Haiti

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.

 

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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.

Questions From the Road – Is the Government There Really Corrupt?

As I travel in the US and speak about my work and life in Haiti there are always a number of questions that people ask me and a few that get asked much more than others in one form or another. The questions usually come from a place of earnest interest from someone who wants to ask something a bit deeper than, “So how are things in Haiti?” And a few of these questions have responses that are more complicated than what I can give in the brief moments that I have in person with people after a presentation or at an event. So I’ve decided to take a few of these more popular questions and break them down in a new series of posts called “Questions from the Road”. In the next few weeks I am going to try to answer six particular questions that I get a lot during my travels. 1) Is the government there really corrupt? 2) Are they starting to recover/rebuild from the earthquake? 3) Is voodoo really a big thing down there? 4) Is anyone investing in tourism at all? 5) So what’s the deal with the Dominican Republic? and, 6) Is it safe? Some of these questions are very difficult for me to answer adequately when people ask them in person because my initial reaction to some of them is to blurt out something that would end up being very offensive. So I’m hoping that by taking the time to write out my responses instead, I can more effectively address some of the messy issues that will more completely explain the situation better than I could do face-to-face.

So today, the first one: Is the government really corrupt there?

I’m starting with this one because last week Haiti actually had elections to select a new president for the country as well as new representatives at all levels down to the most local of leaders. And as I follow the international news coverage of the election, I usually get very frustrated at the way I find the media describing the situation so this current question comes with a lot of feelings for me right now. But that’s not where I need to start because the truth is, even in the last 2 months that I’ve been Stateside, most people that ask me this question have absolutely no clue that an election was even taking place nor do they have any clue about the current administration or what the last 5 years of their leadership has been like. Most people asking this question are doing so out of some minuscule tidbit of information that is lingering in their cross cultural consciousness from Haiti’s tumultuous political past. Most of the people asking this question remember that sometime back in the 70’s, 80’s, or maybe 90’s they heard something about some tyrannical dictators ruling the population like monsters and they’ve clung on to that small unspecified nugget of information to define their understanding of the country until this day. They remember something about a doctor or a priest or a general or something once upon a time violently taking power and then killing a bunch of people that disagreed with him and then gobbling up all of the money while exploiting the poor. And while there may be a small sliver of truth somewhere in there, a lot has changed since those times.

Haitians line up to vote

Haitians line up to vote

I’m not saying that the current Haitian government is perfect, not by a long shot, but we cannot assume something about today’s Haiti based on the problems of it’s past. Now if someone started their question by saying, “So I read this thing about Martelly the other day that said… so is their government really corrupt there?” Then we can have a real conversation. But the problem is that I feel most people assume that the last 30 years have just been a string of Baby Docs and Baby Baby Docs in power and apparently that is going to continue forever without taking the time to try to understand anything substantial about the current situation.

But what’s even worse than this assumption based on a vague notion of history is when people ask this question out of no notion of history whatsoever but just out of an implicit ethnocentricity and white supremacism. And unfortunately, I often feel that this is lingering under the question somewhere. The belief that has been perpetuated subliminally that any country that is poor and black must have a corrupt government. That’s just how it goes. So clearly, Haiti’s government must be corrupt too. We don’t apply this formula to poor countries that have lighter skinned populations (unless, of course, they’re Muslim). But we’ve all watched The Last King of Scotland and Hotel Rwanda and assume that that’s how all economically poorer countries with black populations must be ruled. Which is an absurd assumption even if you were looking at the specific countries that those movies were set in.

So, now, if we can get past all of those things, and really take a look at what really is going on in Haiti right now politically, let’s see if there’s any way that we can even answer this question about corruption. As I said, we are right in the middle of an election season right now with results of the first round of votes being revealed earlier this week. And during the time that votes were being cast and then counted afterwords, there were lots of media outlets that were throwing around the word “corrupt” as if there were no consequences of using that word. Most of them cited random people on the street who were unhappy with the government as their reasoning for calling it corrupt. This is not journalism, people. I am not defending the administration here, but I am defending the right of the people to be accurately portrayed in foreign media. There are plenty of places where criticism can be brought upon the current administration for the way they have governed, but let’s use real facts when placing that criticism and not just the angry people in the street who would be perfectly happy to burn tires and throw rocks based on gossip. Those angry people do not necessarily represent the entire population.

