General Update Fall 2008

Another year has passed since I moved to Haiti at the beginning of 2005. Things look a lot different as I write of this year’s activities than they’ve looked at other times since I began writing these summaries. On one hand, the series of four hurricanes that ravaged Haiti in August and September have dramatically damaged a situation that was already extremely difficult. Haiti’s been the poorest country in the western hemisphere for a long time, and that poverty was already making life hard. But the impact on Haiti of the world economic situation, which has seen food and energy prices dramatically increasing everywhere, has been enormous.

On the other hand, my own situation has been different for these last months. But it is time again to say where things stand. As some of you know, I am back in Chicago right now. I returned to Shimer in August to spend a semester teaching at the institution that I still consider my home base. (See: www.shimer.edu.) I am teaching a full schedule of Shimer’s core courses, ranging from the main philosophy/theology class to ones in mathematical logic and basic chemistry. Teaching Shimer students and participating in the life of the institution as a member of its faculty continue to feel like important parts of my life that I shouldn’t give up.

At the same time, the work of the Haiti Project continues even while I’m in Chicago, both here at Shimer and back in Haiti. By the end of the semester, Shimer will have hosted three very different Haitian colleagues. Each is bringing a lot to share with the community at Shimer, and each is working on particular things he came to learn. In Haiti, our partners continue to move forward, and we’ve been helping them as much as the distance allows.

And I’ve purchased a ticket to return to Haiti in December. I plan to be there at least for all of 2009. So the work will continue as we move into the coming year.

As always, I am dividing the report by partner. I hope that reading it is useful. Please e-mail me with any questions at sjwerlin@shimer.edu.

Fonkoze

My most substantial collaboration continues to be with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest and most successful microfinance institution. (See: www.fonkoze.org.) Fonkoze provides small loans to poor, mainly rural Haitian businesswomen. It is a very dynamic institution. Last year, I reported that it had grown from 29 to 32 branches. It now has 37, and expects to have 40 by the end of the year. Its reach extends to nearly every part of Haiti, with roughly 54,000 microcredit borrowers and a realistic vision to serve over 200,000 by 2011.

My work with Fonkoze has continued to have three very different emphases: I help Fonkoze with the educational programs it offers its members, with educational aspects of other programs, and with grant writing and reporting. I am less and less involved with the details of the standard educational offerings. Fonkoze’s first-rate educational administrator, Myriam Narcisse, manages a staff that handles the basic elements of its Literacy, Business Skills, and Reproductive Health classes. Myriam and I confer about some of her bigger decisions, and she uses me to write some of the reports she owes to funding institutions, but she’s really the one running the show. I was very involved, however, in getting Fonkoze’s two new modules off the ground. They were designed by teams led by an American educator, Kathleen Cash.

Cash has worked all over the world, and had already worked for Fonkoze as the creator of the Reproductive Health module. (See: Reproductive Health) She returned to Haiti to design new programs in Children’s Rights and Environmental Protection. Her process is extremely interesting. She trains local field workers to do very long interviews with people about the topic of a program she’s creating. Those interviews are not surveys. They’re not designed to collect opinions or facts. They’re designed instead to invite people to tell their stories, to share their experiences. They capture the way people talk about questions that affect them. Cash takes the results of these interviews and turns them into stories that bring out questions for people to talk about. She has those stories turned into comic books. Groups read the stories together, talk about the issues they raise, and then engage in role-playing that pushes them to imagine themselves dealing with the issues in new ways. Fonkoze has lots of evidence that shows how much these programs can change participants’ outlooks, their ways of talking, and their lives. I led the workshop both for the women who were to teach the first pilot run of these new modules and for the Fonkoze staff that would support them. That was last fall, and the pilot is complete. The evaluation was very promising, and we will now be looking for funding to provide the classes to more Fonkoze members.

I continue to assist Fonkoze with its internal learning. One example was my leadership of the opening retreat for the staff of its Active Learning Center in Lenbe. (See: Getting Started.) The Active Learning Center is a branch office, but it’s also much more. Its staff was selected from Fonkoze’s most successful employees. Their double mission is, first, to build a model branch that can be used to train staff from other branches and experiment with new approaches and programs and, second, to help Fonkoze learn more about how members’ businesses actually work. The objective of the opening retreat was to develop first-year goals for the branch that its whole staff would take responsibility for. An interview with Lenbe credit agent Wendy, which appeared in Fonkoze’s most recent newsletter, speaks to the retreat’s success. Wendy is a young man from the Haitian northeast, whose mother has been a Fonkoze member and an employee. He spoke of the branch’s objectives, and forcefully explained the responsibility he feels for them all. He explained that he signed all of them, both those directly related to his work as a credit agent and those that related to other areas, and so that he must do whatever it takes to ensure that all are attained.

