Life Goes On: Part Two

Life goes on in the midst of the current difficulties in Haiti, for better and for worse. Last weekend, I got a heavy dose of the better and it seems worth sharing.

I spent most of the weekend at the Villa Ormiso. It’s a guesthouse run by conservative Protestant missionaries, here in Haiti to convert the masses. They would not normally be my cup of tea, but the guesthouse they run is valuable to us as a pleasant and accessible place where we can organize inexpensive meetings that last several days. Last weekend, more than forty of us gathered there for the fourth annual meeting of the Haitian Open Space Institute. I missed last year’s meeting, but had attended the others, so I was anxious to attend this year’s as well.

Open Space meetings are something special. They were designed around the notion that the most productive time that groups spend together is often the unscheduled time: the coffee breaks, the lunches, the unforeseen delays in otherwise tight agendas. Those are the times during which meeting participants talk with the people they want to talk with, and talk to them about the things that are important to them.

At an Open Space gathering, the participants create an agenda for the a meeting – ours was to be two-and-a-half days long – during its first few minutes. The agenda consists of a schedule of group discussions running parallel to one another on themes chosen by the participants who propose them. Each participant then chooses the small group discussions he or she wants to attend. The guiding principle is that you should not be part of anything you’re not interested in. The underlying assumption is that, given the freedom to do so, people will make good decisions about how to use their time.

For me, the most important thing about the structure of these meetings is that it allows me to find time to meet individually with various people I want to talk with. I find that I don’t often attend many of the scheduled conversations, but that I get a lot accomplished nonetheless, much more than I could accomplish if we were all following a carefully planned schedule.

I was especially grateful this year for the opportunity to meet with people on the edge of the meeting because I was actually able to attend rather little of it. Life goes on here in Haiti even as the political situation seems to spin into chaos, and that means work goes on as well. I had a busy schedule of meetings to attend in various places as the large Open Space meeting at the Villa Ormiso was going on.

We arrived at the Ormiso on Thursday afternoon. It’s located in Bizoton, a neighborhood on the road from Pòtoprens into Kafou, its overcrowded southern suburb. The opening ceremony was Thursday evening, and it was unforgettable. My partner Frémy used the meeting as the occasion to get married. He and Nadine exchanged rings in front of the group of friends and colleagues that he has come to think of as his family. The whole crowd of 45 of us sat around with them in a circle, and as we passed a small box with their wedding rings from hand to hand, we each had the opportunity to share with them whatever thoughts or wishes we might want to share. It was, perhaps, an unusual ceremony, but Frémy and Nadine are unusual people.

I had to leave the meeting just before breakfast on Friday morning. I needed to get back to downtown Pòtoprens by 8:30. As always I left much earlier than I should have had to. The trip could be more than a couple of miles, but I couldn’t tell how long it would take for me to get onto a pick-up truck heading downtown, I couldn’t be sure of the traffic, and I wasn’t certain how long I would need to make the long walk I’d chosen to make so that I could get to my meeting without passing through any of the parts of the city that are dangerous these days. I was supposed to be at Fonkoze (See: by 8:30 so that Anne Hastings, the foundation’s director, and I could drive together to a meeting with colleagues at PLAN International. PLAN is funding the literacy work we are doing in the northeast, and we had some questions about the budget they had approved and about their reporting requirements.

I hadn’t initially been looking forward to the meeting. The work with Fonkoze was already pulling me more towards administration than I would normally want to be. I had needed, for example, to teach myself to use Excel both to translate the literacy program’s budget and to simplify it so that the field supervisors would be able to work with it easily. Though I don’t mind dealing with simple numbers, and understand well the importance of a willingness to do some math, such work is not what I normally choose to do. I’d much rather be in and around the classroom.

But the prospect of sitting around a table with NGO decision-makers intrigued me. It’s a class of people I’ve had little contact with – except for Anne herself – and I’m learning so much by watching her work that the chance to see her meet with her equals was too intriguing to miss.

The meeting was short, but pointed. We had a detailed agenda of specific questions that Fonkoze had for PLAN, and Anne stuck to it closely. I spoke when called on, but not really otherwise. The other assistant that Anne brought with her didn’t speak at all. It was the farthest thing from the kind of fluid and creative environment that Open Space nurtures, and that seemed just perfect. The meeting’s focus allowed us to achieve our very particular objectives in very little time.

When I got back to Ormiso early afternoon, I was just in time to meet as part of a group that has gotten together to discuss the guidebook that several of us had created for the first volume of Wonn Refleksyon texts. They were mainly primary school teachers, and they wanted to talk about what they could do to better adapt the guidebook for use with children. (See: GuideBooks.)