This is why the current president was elected in the first place. Yes, there were plenty of people who were against Michel Martelly gaining the office and they’re the ones causing the protests and screaming “corruption”. But there are also plenty of Haitians who were in favor of him becoming president and have even been satisfied with his leadership the last five years. So, what I’m saying, is, let’s look at the whole picture and not assume corruption just because there are a number of people angry and willing to go to extremes to express their anger. But also, before we place too heavy of blame upon the current president for the mistakes that he has made during his tenure, let’s also be very realistic about how he got to where he is.

IMG_0698

President Martelly at a campaign event in my hometown.

Michel Martelly was elected in 2010 shortly after the earthquake when Haitian voters were not at all concerned about electing someone with any political acumen. They were coming out of a very traumatic experience and during the campaign and election season most were still dealing with very serious emotional difficulties and so they gravitated towards a candidate not because he could rebuild effectively or stimulate economic growth, or improve foreign policy, but because he had proven that he could entertain. (Americans take note what happens when you elect someone without any experience in governance like, oh I don’t know, a real estate mogul or brain surgeon.) People voted for Martelly because they knew that he could help them forget the trauma, bring a smile back to their faces, and celebrate the good things in life that remained. Martelly was famous as the great president of compa music where people loved his performances because they usually came with him dressing in drag, telling dirty jokes, and even being blatantly lewd on stage. When a good percentage of the population has seen your plantain and passion fruit because you’re always pulling down your pants or flipping up your skirt, then the population can assume that you’re not someone who’s going to hide anything. Nudity = transparency is a pretty safe assumption and transparency is the exact quality that voters want in a leader who is not corrupt.

Whether or not he lived up to that expectation is certainly debatable, however, I think the reason he was elected was pretty clear, for his name recognition and fame as an entertainer. The majority of Haitians that I know were wanting him elected back in 2010 and despite all of his flaws, still are not tremendously disappointed in him because he has lived up to their expectations of being a great entertainer. He has also done enough good things along the way as president like building roads and bridges and making education more accessible, that they are willing to overlook the blatant policy bumbles. People who are disappointed in him and slinging accusation of corruption, clearly had the wrong expectations to start with. But I think that the truth is, the majority of Haitians knew exactly what they were getting into by electing this guy. So we can’t really be surprised when, for example, he neglects to hold legislative elections and the congress dissolves by default because he can always claim, “Hey, I didn’t know I was supposed to do that, I’m just a singer!” And then the majority of Haitians will respond with, “That’s right! Who cares about Congress? Sing a song! I wanna dance!” This is not to paint the Haitian population as naive but rather to express the real amount of importance that music carries in their culture and daily lives, which I actually believe proves a great depth to their social conscious. It does not, however, guarantee the best decisions when it comes to governance.

This is a very complex issue, which could be expanded much more, but for the sake of economy on my blog, I’m going to leave it at this. Let’s just be honest in our own prejudices towards what government is supposed to look like when we are judging someone else’s alleged corruptions and let’s also be sure to look at the facts on the ground as they represent the general population. Let’s not project our own cultural definitions of what corruption is or isn’t when we’re not the ones voting and let’s not negate the very real life issues that are currently affecting the people who are voting. Is the government really corrupt there? As should be expected from the Green Mango, my answer is that it is never black and white. The truth lies in the grey areas.

2,000 Displaced Haitian Refugees Is Not The Tragedy

In the United States right now we have our own complicated battles that we are fighting against racism and inequality. The people who are a vital part of our society but happen to fit into a racial category that isn’t treated as justly as others are the victims that are leading the fight to be seen as human beings and not have to live in fear. As the battle grows into a nationwide struggle for justice and understanding, many allies from outside of the racial minority categories are joining the fight to ensure all citizens live with the same amount of liberty as each other. It is a battle that will take time and has been going on for years already. But the battle is being fought. It is being fought to change systems and redefine symbols and break down institutions all to tread the seemingly impossible path that leads to racial equality. It is difficult and discouraging at times, but there is hope for change as citizens begin to stand up and demand justice.