My other very important role at Fonkoze is to assist its Director, Anne Hastings, raise the funds necessary to keep it growing. Sometimes that means communicating for her with donors, whether as a translator in the field in Haiti or through letters, formal reports, informal essays, or e-mails. Often it means brainstorming with her and others about grant proposals and then writing first drafts. This has been the area of my work most affected by the hurricanes. One of my most important tasks while I’ve been at Shimer has been to help Fonkoze raise the funds it needs to help borrowers who lost their businesses during the hurricanes re-capitalize themselves with new, interest-free loans. It has been gratifying to see the success of this initiative, which has thus far raised almost $4 million. Working with Anne and her staff has been an experience that I treasure increasingly as time passes. The men and women that lead her organization – Alexandre Hector, Thomas Prophil, Gauthier Dieudonné, Myriam Narcisse – are constantly teaching me, leading me to places and experiences I could not have discovered without them. And that is just as true of the staffs they lead and the members they serve. But Anne herself is someone very special. I’ve never known, much less worked with, anyone quite like her. I’m learning more than I can say, about things I did not know that I would want to understand. I look forward to finding myself regularly sitting in her Port au Prince office once again.

Matènwa Community Learning Center and AAPLAG

My longest running collaboration has been with two institutions on the island of Lagonav, in the bay across from Port au Prince. I was first invited there by Beyond Borders, my original host in Haiti, in 1997. (See: BeyondBorders.net.) I visit Matènwa, a village in the mountains in the center of the island, about once each month. The community school there, the Matènwa Community Learning Center, is a real haven for non-violent, student-centered education. It’s a model school that has succeeded at organizing a network of schools across the island that work towards eliminating violent corporal punishment and towards implementing a respectful approach that replaces memorization with understanding, lecture with dialogue, French with Creole. (See: www.matenwa.org.) The school regularly hosts visitors from the mainland and abroad who make the long and difficult trip in order to observe its approach. We continue to work together, discussing both classroom issues and administrative ones. One of the most important conversations that we held together this past year was one that involved a major change at the school. It had been running a junior high school program in the afternoons, but the school’s staff had become increasingly frustrated with the quality of that program. They were not convinced that the part-time teachers they were hiring for that program were clear enough about the kind of education the school hopes to offer, and they didn’t feel as though they were doing enough to help students transition from an elementary-school to a high-school approach.

So the school made two related decisions: First, the middle school program would be moved to the mornings so that its faculty could be more fully integrated into the school staff and its directors would be in a better position to monitor and support their classroom work. Second, a very experienced member of the primary school staff, Enel Angervil, would take over seventh grade. His mission would be to prepare students for eighth and ninth grade classes, in which students work have different teachers for different subjects and have the kind of increased responsibility for their own education that high school traditionally entails. We also have been supporting the school as it has opened its new library, the first one on the island of Lagonav.

I’ve been helping its first librarian, Benaja Antoine, with some of the reporting he has had to do to the library’s funders, and we arranged for him to visit Shimer this fall to spend some time with Shimer’s own librarian, Colleen McConnell. Some of the same people who work at the school in Matènwa are important members of our other partner on Lagonav, the Association of Activists and Peasants of Lagonav, AAPLAG. It is a network of community organizers involved in everything from disaster preparedness and agriculture, to microcredit and literacy. They have had a strong literacy program for many years, but had been looking to change it. They wanted it to focus less on teaching reading and writing, though these skills are important enough, and more on helping participants organize themselves for community change.

After a year of experimenting in Matènwa with a new approach, called REFLECT, that organizes literacy lessons around participative research projects, a group of us decided to initiate a second experiment in the village of Lataniers, on the far western corner of the island. This center has been a spectacular success. Improvements in reading and writing were strong, as they typically are for successful AAPLAG literacy centers, but the Lataniers center’s achievements in community development were without precedent. Center members identified 40 children in the village who were not attending school and arranged for 38 of them to attend. They built a bridge across a large pool of standing water that collects in the center of town and makes access to the gardens outside of town difficult. They cut a new path into the side of a mountain where the previous path had been a regular place of accidents both for people and the animals that carry their loads. (See: Pointe des Lataniers.)

After reviewing the results of the experiment, AAPLAG decided to expand it for the coming year. There will be five REFLECT literacy centers in different communities in the northwest part of the island. The organization hopes that such slow growth will help it develop a staff capable of managing a REFLECT-based literacy program across the island.

IDEAL

One of my most intense engagements has been my involvement with IDEAL, a youth group in Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious slum. We met over two years ago, when a neighbor of theirs, a long-time friend of mine invited me to begin meeting with them. What started as simply a regular discussion group turned into an English class, then something like a constitutional congress. (See: IDEAL.)

We helped the group open a bakery and start to clean its own streets (See: IDEAL Cleans Up), and then to open a school for local children who had not been attending school. Last March they elected new leadership, and the transition to those new leaders was successful. Though the bakery has been an up and down affair as they learn to manage a business and themselves, the school has not. They kept their little school open for about a dozen first graders last year, and by the time schools in Haiti were ready to open in October, they had 45 kids ready to go this fall. They now have a first grade group and a second grade group, and though Shimer has provided funding for faculty development, for preparing their classrooms, and for books and other educational materials, the staff still works for nothing. They split up teaching duties, and thus ensure that the classes are staffed five afternoons every week. The members of IDEAL have spoken regularly about their desire to learn to use computers, and, what’s more, I now get occasional e-mail from them that prove they are serious. I therefore decided to bring them a couple of inexpensive laptops when I return in December. I hope it is a way to help them move themselves forward.

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 their education programs. I am expecting to hit the ground running when I return in December. There is, of course, plenty to do.

I expect to spend all of 2009 in Haiti. As things move forward, I’ll be talking with my colleagues at Shimer about plans for January 2010. That feels like a long way away.