long-term organizations that are already active in the areas. But I want your donations to have meat behind them with sincere empathy and understanding of the bigger picture beyond this single disaster. That may sound like a lot to ask, but a $10 donation out of empathy is much more valuable than any amount donated out of pity. And if I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a million times, every little bit helps. You’re thoughts and prayers and social media attention are truly all appreciated, but prayers and shares don’t rebuild roofs. So give what you can with your whole heart, but also with your mind.

And let’s all remember that this is not the last time that disaster will strike Haiti, but next time that it does, if we are able to to focus more on the people and not the numbers the people themselves will be be empowered to build the system that works for them in the future. Until then, I truly do appreciate every thought, prayer, and good vibe sent in the direction of Southern Haiti in earnest solidarity. As the eastern US faces Matthew in their own way now, although with a different set of circumstances, our prayers will be with those affected there as well.


A White Life Doesn’t Mean a Better Life for Orphans

I am sharing this story simply as my own personal experience. I cannot speak for all trans-racial foster parents or adoptive parents, all of whom are caring for and loving children who all come from their own unique places and situations.

I recently tried out the whole fatherhood thing.

Back in January, I became a father very suddenly, unexpectedly, and still quite whole-heartedly. It was very strange for me because I’m not someone who has ever wanted to be a dad. It’s never been on my bucket list. The truth is, I don’t really like kids. Many people, when they learn that about me, don’t understand how it can be true because I’ve built a school and started multiple programs here in Haiti to help children in a variety of ways, so I must like kids. But I don’t. I believe in every kid’s right to a quality education and a happy and healthy life and the opportunity to express themselves and I will do whatever I can to make those things possible. But I, personally, don’t like directly interacting with kids much or even spending time with them. I find trying to communicate with them daunting and trying to have fun with them entirely bothersome. More than anything, having a child of my own has never particularly interested me because they come with poop and pee and vomit and snot and crying and so, so many questions and I have been quite content living my life without having to deal with all of those things. And I always assumed that life would continue as such. But I always admitted that I left the door open a tiny crack to the possibility that under very special circumstances I might one day think about considering fostering or adopting a child, as long as it was one that had already gone through the messiest and loudest stages of childhood already.

Lo and behold, I encountered those very special circumstances early this year, and took in a 10-year-old boy named Mendosa. The story behind those circumstances is a long one, one that I won’t share here. I won’t share it here because it is Mendosa’s story and I became very protective of who I share that story with. The only part of that story that’s relevant to this post is the fact that, as anyone who knows me well could tell you, the situation had to be an absolutely extraordinary one in order for me to agree that it was a good idea for me to welcome him as my foster son for the time being. Beyond the fact that I don’t generally like kids, the whole idea of being that white guy in Haiti who takes in a cute Haitian orphan, let alone a Haitian earthquake orphan (which Mendosa is, at least in part), is a cliché that would have been entirely too great for me to survive, if it wasn’t for this one specific kid in this one very particular situation, that came into my life at this one very special moment (he showed up on my doorstep on January 12th, because of course, God is a poet and would want to inflate that moment with as much symbolism as possible).

As soon as Mendosa had been in my care and others started to learn about him, I would have a lot of people make comments to me along the lines of, “Well at least you can give him a chance at a better life now.” Because essentially, that is the point of any foster or adoptive family, to give the child a better life than they would have otherwise had a chance at. Yet, whenever people would say that to me, I was uncomfortable with it. Without knowing anything about Mendosa or where he came from, they assumed that living with me would be better than the alternative. And that assumption to me always seemed to me to come with the very unfortunate implicit racial bias that clearly a life with me, a “rich, white, Christian man from a developed, modern, civilized country” would be better for this “poor, black, Haitian orphan” who was presumably coming from a place of absolute misery and depravity. The assumption to me seemed to be that a white life was always the better life. So I hated hearing these things because of the underlying prejudices that came with them and I would never ever want Mendosa to believe that those assumptions were true for himself. And the truth was, I really was never convinced myself that living with me really was going to be a better life for him, I just was convinced that at the time, it was the only real option.