IMG_0589Meanwhile, on the island of Hispaniola, a much different racial struggle is raging. Here, no battle is being fought. Outright discrimination is being carried out by the racial majority in the Dominican Republic, led by its government, upon the racial minority of ethnically Haitian inhabitants of their country. The majority is exploiting its power to cleanse its country of the minority: the blacker, poorer, Haitians. And the minority, are being forced, whether physically or emotionally, to give up and leave. They have no power to even attempt to challenge the system or hope for any change. They have no choice but to leave the place that they’ve called home for years and return to a country that they know no more and that doesn’t know them. After the earthquake of 2010, multiple political crises, hurricanes, droughts, aid, development, tourism, and so much more that has occurred in the last 20 or more years, it is not the same place that they left behind. But now they have to pray that they are able to find a way to fit back into it.

But so far, that place to fit remains elusive. Since June 17th, the deadline that the DR gave Haitian inhabitants to apply for legal status, it is estimated that more than 40,000 individuals have crossed the border back to Haiti in an attempt to escape the impending humiliation that they have been promised to face. The numbers, as always, are impossible to project accurately, but a large percentage of this 40,000 have done so “voluntarily” as most news stories put it. But this simply means that they weren’t picked up in the middle of the street, thrown in the back of a truck, and driven to the border to be dropped off and expected to fend for themselves. This, has happened to some, however, the majority have seen it happening and decided to do it on their own while they can still pack their things and go with their families. Others have simply grown overwhelmed by the blatant hatred that they have to endure everyday, and have made the choice to remove their families from an absolutely unlivable situation. They have grown tired of being called dogs everyday and suffering physical violence and treated like absolute animals. So they have indeed, made a choice, but it is in fact, the only choice that they had.

IMG_0554This is a very simplified version of a very complex situation that is made up of uncountable layers of political, social, racial, and economic histories. It is a situation that has led to these thousands and thousands of Haitians ending up across the border in towns that were never prepared to receive them among people who have no responsibility to welcome them. And some of these border towns have been able to receive a minimal amount of aid and international attention because of their location and accessibility. There is one border town, however, that is so isolated and off the radar that the crisis occurring there has gone largely unnoticed.

Last week I visited this town, called Anse-a-Pitres, which is located on Haiti’s southern coast directly on the border with the DR. The only paved road into or out of the city comes from the DR which has been inaccessible since they closed off the border recently. To get there from Jacmel, we had to take an 8-hour boat ride from the port of Marigot, overnight to reach the city the next morning. Due to this extreme isolation, it was a city that already suffered from a lack of resources and infrastructure that affected the lives of the more than 27,000 people that call Anse-a-Pitres home. Add to that a year long drought in the area and the increasing hostility from the DR side of the border which they have always depended on for their trade and economy in the area, and you already have a local emergency situation without adding on any refugees to the pile of needs. Yet, in the last month, nearly 2,000 Haitian refugees from the DR have landed there, as they escape or are kicked out of the DR, and that’s as far as they’re able to make it.

Yes, I called them refugees. I’m not a journalist and I don’t have to tiptoe around any politically correct language that the media and organizations have to use. These people are there because they are trying to seek refuge from a situation that they know will eventually put their lives and the lives of their children in danger. They have seen their neighbors and friends beaten, and ripped away from their families. They have been harassed themselves, threatened, and left without options. They have seen young men who share their skin color lynched in public and killed for who they are. These people are refugees who are now suspended in an indefinite survival mode where they have chosen physical suffering in place of racial discrimination. The Haitians as a people have one of the most indomitable revolutionary spirits of any culture on the planet, and yet in the face of such egregious hatred, they have seen that there is no hope to overcome in this case, only to run away from it.

