Figuring Themselves Out

About a week ago, Salomé and Junior came up and spent the night at my place in Ka Glo. They are two of the leading members of IDEAL, the group of young men I meet with in Cité Soleil.

They have been speaking on and off for months about the need for another free school in their neighborhood. The subject had come up again earlier in the week, when a visitor I brought to their bakery asked a little boy who likes to give them a hand why he wasn’t in school. He answered that his parents can’t afford to send him. The guys started talking again about the need to do something for him and others.

In the year since I met the group, I had taken representatives of IDEAL to a couple of community schools I know of: one, the excellent and very well-established school in Matènwa, and another much younger school, still struggling, that was founded last year by literacy teachers in Fayette. Each visit created a certain amount of momentum for establishing a school of some sort.

But there’s a lot for that momentum to overcome. The guys face a range of barriers when they try to move forward. I’m reluctant to call any of the barriers they see “imagined” because the fact that they perceived something as a barrier has the effect of making it real. Instead, I’ll say that some of the barriers appear as soon as they try to imagine themselves moving forward and might be easy enough to surmount if they could just see them differently. Facing others can mean much more than a change in perspective. I any case, helping the guys both see the barriers before them accurately and figure out how to overcome them continues to be the most important help I can give them.

We’ve traveled what seems like a long road together since we met just over a year ago. The initial meetings were memorable, and not only or even principally for the gunfire. Gunfire is not interesting. What was most memorable was my sense of what they guys were asking of me. They said things that I had never imagined anyone would say to another human being. They professed to be unable to do anything. They said they needed a savior. They used that very word, “savior.” They said that they had chosen me. Someone, what’s more, whom they did not know. They were discouraged to the point of despair.

So we held group discussions. Weeks of them. And over time two priorities emerged: They wanted to learn English and they wanted to be organized. They understood being “organized” as being an organization with a structure, with officers, by-laws and the like.

I couldn’t really see the sense in either of their priorities. They don’t really have people they need to speak English with, and all the organizational structure in the world would mean very little unless put to work achieving a more specific goal.

At the same time, it seemed to me critical that they figure things out themselves. I did not want to become an authority figure, making their decisions for them. So we held English classes, and we wrote by-laws. They named the organization “IDEAL,” which stands for “Independence, Development, Equality, Association, and Lawfulness.” We also visited some other organizations and attended some meetings together.

What I noticed was that, whatever my sense of their chosen priorities had been, the fact that they were achieving what they set out to do was having an effect. They were, if nothing else, beginning to feel better about themselves. Their ambitions were beginning to grow.

Over the course of many conversations, it became clear that their next priority was to establish a business. We grasped at the first opportunity that presented itself. We tripped over what looked like a chance to begin producing small solar panels to charge cell phones. We knew that the market for such panels would be strong. But we just could not establish the set of partnerships we would have needed to make the enterprise happen. That was discouraging for the guys, but they got over it easily enough.

I then came up with what I thought was a great plan. My experience with Fonkoze has made me believe in microcredit. I thought that, if IDEAL had a loan fund it could manage, teams of three or four members could borrow the money they would need to start small businesses. If they repaid the loans with a little interest, the fund could grow and might, eventually, put them in a position to make enough money to significantly affect their lives.

They were excited about the plan when I proposed it, but within a week had come back to me with a very different idea. I had seen that a principal advantage of my idea would be that they could divide into teams of their own choosing. This would simplify collaboration and communication for each of them. I thought it would allow them to work more quickly, more effectively.

But it turned out that division was just what they did not want. They still liked the idea that I would help them borrow money, but they wanted to use that money to establish a single enterprise. They proposed a bakery, and I was surprised, but also pleased. It was a well-considered decision: There was clearly a market for bread in their neighborhood. Merchants were walking considerable distances across into Port au Prince to get the bread they sell. As importantly, the plan was distinctly theirs.

They borrowed the money they needed, and opened the bakery, and in a sense it’s been one problem after another ever since. Conflicts have emerged within the group around division of labor and control of finances, equipment has broken down or proven inadequate, and sales have slumped because of a mixture of increased local competition – they weren’t the only ones who saw the opportunity – and some correctable work-habit issues. Almost all of their loan repayments have been late.

At the same time, in another sense, it’s working. They’ve addressed most problems as they’ve surfaced, learned to handle their money transparently and to the whole group’s satisfaction, and improved their way they share the work. And though almost all their payments have been a little late, all of them have been made. They are, currently, up to date.

So now they say they’re ready to open a school. I took them last Friday to a school I have worked with in Pétion-Ville, one founded and entirely run by young people not too much unlike themselves. After the visit, three of us just continued up the mountain to my place for an overnight conversation about it.

They’ll have a lot to overcome as they try to take on this new responsibility. Whether they will be up to putting all the necessary pieces together is, I think, an open question. But it is, once again, very much their plan. They are asking me to find them outside expertise for them to consult with. They want some minimal training from people who have open and run schools. Finding them such help should be easy enough. I have several colleagues who would, very certainly, be delighted by what they are trying to do and pleased by the opportunity to lend a hand.

There is, of course, a danger. The wrong kind of advisor could try to run rough shod over their views. But I have lots of confidence that the people I know will be able to respond to IDEAL’s hopes without imposing their own vision. And I am increasingly confident that IDEAL has the confidence to assert itself.