IMG_2242-001Hearing what a better life I would be giving him and how much of a blessing I would be to him and how inspiring it was that I was helping him, all painted me as the white savior and turned Mendosa into little more than a trophy orphan. And there’s nothing that irritates me more. So I became very protective of both his story and his image in an effort to avoid such perceptions. I never shared stories or images of him on social media because I didn’t want him to become the easiest way to get likes on my page. I didn’t want him to become the anchor that gave extra weight and value to the work that I do in Haiti. I didn’t want him to become leverage for fundraising or a guaranteed heart string pulled whenever the occasion might suit me. I didn’t want him to become the unavoidable evidence that would finally make people care about my cause. I didn’t want him to become the most noticeable proof of the good that I do. I’ve seen too many other Haitian children be used like that and I didn’t want my child to become another one of them. That’s not why I took him in and that’s not why he was sent to me. Unfortunately, the majority of Haitian children that get used as Facebook trophies, get used as such by people who never intend to sustain any sort of relationship or even get to know their names. They become easy likes without ever having any story beyond just another cute, poor, Haitian kid. And although I knew that that wasn’t the case with Mendosa, it would have been easy for him to have been perceived that way.

So, for the time, I just did the best that I could to be the best possible father to Mendosa, but the truth is, after a few months, it became clear that living with me really was not what was best for him. Although I loved him, and still do, and he reciprocated that love, there were a number of issues that seemed to suggest that living with a wealthy, white guy might not be the better life for this one kid after all. So I decided that I had a responsibility to dig deeper into his family situation and try to see if there wasn’t a better option for him. His maternal grandmother was the one who had sent him to me, which she did because her physical health made it difficult for her to care for him any longer, and there was no one else on her side that could take him. But eventually I was able to get in contact with an aunt of his, on his father’s side, who was living in Port-au-Prince, who ran a small business, and was willing and able to take care of Mendosa. The two sides of the family were not on good terms, which is why I’d never known about this aunt before, but after talking with her we decided that it really would be better for Mendosa to stay with her. He would still be able to see his grandmother who he missed dearly, whenever he wanted, and he would be cared for by a family that would love him and provide him with everything he needs. Sure, he wouldn’t be able to watch Disney movies on Netflix in the evenings like he did with me, or have the chance to go to the beach as often, or be able to daydream about the possibility of one day becoming an American, but he would be happy and healthy, and that’s really all that matters. So we made the arrangements and sent him back to the capitol to live with his aunt. I’m still able to maintain a relationship with him and support him financially, but he’s with his biological family and on a more assured path to thriving. He’s where he needs to be, even if he’s not with me.

A lot of those same people who originally praised me for offering him a better life, now were sad for me upon learning that he wasn’t living with me anymore, as if I had lost a child. But the problem with that again is that it put the spotlight on me and my feelings and not what was actually in Mendosa’s best interest. I enjoyed having Mendosa around, but I was much, much happier to know that he was with a Haitian family where he would be safe, happy, and raised in a cultural and physical environment that would more certainly set him up for success as a contributing member of Haitian society as an adult in the future.

It is my belief that taking a Haitian child and adopting them into a non-Haitian family should always be an absolute last resort. There are so many other options for the average Haitian “orphan” that are never explored because we are too stubborn in our belief that all poor brown orphan kids need a rich white family to save them. We are too proud to admit that maybe a white life isn’t necessarily a better life for most. In my case, I was able to find other family for Mendosa to be with and make arrangements that would still keep everyone involved in assuring the well being of the child, but I know that that’s not always possible. But it should also always be attempted before assuming that adoption is the best option, especially adoptions that traverses racial and cultural lines, setting up an entire host of new obstacles for the child to deal with. Again, I am certainly no expert on adoption or child care, nor am I even someone who likes kids, but I am someone who believes that kids deserve the best life possible and this is simply my experience in trying to discover what that looks like for this one. If you or someone you know has had different experiences, I would love to hear about them in the comments and continue a conversation on these issues. There is, certainly, a much larger conversation that begs to be held on international adoption and orphan care issues in general to find better methods and solutions and theories to it all, but I think that it starts with us all sharing our own stories and perspectives.