And the physical suffering where they have landed in intense. The city of Anse-a-Pitres had no where to receive them when they started showing up so they sent them out into the desert surrounding the city where nothing but cacti and dust can survive. Ironically enough, the place where they have established the refugee camps is known as “Plas Kado” or “The Gift Park”.  Having shown up there with very little possessions, and having spent the only money they had to make it that far, families now set up shelters made of cardboard boxes, scraps of tarps or old bedsheets. There is no food and there is no water. They are completely dependent on what little aid they might find to scrape by an existence for their families. The well to get drinking water is a long walk away and the earth is so hostile there that nothing can be planted. The cacti that surround the camp are cut and used as fuel to cook or make charcoal. Even if any of the families would have money to purchase goods, walking into the city and back would take most of the day.IMG_0585

The way that they are living there is truly unimaginable. But the way they are living is not the tragedy. Yes, it is tragic, but it is merely a symptom of the real tragedy, which lies buried somewhere in those complex histories of hatred. The real tragedy lies in how it can be considered legitimate to steal the dignity and humanity of an entire population of people and then hide behind politics to justify it. The source of the tragedy resides someplace much deeper, someplace where someone sees their only choice to be made as choosing to accept starvation rather than discrimination. Choosing to live under a cardboard box rather than live under the assumption that you have the same amount of value as the dirt that their feet walk on. The tragedy is in how the rest of the world can find it so easy to ignore the suffering of these Haitians because everyone has become so desensitized to the suffering of Haitians over the years. The real tragedy is much more extravagant than the situation of the people in Plas Kado, and without treating the source of the tragedy, the symptoms of that tragedy will only continue to get worse. And yet, for those 2,000 people in Plas Kado and the thousands of others in other refugee camps up the border, something must be done to treat the symptoms. They are real people with real immediate needs.

IMG_0573They are real people, like Adolfite, a father of three and husband to a pregnant wife, Wendine. They moved to the DR in 1996 and Adolfite got a job in a store stocking shelves and keeping the place clean. The things they told me about what they lived through in the DR: the abuse, the contempt, the rejection; I don’t even want to write details about it because I don’t want to exploit their suffering for blog material. I don’t want to have to use their suffering to shock my reader. Because they are humans. They are humans living in Plas Kado under a blue tarp that is falling apart, fashioned into a tent, with absolutely nothing inside with 3 kids. And I just pray that they find a way to get out of that camp before the 4th one is born. In Adolfite’s case, getting out of the camp seems like it should be simple. He knows he has family in Belle-Anse, which is not far, respectively, from Anse-a-Pitres, but he hasn’t spoken with them in years and even now doesn’t know how to contact them, and has no money to make the trip even if he could. But he has faith that if he and his family were able to make it to Belle-Anse, then they’d be okay.

And this, essentially, is the story of most people now residing in Plas Kado. They are homeless, but they are not looking for homes. They are just trying to get home. Home to the place that they left behind years ago to the people that they left behind, and hope that the blood that they share is still strong enough to repair the bonds that have been broken. And once those bonds are repaired, they can begin to search for a way to move on with their lives.

I have no plans to save Adolfite or any of the others there. That’s not what I went to Anse-a-Pitres for. I wanted to be a witness to the situation and hopefully share some stories so that more people can be aware of the situation and find ways to help in the long run. I already went there from a place of incredible privilege and want to be as sensitive as possible to the needs and feelings of the people there. It’s a tricky tightrope to walk between effective advocacy and disaster tourism, between awareness and exploitation, but there are things that can be done. There are some organizations currently starting to take notice of the situation and some minimal aid starting to trickle in, while other larger organizations are still waiting for invitations and action from the government before they take action themselves. It is a very complicated situation without any clear or immediate solution, and I would not be an effective advocate if I tried to stuff it all into one blog post. So, in the next few days, I will be posting again hopefully with some specific actions that people can take to actually help the people in Anse-a-Pitres and Plas Kado, but also to pressure the governments involved to do their part in bringing resolution to the crisis. For now, all that I ask my readers to do is share this post. Get the word out there. Let as many people as possible know what’s really going on there. Set up a Google news alert to keep yourself informed on what’s going on. Talk about it with your neighbors at this week’s barbeque. As you read the daily headlines about racism in America, please keep in mind the people in this world who are making the difficult choice to escape racism because they don’t have the choice to fight against it. And stay tuned for my next post for more stories and ways to get involved.

