Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Haiti Between the Commas

When I told people I was traveling to Haiti, they often reacted like I was going somewhere ominous, dire, life-imperiling. I might as well have been going to the moon. In truth, I shared some of those concerns, which were only reinforced by State Department warnings, malaria precautions and Wiki summaries.

Since coming here, I have experienced a fuller reality of Haiti. More than anything, I have felt the power of this moment, when a 36-minute geological event reshuffled the deck. World interest and investment is focused on Haiti as never before. There is a chance, not just to put back together the pieces of Haiti as it was, but to realize a vision of Haiti as it might be.

Of course, there are many visions of that new Haiti and many interests those visions will serve, from foreign nations pouring capital into the rebuilding effort to private investors seeking an opportunity for returns to artists like Richard Morse, who want to see the 80% of Haitian residents who have so little get dealt a better hand.

One opportunity before Haiti is to change its brand identification. Right now, for most, Haiti’s top-of-mind descriptor is probably “poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.” It reminds me of when Florida suffered a series of highly publicized tourist murders in 1993, and the State scrambled along with its tourism industry to make sure that didn’t become its new “between the commas” association. This is Haiti’s time to rewrite what goes between the commas after its name.

Fortunately, as architects often say of a building with good, strong design features, Haiti has good bones. Topographically, it’s a beautiful country, with stunning views from mountain heights, colorful tropical foliage, miles of coastline spanning aquamarine water. Its culture and history are rich and exotic. Its art, music and handicrafts may be among its first exports ready for the world market. Its people are friendly, noble, resilient, a mixture of diverse origins and languages. It has an interested and energized diaspora eager to witness and participate in its rebirth. And, right now, it has the world’s attention.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Signs of Spring in Haiti

Day three in Haiti. The days have been very full, with little time to write and sketchy access to Internet connections. I am traveling with Sabrina Reisinger de Angulo, producer with the FSU Film School, and film students Hali Gardella and Patrick Gines, who are working on a film for FAVACA about the “pieces of change” that individual volunteers can bring to a country like Haiti. They are fun and wonderful traveling companions.

Our FAVACA contact here is Marc Roger, who also doubles as our interpreter, cultural translator and driver of unparalleled skill. We are staying at the home of Regina Jarr, a warm woman and gracious hostess, who regularly opens up her home to volunteers like us. Regina was in her office in downtown Port au Prince when the earthquake struck, although she and her staff were not seriously injured. It is remarkable that this level of devastation, which claimed 300,000 lives, could occur from an event that lasted only 30 seconds (but which Regina said felt like an hour.) Regina’s children live in Miami, where she went to stay for three months after the earthquake, just arriving back at her home in Port au Prince the day we showed up. I asked her why she came back instead of resettling in Miami close to her children. She said she was born in Haiti; it’s home, but also that things move too fast and people stay too busy in the States. Amen to that!

I have found Haiti to be physically devastated but remarkably strong in spirit. Although living conditions are dire, with tent cities stretching on for blocks and blocks, covering the lawns of the now collapsed Presidential Palace, the main government offices and the National Television station, there is a determined effort to put normal routines back into place. Many children in uniforms fill the streets in the afternoon, walking home from private schools. Informal markets line the streets, selling produce, bottled water, soft drinks, fried plantains and other local favorites. Artisans sell wood carvings, metal works and bright-colored paintings that depict the landscape, people and street scenes. I didn’t expect to do souvenir shopping in a country so recently and profoundly devastated by a natural disaster, which I explained to my children when they asked what I would be bringing back to them. Yet, the venders are there, sprung up like perennial plants in my garden, always a surprise after a winter it seemed nothing could survive.

The Haitian people are a beautiful, spirited people, a unique blend of the African, French and indigenous Taino Indians, who inhabited the island of Hispaniola when the Europeans arrived. As Patrick, my fellow traveler says in the interview I will try to post, we here to be pieces of change. Maybe small pieces. But you have the sense when you are here that the proud and resilient Haitian people can build a stronger, better more prosperous and sustainable country with the help of many small pieces of change. The keys will be to respect the vision of the Haitian people for where they want to take their country and for the world to stand ready to provide the pieces of change that will be required for a very long time.

It is a great blessing for me to experience Haiti as I’ve never seen it on a newscast or imagined it to be and to be, myself, a small piece of the fabric of change in Haiti, thanks to FAVACA.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Packing for Haiti

I sat in my rocking chair back in January and wept as I watched the continuing news coverage of the devastation heaped upon Haiti by a Jan 12 earthquake. Our youngest children, Grace and Jack, decided we should adopt two Haitian orphans, one girl and one boy, and told their friends at school we might.

While I knew the legal and moral complications of that kind of response made the plan unlikely (not to mention the logistical challenges of our existing life!) still, I was struck by how profoundly inadequate it felt to be writing a check to a relief organization and calling it a day.

So, three months later, when the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas (FAVACA) called Ron Sachs asking for a senior manager to go to Haiti to help with strategic communication planning, I felt that a door had been opened and immediately offered to step through it.

Since then, about a week ago, I have been leaping over hurdles to make this hurried trip possible, with the assistance of many angel helpers. The challenges lined up like dominoes and fell just as quickly: I had to get an expired passport reissued in just three days (thanks to Ray at; start taking malaria pills and get vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, tetanus and polio (thanks to Chris at Tallahassee Primary Care Associates, who has to be Tallahassee’s most knowledgeable person on avoiding communicable diseases while traveling;) get my household ready for a week without me (thanks to my husband, Matt, who encouraged and emboldened me from our first conversation about this;) and tie up enough loose ends around the office to allow me to leave town during the last week of the legislative session. Everyone at Ron Sachs Communications has my heartfelt thanks, especially Ron, for offering me this opportunity and helping to underwrite the costs; Marilyn and Herbie for working through the logistics with me; Alia for her great wisdom and insights as a diplomatic corps brat; Ryan, for weathering the last week of session without me; Lisa G, Lisa N and Ivette for keeping those contracts and client accounts on track; Rosemary and Erin for helping me figure out the technical issues; Gay for the beautiful heart; and David for always having my back (I know you’d come to Haiti and get me if need be.) Special thanks to Chris Beyer with FAVACA for all the support and assistance.

As much as I hope to provide value to the staff of the Haitian Ministry of Culture and Communication, with whom I will be meeting, on many levels, I feel like this opportunity opened up for my own benefit, as an answer to my own prayers. Living in the United States, it’s so easy to take our blessings for granted, to get lost in the busyness of our lives, to forget that every day is a precious gift, to rely on our own steam rather than leaning on God. Embarking on a visit to post-earthquake Haiti, where simple survival is a struggle, I feel my illusions slipping away.