Grandma Sloths and Donor Designations

I had a dream the other night. Okay so I have dreams every night. Wonderful, wild, bizarre and beautiful dreams. But the other night I had one that seemed pertinent enough to write about here, so I invite you to follow me down this rabbit hole for a moment because there really is a point to it all.

So I was here in Haiti, down at the Living Media center with a group of people, some Haitian, some American, and we heard a loud crash outside. I ran outside to see what had happened and noticed that a large tree had fallen, trapping an entire family of sloths underneath of it (no, there aren’t sloths in Haiti, that’s why it’s a dream). Overwhelmed by a burden to help the sloth victims, I hurried to the tree and was discovered a sense of superhuman strength which allowed me to heave the giant tree trunk off of the sloths. I threw it to the side to find a mother and a papa with four babies and one older grandma sloth all smiling up at me in appreciation. The grandma sloth had grey hair and granny glasses, yes, granny glasses, much like Sophia Patrillo’s. She was apparently quite near-sighted. She spoke to me with a frail but wise voice, thanking me for saving their lives and expressing that they wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t for me. The others didn’t speak but just smiled gently while the little ones giggled and cuddled with one another. As the grandma spoke, one of the babies reached out slowly and grabbed my hand. I told them that I was happy to help and then carried them all to a different tree where they could all move on with their lives. Then I told them that I had to go because I had another activity that I had to get to but I was sure that I would see them again. They waved good-bye and I left, leaving the other humans there at the center while I hurried off to take care of some other responsibility, thinking very little of what just happened because that’s just what I do. If I see someone, or some sloth, that needs help and I have the ability to help them, I do so.

And that’s that. No big deal.

But then I got back from whatever it was that I was doing a couple of hours later and I found one of the Americans that was there still standing there at the center. All of the others had left but she was standing there waiting for me to get back. When I got there she said that she wanted to make a donation to Living Media and would be giving us $1,000. “That’s great!” I said, knowing how much that money could help us with our programs designed to realize our mission of helping young adults in creative educational opportunities. Then the donor told me that she was giving it to support research in the cross-breeding of sloths and beavers because maybe then sloths would be better equipped naturally to protect themselves from falling trees.

And that’s where the dream fades, or at least my recollection of it does. So I don’t know how I responded to the donor’s offer in the dream, but I know how I would be tempted to respond if it was real life. I would have smiled and thanked her for her donation and her heart for the poor sloths, but also explained clearly that I couldn’t be sure how much we could do because we are not, after all, a wildlife protection organization, or even anything close to one. Then once her donation cleared our bank accounts, I would encorage our staff to use the money to serve the people that our programs were designed to help in Living Media and cover some of our unavoidable financial needs that we’re unable to find other donations for. I would advise the money be used for what our organization and our community have agreed are top priorities from the time that we started working, knowing that the donor was clearly out of touch with the reality of why an organization like ours exists and what it exists to do within a community such as ours. Knowing that pointing out how out of touch she is would only mean losing her as a donor and making myself come off as an egotistical jerk, I would choose rather to take a path of leaving the donor in the shadows of her good intentions while using my own experience and that of our staff to make better decisions of how to use that donation. I would feel a burden to remain accountable to my local community and hold their priorities above that of the donor even if that means not sharing the entire truth with the donor. Because I know that the local community would place the cross-breeding of sloths somewhere on the priority list way after education for their children, support for their young people, business opportunities for families, but somewhere before receiving TOMS shoes and fortified meal packets and one more VBS program. So I would make sure that those top priorities are addressed first, which means focusing on people, but I would keep the sloths in the back of my mind just in case down the road we are so successful at the other things and have so much extra money that maybe we can put one of them in a cage with a beaver and a box of dark chocolates with some romantic music and see what happens.

