Fall 2006

It’s been a year since I’ve written a general summary of my work. I’ve now been living and working in Haiti for almost two years. Once again it is time to offer a clear account my activities.

I hope that the essays and pictures that I post on the website are interesting. Assembling them continues to been an important source of learning for me.

As I did last year, I am again dividing the report by collaborator. It still seems like the most sensible way to organize an account because so much of my work is determined by particular partners’ needs.

I hope that reading the report is useful. Please e-mail me with any questions at steven.werlin@gmail.com. Though I still use my Shimer e-mail address, it has been casing me lots of grief lately. This new gmail address may be more reliable.

Fonkoze

My most substantial collaboration continues to be with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest and most successful micro finance institution. Fonkoze provides small loans, starting at about $75 for most clients, without collateral to poor, mainly rural Haitian businesswomen. It currently has 29 branches scattered throughout Haiti, with almost 40,000 micro credit borrowers.

From its beginning, Fonkoze has known that as important as access to credit can be in the fight against poverty, it is not enough. Fonkoze supplements its lending with educational programs like Basic Literacy, Business Development Skills, and Health Education. The programs are provided to Fonkoze’s members free of charge. For women living in poverty, the struggle to provide for their families and to pay back their loans with interest is hard enough. Asking them to pay for educational programs, as important as these might be, would be unrealistic.

The programs are inexpensive. It costs about $25 to offer a participant a four-month class. But the scale of the institution means that they require a lot of money nonetheless. Full implementation of educational programs all Fonkoze branches would have cost about $1.3 million in 2006.

My involvement with Fonkoze started small: I was to work with a team of its literacy experts to develop a complete set of lesson plans for the Basic Literacy curriculum. It soon spread from coordinating the implementation and reporting for a large grant covering programs in three branches, to grant-writing and reporting on all of Fonkoze’s educational programs, to hiring of staff. I also have translated for Fonkoze visitors and conducted client interviews for publication. Fonkoze now calls me its Director of Education.

We’ve met with some success. By late in 2005, Fonkoze had educational programs operating in only six of its branches. Thanks to aggressive pursuit of grants and other monies, we’ll soon have programs in thirteen branches. It’s well short of what we hope for, but represents substantial progress nonetheless. We also finished a revision of the lesson plans for Basic Literacy and created a Basic Literacy 2 class, with appropriate lesson plans, in response to a sense that the Basic Literacy program was not getting participants as far as they need to go. Now we are entering into the process of creating two new programs, one in Human Rights, emphasizing the rights of children, and one in environmental protection.

In the coming year, I expect the collaboration to shift, but continue. I am currently encouraging Fonkoze to hire a full-time director for its educational programs. The program has outgrown what I can keep up with. Administration is neither my main interest nor a particular strength. If Fonkoze hires a strong administrator, I will be freer to focus on grant-writing and to work more closely with staff in the field.

And working closely with field staff remains important. Though we have taken a range of measures to push the programs more towards dialogue, towards methods that emphasize equal participation by all, such shifts are challenging for a staff which itself has little experience of education through conversation. The more coaching we can provide, the more we can model the kind of classroom interaction we’re hoping for, the more Fonkoze’s education programs will be able to nurture the independence, the self-confidence, and the long-term solidarity they seek to develop among members.

Matènwa Community Learning Center

The collaboration with the school in Matènwa has been flourishing for years. We regularly had little projects we’d undertake together – books, articles, or techniques we decided to study – even during the years I was based in Waukegan. For example, we once spent a few days reading a French version of an ancient geometry text by Euclid together. We wanted to see whether participating in conversations about definitions and proofs could help them to see more openness in mathematics and to discover ways to open up their own teaching of math.

Last year, our priority was to develop a new approach to using Wonn Refleksyon, the discussion activity they’ve been using at various levels in their school for some years. They had felt that while their standard approach could continue to be effective as part of their staff development work, it wasn’t quite what they wanted for their work with students. On one hand, the felt that some of the usual Wonn Refleksyon activities required a maturity from participant that their kids don’t have. On the other, they thought that Wonn Refleksyon could be adapted to provide their students with practice at writing, an important school objective that the activity had not previously been designed to attain.