#Selfieblan (or How to Take Photos in Haiti)

I received a message from a reader recently who was frustrated and simply needed to vent. I maintain this invitation to any of my readers, especially those who work in the nonprofit sector: if you ever need to get something off of your chest and can’t do so publicly for fear of offending donors, volunteers, or board members, you can vent to me. I’m a good listener/reader. If you lived in the Jacmel area I’d invite you to come sit on my porch, have a beer, and complain about whatever it is that’s got you stressed. Because I understand. But for those without access to my porch, my inbox is open to you. And even if you say something that inspires a blog post on my part, I promise to keep your rants anonymous. I think that it is one of the greatest problems facing the nonprofit sector that the majority of people think that it is uncriticizable because they’re all “helping” people. The individuals who carry out the work who have the closest perspective to the situations at hand and the most real relationships to the beneficiaries and the greatest sense of understanding are silenced in an attempt to allow the people who are giving the money and making the decisions to live blindly disillusioned about whether they really truly are helping or not or helping in the most effective way. It’s a crime, really. But I digress.

Back to my reader who wrote me. She works with children’s programs in Haiti and in her rant she said, “If have one more person come down to take selfies with [the kids in our programs], I’m going to scream!” Later in the message she referred to these people as “selfieblan”, which honestly cracked me up and I call upon all of my readers to make that hashtag go viral immediately. This subject has gotten a lot of mileage lately with articles like The Onion’s, 6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture, and the Tumblr account, Humanitarians of Tinder. Some of my fellow Haiti expat bloggers have also shared personal experiences such as Jillian’s Missionary Confessions, When in Haiti Bring Your Camera, but Also Bring Your Respect. (<– Seriously, click on those if you haven’t seen them yet.) So I don’t need to repeat anything that’s already been said, but I do want to add my voice to the common cry that implores volunteers and donors who visit programs in cultures not of their own, “Quit offending local people with your photos!” It’s not that difficult. It is understood that you need to take photos to tell the story of your trip and hopefully to promote growth of the projects you’re visiting, but there’s a better way to do it with dignity for everyone involved. Especially now with the pervasiveness of social media in our lives now we need to be extra sensitive to the images that we’re sharing of others that will be out there for the world to see. So here are a few of my simple Green Mango suggestions of things to remember when you’re on a volunteer trip with your camera or smartphone in your hand.

Remember, it’s not about you.

Although modern voluntourism has become much more about the experience of the person on the trip than the benefits for the local people they are tripping to, the truth is that all of your Facebook friends already know what you look like. By simple virtue of having taken the photo, you’ve proven that you were there. You do not need to be the center of attention. Use your photos to show off the beauty of the place and the people that you are visiting. Use them to share things about this world that your Facebook friends might not already realize.

People are not Props!

Do not use local people in your photos just to make yourself look like a better White Savior. Jesus told all of the little children to come to him so that he could show them how God loves them, not so he could take a selfie with them.

from kevinwgarret on flickr

from kevinwgarret on flickr

Use photos to represent relationships.

If you won’t be able to tell anyone the names of the people in the photos with you later, then you probably don’t need to be taking their photo. If you’ve made good friends on your trips and want to remember the times you’ve enjoyed with them, then take pictures with those people. The little boy that you gave a sucker to in the street, probably not. The old woman that asked for some money to feed her kids, probably not. The cooks that made your meal every day and laughed with you when their piklies was so spicy that it made your eyes water, sure.

Ask Permission!

The fact that I even have to say this makes me ashamed of humanity. Don’t ever take someone’s picture if they don’t want you to. If you want to take pictures of vendors in the market, buy something from them first for crying out loud, then ASK if you can take their picture. If someone just walked into your place of work and started taking photos of you without any explanation, I doubt you’d be too happy either. Just ask. And if they say no, move on with your life.

Haiti 1744

A photo from my early days in Haiti. I have no idea who these half naked boys are and never saw them again.

Put yourself in their shoes.

Or in their parent’s shoes. How would you feel if a stranger came up and stuck a camera in your face? How would you feel if you knew that strangers were taking photos of your children and would be posting those photos to the internet as if they were best friends with your kids? Do you want your photo taken when you’re not feeling your best, are sad, or sick? Or just when you haven’t bathed for the day, had your coffee, are still in your pajamas? What if you had a flat tire and someone stopped to help you but before they leave they ask to take a picture to share with all of their friends? You’d know that person was just looking for a pat on the back and wasn’t really interested in helping another human who just needed help.