But then a year later when that donor emails me asking for some photos of the sleavers or bealoths that we’ve bred and evaluations of their superior survival adaptations and financial reports of how it all happened, I would be screwed. I would have a clear conscious knowing that legally I didn’t do anything wrong because we never solicited any donations for sloth protection so we wouldn’t be obligated to use the funds for that purpose even if that’s what the donor requested. Legally, we would be first and foremost required to be accountable to the demographic that we were established to serve, which would be the young adults of Haiti, not the sloths in old trees, or the donors with money to give, and that original demographic would have a lot more important ways to benefit from that money than what the donor had requested. But I would still be stuck in a murky moral mire knowing that I had accepted the money based on the donors misconceptions and now I would be left to defend that decision and account for what we did with the money without alienating the donor or coming off as apathetic to the cause of the sloths.

The fact is that I love sloths. It would be awesome to have one as a pet if that were an option. I also love donors. Couldn’t live without them. But what I love even more than both of them is undesignated donations that are given without any emotions attached to them. They are what allows an organization to most effectively achieve its mission, yet they are the least likely kind of donation to be given because we all like to think that we have complete control of our money to its absolute end. We all like to think that we always know what’s best to be done with our money. I suppose it’s easy for me to see things differently as someone who’s always worked hard to earn everyone else’s money but has never had much money of my own. That’s why, despite all of that hard work, even if I choose to use $5 out of that $1,000 to eat a sandwich for myself instead of one more brick to build the sleaver habitat, then I’m the one that gets criticized as corrupt.

Yes, the sloth situation may have just been a dream, but the sad truth is that it represents all too often the reality that many, if not all, nonprofits have to continually deal with. Donors are the ones giving money that they’ve worked hard to earn, so they like to make all of the decisions of what that money should do. Meanwhile, the organizations have spent critical time and energy researching what their communities’ most urgent needs are and then they’ve invested resources in training local staff to address those needs according to their own specific abilities. And too often those two sides don’t match up. There’s a disconnect between what the donor thinks is best and what the community actually needs. And it always puzzles me why people think this is appropriate. We wouldn’t pay Nike to make us a laptop and we wouldn’t pay Ford to build us a house. And when you buy your groceries from Walmart or Whole Foods, when you hand over the payment to the cashier, you don’t leave a note for the CEO of that company of how they should spend your money. So why do we donate money to environmental organizations expecting them to send kids to school, or educational organizations expecting them to build churches, or arts organizations expecting them to feed people? Why do we donate money to an established organization with an established mission and clear methods of how to accomplish that mission and experienced boards and staffs in place to ensure that it gets carried out, but then we still try to tell them exactly how we want that money to be used? Once we pay for groceries at Walmart, we accept that that money is no longer ours, it belongs to Walmart. (Don’t send comments about how Walmart is evil, it’s simply the most universal example I can use.) But when we donate to an organization, why are we unwilling to accept that that money now belongs to that organization and trust them to do what they know is best?

Yes, I have strange dreams every night but maybe my craziest dream of all is a dream of an organization that is truly empowered and supported 100% to do what it was created to do. A dream where poor local activists and foreign wealthy donors can sit down together at the table of brotherhood without compromising their visions. I have a dream.

The Boogeyman in America’s Closet


There’s a boogeyman in America’s closet. And this November we have a decision about what we want to do about it. We are going to have two choices.