The idea stemmed from I visit I arranged for Benaja, the fourth-grade teacher, to a group in Darbonne that was developing a teacher’s guide for the Wonn Refleksyon book for non-readers. He was impressed not just with the lesson plan the Darbonne produced in a two-hour meeting, but also be the way the process of creating a lesson plan was developing the teachers’ understanding of Wonn Refleksyon, too.

So at Matènwa we decided we’d use regular Wonn Refleksyon meetings to create a new guide for teachers, one specially designed for use with fourth graders. In addition to age-appropriate discussion activities, each lesson plan would include a writing assignment as well. While the group was developing this guide, Benaja would be using it with his students and reporting his results.

The other major activity we undertook together last year has been planning the experimental use of a technique for teaching adult literacy that we had not previously used. The method is called “REFLECT.” It starts from a way of helping participants organize their knowledge of their communities. That knowledge is then used in two ways: first, to encourage participants to develop action plans that address community problems and, second, as the basis of lessons in reading and writing. This means that, on one hand, the literacy groups can become sources of community action and, on the other, that reading and writing skills develop in the context of participants’ needs for such skills rather than as skills detached from the other activities of their lives.

Through the course of the spring, a small group of us met regularly to study a manual produced by the approach’s creators. By early summer, the teachers of two planned literacy classes were writing the first lesson plans. In August, one of those teachers led a practice session using participants in a week of training for literacy teachers. Late in August, one of the two teachers opened his literacy class with fifteen participants. Unfortunately, the other planned teacher never was able to follow through and recruit a class to work with. We therefore have only one experimental center this year.

We have a number of plans this coming year: We will be continuing regular Wonn Refleksyon meetings. This year, the meetings will have several objectives. First, there are several relatively new members of the staff, and their experience with Wonn Refleksyon is limited. Second, the whole staff feels it needs help with the more difficult readings in the second volume of Wonn Refleksyon texts. We will be focusing on their use. Other faculty development plans include studying the use of microscopes – the school has had several for a number of years, but the teachers have not felt sufficiently comfortable with their sense of how to use them; they haven’t brought them into their classrooms yet – and group study of Haitian psychology textbook.

Kofaviv

Since February, I have been meeting every week or two with the staff of Kofaviv, the Commission of Women Victims for Victims. It’s an organization of rape victims that provides a range of health, counseling, and advocacy services to other rape victims. We worked through all eighteen lessons of the first volume of Wonn Refleksyon texts, studying the lesson plans for their use that are found in the guidebook we wrote several years ago.

The meetings have gone very well. The women are increasingly engaging me, the texts, and most importantly one another in thoughtful and spirited dialogues. They seem to understand better and better what makes our dialogues work and what they will need to do as discussion leaders to foster similar dialogues elsewhere.

As we move forward, we plan for our collaboration to continue and deepen. They have requested that our regular meetings just continue. We will turn to the second volume of texts for discussion.

In addition, many of them will be founding their own discussion groups in the various neighborhoods of Pòtoprens where they live. These are what are called the “popular neighborhoods,” the extremely poor, densely populated areas that encircle downtown area. They have invited me to make regular visits to observe them teaching in their own neighborhoods, to offer such coaching and encouragement as I can. I’m very excited about the prospect for three reasons. First, it will help me evaluate the work we have done together so far. Second, I have long been interested in those difficult areas of the city that I’ll now have occasion to enter. Third, I find the Kofaviv women fascinating as colleagues. I greatly admire the way they’ve turned the horrors they’ve suffered into an agenda for social change.

Conclusion

These are just the largest involvements that I have had and expect to have. One of the beauties of my increasing time here is that I come across more people and more groups who are interested in working together. There are groups from the States, who seek help with translation or other aspects of visiting Haiti, and groups in Haiti, who look for ways to strengthen education programs they run or want to run. There’s a school in Petyonvil, established last year by a team of teenagers. Its budget is almost zero – students pay nothing, and teachers are not paid – but it’s rumbling merrily along, running, I suppose, on the fumes that their shared enthusiasm creates. The staff would like some help charting their direction, and a first meeting with them left me greatly impressed. There are representatives from the Archdiocese of Richmond, Virginia, who invited my partner Frémy and me to join them on a visit to Haiti’s Central Plateau to help them create new connection to members of the Haitian parish with which they are twinned.

So there continues to be plenty to do here in Haiti. Shimer College last spring agreed to extend my assignment here in Haiti through this current academic year. There is, in other words, no reason for me to think of returning before September 2007.