I enjoyed the session and I profited from it. I think that a couple of us gained a clearer sense of how we want to proceed to write a new guide. I also learned from the clear contrast between the style of this small meeting and the style of the one I had attended in the morning. In the talk about guidebooks, everyone spoke. We were all there because we had contributions to make, and since there was nothing that distinguished who among us had the power to make decisions, nothing that distinguished whose words would really count, we all had our say.

The contrast struck me at first as a trade off. We had given up something of the narrow, efficient focus on needed results that governed the Fonkoze/PLAN meeting and had traded it for a broad involvement that opened us up to the possibility that we might be pushed in any direction that persuaded us. But as I thought more about it, that analysis came to seem too shallow. The focus of the Fonkoze/PLAN meeting was not available to us because we were a group coming together without a designated leader to guide us. No one had the right or the power to stipulate a rigid agenda in advance. We could not trade off something that was not available to us in the first place. What was remarkable was the way that, even without that tight focus, we were able to talk ourselves towards a relatively clear plan of action. Our conversation took on a life of its own, in a very literal sense. It organized itself, which is to say that it became something organic.

Saturday morning, I left early together with Frémy and Abner Sauveur, the founder and principal of the Matenwa Community Learning Center. We had been invited to visit the Peasant Association in Fondwa, a small town between Léogane and Jacmel (See: The founder of the association, Father Joseph, asked us to come to talk to him about some concerns he has both with the association’s school and its university.

Father Joseph, who also founded Fonkoze, explained that both the school and the university had been created with a view towards preparing young people to live in the rural areas that they come from, but he also explained that, in just this respect, both institutions were falling short. The school is hampered in two ways. On one hand, the importance of the national exam system pushes teachers towards a traditional academic program that has little relationship with the lives the students actually lead. On the other, the teachers’ own experience in the classroom has offered them little in the way of alternative models to learn from and explore.
The issues at the university level are slightly different. Though the curriculum at that level does, he think, respond to the real needs of rural communities – it offers such majors as veterinary medicine and agronomy, areas of expertise that rural communities badly need to develop – there is something about the university’s culture that fails to integrate its faculty and students with the people that live around them.

As Father Joseph detailed the kind of training he wanted us to provide the faculties of both institutions, we could only sit and listen. He had a lot to say. He had already developed a very detailed notion as to how our work with them should go. He’s been a stunningly effective leader, at the heart of a movement that’s produced some of the most interesting, most compelling organizations I know of.

At the same time, we simply do not take the approach that he suggested we take. We call ourselves apprentices, and we mean it seriously. We cannot enter a relationship with even the outlines of a prefabricated solution in hand. We are delighted to sit together with colleagues that have a problem they want to address and to help them decided how they want to address it, but more we cannot do. We proposed to Father Joseph that we organize an Open Space meeting for both school and university leadership. The theme of the meeting could be the problem Father Joseph was trying to pose: namely, how can both institutions better succeed at preparing their students for life in rural communities?

Father Joseph seemed open to our idea, only adding that it was crucial that clear and concrete plans emerge from whatever we do. It was hard to tell, however, whether he was really open or simply unwilling to get too involved in the matter, preferring to leave it in other people’s hands. For now, the difference doesn’t matter to us very much. What we need is for his strong leadership to allow for space in which the people working under him can reflect, make plans, and act. We would be pleased if the space opened up because he was convinced of its importance. We can be satisfied initially if it opens up because he is too busy to keep it closed.
The ride to Fondwa and back took us through heavy Kafou traffic both on the way there and on our way back, so it was early evening by the time we returned. We had missed the day’s activities, and so were left to read about them in the notes that were taken.

We spent the evening, however, hearing about various conversations that had been held that day and watching a theatrical piece presented by a group of women who were attended the meeting from Lagonav. The group, //Fanm Kouraj//, or “Courageous Women,” creates and performs pieces presenting problems that rural Haitian women face. The women then lead their audience in discussions of the pieces. (See: They had performed a similar piece Friday night as well.

Sunday morning there were more small group discussions, and then we met at 11:00 for final reflections and goodbyes. There were several visitors from the States who had planned to attend the meeting but couldn’t because of the unstable situation here, but our Haitian colleagues accepted no such inconvenience. Though those from the countryside fear entering Pòtoprens, and though those from Pòtoprens might be reluctant to circulate, the meeting at Ormiso was their best chance to get together and further their own work. And the work of conversation and of the practices that nurture it could hardly be more important here in Haiti than they are right now.