One candidate will be telling us that there is a boogeyman in the closet and we need to protect ourselves from him. So we should build a big wall around our beds, sleep with a gun in our hand, and then drop a couple of bombs on the closet. Because although we’ve never seen the boogeyman or know anything about him, he’s definitely in there and he’s different than us, so we should be nothing but terrified of him and react only with hate-filled, deadly force. Problem solved. Nighty night.

The other candidate will open up the closet door, pull the light switch, and show us that there’s nothing to be afraid of. Then they will sit next to us and explain that yes, although there are dangers in the world that we have a right to be careful of, they are not hiding in our closet waiting to gobble us up. Those dangers are worth educating ourselves on and understanding as much as possible about them so that we can work together to reduce the risk. In the meantime we should sleep tight and not let the fear prevent us from having the sweetest of dreams. Then they’ll read us a lovely bedtime story. In the morning, after you’ve made it through the night…

The first candidate will wake you up and tell you to work hard to climb over your wall around your bed (because you’re privileged enough to go outside of the wall but no one else is allowed in) and after showing you the ash filled crater where your closet once was they will tell you to keep ahold of your gun. “Why?” You’ll ask. And the candidate will tell you because you don’t know if the Muslim family across the street, or the Mexican family next door, or the black family down the block, or the lesbian couple next to them, or the single transgender man with the pet pitbull across the alley, might have been friends with the boogeyman and they probably believe in gobbling up people too, so just carry your gun around with you to be safe. Don’t try to talk to any of them. If they make eye contact with you, just shoot them.

The second candidate will ask you if you slept well and cook you breakfast before telling you to have a good day. They’ll tell you to go to the park and play with the Muslim children, and the Mexican children, and the black children, and the children of the lesbian couple, and the handicapped child from that other family. Then they’ll remind you that all of those families along with the transgender man and his pitbull, Creampuff, will all be coming over later for a potluck where everyone will be contributing to the meal. And if anyone can’t contribute, they’ll be welcomed anyway and everyone will make sure that they have plenty to eat, because you all belong to the same neighborhood, the same community, and you look out for each other.

  Sure, this is an oversimplified description of our complex modern democratic political system. But it is clear that there are certain candidates out there that are much more concerned about creating policy based on fear rather than knowledge. And it may fill us with a sense strength to say that we’re going to exert all of our power over the boogeyman by showing him who’s boss. “Destroy the bogeyman and make yourself invincible!” is an attractive message. But is it really what’s best for our country? Can our strength really be built by demonizing, stereotyping, criminalizing, illegitimatizing, and dehumanizing entire categories of our population? Are we willing to sacrifice our religious freedom, our racial diversity, and our colorful spectrum of varied voices all for a misplaced, abstract notion of greatness?

I know that there are many, many, issues at play in the upcoming election for the United States. But one issue that is at the center of it all is our very identity as Americans. And I’ve always felt that who we are depends much more on who we extend freedom to rather than who we keep it from. Who we are is more fully realized by making freedom inevitable for as many people as possible, not making it only available to an exclusive few. We have never been a country that has guaranteed that everyone will be rich and powerful, but we have always been a country that has guaranteed that everyone will be free.

As I’ve traveled around the world to countries where that same freedom is not guaranteed to everyone, I have always been proud to be an American for that reason. Now we stand on the precipice of a pivotal moment that could be flushing all of that freedom down the toilet if we allow a candidate to take power that would make that freedom available to only a select few that looked and thought like themselves. If that happens, I’ll be much less proud to call myself American. I’d survive. I could easily pass as Canadian or even French if I had to here in Haiti. Fill out a few pieces of paper and I could actually be Haitian. I’d survive. But freedom would be dead.

I don’t believe in making decisions out of fear. I also don’t believe in telling anyone who to vote for. I believe that everyone should be free to vote for who they want. I also believe that everyone should be free to worship who or what they want, love who they want, study what they want, work where they want, and be who they want. Free to be who they are. I am going to vote for someone who is going to fight to keep everyone free to keep believing, loving, doing, and being too.