Make it come back to the subject.

If you’ve asked permission and they’ve agreed to let you take their picture, they’re probably doing so with the expectation that you’re going to take that photo and use it to promote programs and raise funds that will benefit them in some way. I learned to be even more specific with individual’s who ask to take photos at our organization, like at our school. If you want to take photos of our school and the kids there, then you’d sure better be sending some money back to us sometime in the future. You had better take those photos and tell everyone who sees them exactly how they can donate to us. Don’t use our programs and our participants to simply share with people about all of the need that you’ve seen. Be actively searching for ways to help satisfy those needs that you’ve seen through those photos. Otherwise the subjects just end up feeling used and exploited.

Hire a local photographer.

The first time I see a volontourist or mission team do this, I will give them the Do Gooder of the Year Award. There are people here who make a living as photographers and are able to get a lot more interesting photos than you because of their existing place within the culture. Hire one of them to join you for the week and take photos of all of your activities. You’ll be providing another local person with a job, you’ll be getting better photographs, you’ll be free to focus on the work that you’re doing and the people that you’re getting to know, and you’ll end up in more photos yourself without looking like a vapid narcissist. It’s a win-win for everybody!

There you have it. Happy picture taking! If you have any funny examples or stories of you breaking these rules, post them in the comments below.

The Transracial Temptation

Every time that my 88-year-old grandma walks into my studio in Iowa the first thing out of her mouth is always, “So you’re still painting black men, huh?”

“Yep, Grandma, still am.”

She doesn’t mean for it to be racist, she just really doesn’t understand why I don’t paint flowers or a nice lake or something once in a while. She doesn’t understand why, I, a very white man from a very white family in a very white small town in Iowa, would choose to make artwork with subjects whose skin color is so different from mine and my family’s and the majority of the people’s who view my work in shows in the Midwest. IMG_0177She knows that I live in a place where everybody except me is black, so the images that I paint reflect the world that I see every day. But the reality of where I create most of my art and where I display and sell most of my art is very different. And to grandma that doesn’t make sense. But to me, it wouldn’t make sense to paint anything else. Beyond the color of their skin and the texture of their hair, the people that I paint most effectively represent who I am as a human and as an artist. I would hope that other viewers of the work, no matter what their skin color is, would also be able to find something about the subjects of my paintings that reflects who they are. But the truth is that a lot of people will still see black men painted by a white man and not much more.

So, this week when I heard the news of Rachel Dolezal, a leader in the NAACP who had been living as a black woman for years despite having been born to white parents with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, I started to listen closely. It’s a strange story that has people of all races confused, some angered, others amused. And as I read through the news stories of her life, and all that she went through to convince people that she was black, I was a bit confused myself. But then I read a story that pointed out that in college as an art student she once submitted a portfolio of work that was all portraits of black people. This little bit of information, which might get lost on most readers, was used as proof of her delusion even back then. That’s when I started to see her side of the story a bit clearer. When someone makes the claim that “because she was a white person painting black people” clearly she’s not right in the head, then I start to get a little defensive. Clearly the debate is not actually about her artwork but about how she used her ability to pass as a black woman as a way to become a leader in an organization that represents the interests of African Americans. But all of these pieces of her past are used to suggest that she has been “appropriating,” “fetishizing,” and “exploiting” a culture that does not belong to her for years. IMG_0178-4

Now this is where I think we have to be very careful of labeling any white person who feels more naturally a part of black culture with these labels. In the dialog surrounding Dolezal, the word “transracial” has come up, mostly to be discredited completely by the media as absolute bullhunky. And this is where I start to feel myself more personally pulled into Dolezal’s story. Because although I would never try to alter my appearance or claim that I was actually black, in almost every aspect of my life, I identify much more strongly with black culture than the culture that I was born into as a white man. My favorite visual artists, writers, and musicians are all black. I listen to hip hop music and watch films by black people, filled with black people. I feel most fully myself when I am surrounded by black people. All of my closest friends are black. Most of the people I’ve ever dated are black. I now live in the world’s first black republic. I speak a very black language. My white friends back home frequently comment on how much happier and more alive I seem when I am here living the life of a black Haitian. And yet my skin is very white. You can ask the sunburn that is currently making my forehead peel. White.

Still, to my grandma’s chagrin, I continue to make paintings filled with black men. And the only thing keeping my artwork from being labeled appropriative, fetishizing, and exploiting, is the fact that the subjects are Haitian and not African American. So instead of being considered cultural appropriation, they can be called humanitarian activism or cross cultural awareness. Because even when compared to black Americans, black Haitians are still considered less than, in need of help, deserving of pity. So when I live a life entirely defined by black Haitian culture and become a leader in an organization working on behalf of black Haitians and make art of black Haitians, I am considered to be helping and advocating and doing good work. But when Rachel Dolezal lives a life entirely defined by African American culture and becomes a leader in an African American culture, and makes art of African Americans, she is considered to be harming and offending and reversing progress.

To me it’s a very strange sort of evidence of modern day imperialism and the White/Western Savior Complex still rearing its ugly head. Because black Haitian culture is still considered by so many as something needing help, I am encouraged as a white guy to paint black people and record hip hop music and study voodoo culture and still be seen to be helping the poor black Haitians through it all. I cannot be seen as simply appreciating the beauty and the power and the message within those cultural mediums, I have to be seen as helping in order to make it legitimate. I am not allowed to really feel a part of them but have to be seen as lifting them up from the outside because that is what the “white man’s burden” is. But African Americans still maintain their dignity enough to a point where a white person appreciating their culture is seen as the opposite of helping. A white person immersing themselves in African American culture is an unwelcome slap in the face. All of the good work that Dolezal has done, which the NAACP continues to stand by, gets criticized because of an underlying understanding that African Americans are still Americans and we don’t share our identities with anyone unless we can impose them upon them.

So the real difference and the real offense in Dolezal’s story comes down to the fact that she lied about it. And this brings me back to the term transracial. It makes me wonder if much like in gender identities and sexual orientation identities and religious identities, maybe we need to start allowing some space for a grey area when it comes to racial identity. Because I have a feeling that if Rachel Dolezal was ever given the freedom to consider herself transracial from the start, she wouldn’t have ever had to lie about being black. She could have openly identified as a women born with Caucasian skin, but identifying within her spirit much more strongly with black culture. She would not have had to reject her family or build such an elaborate fairy tale. But because that option was never given to her and because even now that option is being discredited as nonsense, she felt like she had to go to the extreme lengths that she did in order to live the life that felt most natural to her. And in that sense, I have to defend her right to live that life. I have a feeling that given the option, there are more people than we realize who might truly identify as transracial throughout history. There are certainly examples of others changing their race not for survival but simply because they want to feel more themselves. This certainly is not said to discount the histories of the many people who have had to pose as different races for their safety and freedom, their trials should be remembered and celebrated as truly contributing to the progress of civil rights. But to me, Dolezal’s story is much more one of individual rights, one that I, and I think many others, can sympathize with on some level. It’s true that she can never know what it’s like to have grown up black and endured the discrimination and overcome the obstacles that come with that. But it’s also true that her wanting to be part of the present and future struggles of that group by making herself culturally, spiritually, and even physically a part of that group didn’t hurt anyone. So why can’t there be a space allowed for her and others like her to feel welcome to express their identity how they want?

So I’m not going to say that this is or isn’t racism or that transracial is or isn’t a thing because I believe that those who’ve experienced racism are the ones who get to define what it is. However, if I was ever offered the option to identify as transracial, would I? I can’t say for sure. I typically don’t like labels of any kind for any reason and I prefer to perceive people according to their deepest parts rather than their outside parts. But in this case, I can guarantee you that I’d be tempted. I would be tempted to get comfortable in that identifiable grey area.

So tell me what you think. I know I’ve got readers of all races on this blog. Is Rachel Dolezal delusional or brave? An insult or encouragement? Offensive or misunderstood? Or something in between that we as a society aren’t quite ready to recognize yet? Are there any parts of her story that you can relate to?

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