Suzette’s Leadership

The Kovafiv group continues to plug away. Kofaviv is the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, an organization founded by rape victims for other rape victims. They provide health services, education, advocacy, and counseling. Frémy and I have been meeting with them since February.

After finishing our work with the first volume of Wonn Refleksyon texts, we decided to do two things. On one hand, we would continue our weekly meetings, working on the more difficult second volume of texts. Rather than their depending on Frémy and me to lead the discussions, however, volunteers from among the Kofaviv women would step up to lead each week. On the other, the women would establish discussion groups in their own neighborhoods. I would begin visiting them in the field to observe them as they lead discussions, offering such coaching and encouragement as I can.

Tuesday’s discussion from Volume Two was especially striking. We used an excerpt from a book about number theory by Richard Dedekind. The text discusses the nature of the four basic arithmetic operations, arguing that they are human creations, extensions of the simple act of counting. It’s a text that’s generally felt by the Haitians I work with to be especially challenging. They can’t imagine what they’ll have to say about mathematics. It seems irrelevant, too far from their real interests, to serve as the source of conversation that we expect our texts to be.

Suzette, the volunteer leader of Tuesday’s meeting, felt just that way. She wasn’t sure how a text on mathematics could foster discussion. But at the beginning of the class, she gritted her teeth and got to work. She had volunteered to lead the group, and it was too late to back out.

She went through the standard procedures. She read the page-and-a-half-long text aloud for the class, and then invited them to re-read it silently, thinking of questions they felt could be used to open a conversation. She then sent them into groups of three or four, assigning each group to talk about the questions that its individual members proposed and to choose the one question that could serve the class best.

While the participants met in those small groups, Suzette asked me to talk with her about the text. She had been reading and re-reading the text all week, but she said that she had no questions to ask.

This was false. She had several questions. What she meant was that she had little confidence that they were good questions. We talk in our meetings about what it takes to form a good question, and we try to convince people that good questions are short, clear, and honest, that it’s really this simple: People should ask about simple things they want to understand better. They often feel, however, that their questions need to reflect some special understanding they already have. Therefore, when they feel as though they don’t understand a reading, they can tend to think that they have nothing to ask, rather than that they have all the more reason to pose questions.

Suzette should know better, and I told her so. She’s a pillar in our Tuesday group, precisely because she’s willing to just ask anything that strikes her curiosity. Often enough, she’ll complain that she doesn’t understand a text, only to show us all that what she describes as a lack of understanding is a probing intellect that can point us all on the route to discovery. But I suppose that the mathematics in front of us seemed just a little too strange.

When the small group work was done, we had three opening questions on the wall. One group wanted to know how numbers are useful. Another group, picking up on a claim made in the text, suggested we start by asking whether multiplication is the same as addition. I don’t remember what the third question was. Suzette opened the large group discussion by simply asking which question the group wanted to start with.

One interesting aspect of the conversation that ensued was that it had little to do with the questions that the small groups proposed. Though a small amount of time was invested in the first few minutes trying to figure out a couple of puzzling passages in the text – including the one that seemed to some of the women to suggest that addition and multiplication are the same – there was one theme that dominated the first half of the discussion. To explain that theme properly, I need to say something more about the group.

The women are a very mixed bunch. They range greatly in age. Some of them are in their late 50s, but many are in their early 20s as well. They also range greatly in their educational levels. One or two are entirely illiterate, while others are high school or university graduates.

Generally speaking, however, someone meeting with them would have a hard time telling how much education each of them has. There is one named Solange, whom I know to be illiterate because I see other group members opening her book each week to the appropriate page. But there are also two professional nurses. The way the women speak to one another makes such distinctions hard to trace.

On the other hand, the mathematics text was different. For the first part of the conversation, things were very much dominated by the younger, more educated women.

This might seem unsurprising. One might have assumed that a more academic text would be more accessible to the women with more academic training. But that assumption would have masked what was really happening, because the main point that the younger, more educated women were interested in making was that they are much worse at math than their uneducated mothers, aunts, and neighbors are. One after another, they marveled at the calculations that the illiterate market women who raised them are capable of. They were trying to understand how their education could have robbed them of arithmetic skills.

I’ve done math with enough Haitian school kids over the years to have some thoughts about this. One way to put things would be to say that the kids have been taught to use fixed procedures rather than their good common sense. For example, kids I work with will regularly give answers to subtraction problems that are greater than the numbers they begin with because they get confused when they need to borrow. They’ll come up with something like 10,000–9999=11,111. Another example: The other day, I was showing a fifth grader named Mackenson how to simplify fractions. In the course of working out one problem, he had to divide 108 by 2. He wrote that 108÷2=513. It turned out that he had misplaced a remainder somewhere in the middle of the problem, and that this led him to his surprising result.

The point is that Mackenson gave me the answer with a straight face. As soon as I asked him whether he thought that his answer could be true, he looked at it, smiled, and found his mistake. But before I asked, it did not occur to him to consider his answer and ask himself whether it made sense. He had learned a certain procedure, though he hadn’t learned it well, and he wasn’t going to let his own intelligence get involved.

What the more educated Kofaviv women were noticing was that they cannot do as much with the math they learned as their mothers can do with an arithmetic that seems second nature to them. And I think it’s because their education has encouraged them to detach mathematics from the good common sense that – as we say – God gave them.

Eventually, Suzette pointed out that only the younger, more educated women were talking, and a short silence followed. That silence was broken by Solange. She said that it was only natural that she could do math in her head. Often enough, she said, she had been down to her last 50 gourds – about $1.30 these days – needing to somehow feed her children for a day. That meant figuring how much rice to buy, how much cooking fuel, how much oil.

Solange’s remark opened the door for the rest of the older women. Almost all are businesswomen. They buy and sell various inexpensive items in and around their neighborhood markets to make the money they need to run their lives. They each talked about the kind of calculations they’re making all the time: profit, expense, income, and loss. And, like Solange, about how to divide up the money they have to make sure their children are fed. One woman, also named Solange, spoke at length of how she got discouraged and left school in her earliest years because she was always getting grades in math like 30% or 40%. She went on to explain how easy she found it, even as she was failing in math class, to keep track of the expenses and profits in the small business she started as a little girl.

The conversation went on for an hour and a half, thirty minutes longer than we had planned. Towards the end, the group’s head nurse, Kerline, who is the most educated of them all, said that what she had learned was that real math is not at all what she had learned in school. It is, she said, a way of thinking that’s natural to all people. Others wanted to conclude differently. They preferred to talk about how a text they had expected to be remote from their experience turned out to raise issues quite central to their lives.

Suzette just wanted to smile. Once again she had discovered that she and her classmates could make good use of a text by just letting their own experiences take center stage.

Saturday, I had a second chance to watch Suzette work, this time near her home in Douya, a neighborhood on the northern edge of Site Solèy, Pòtoprens’s most notorious slum. Her discussion group consists of about a dozen girls and women, ranging in age from twelve or thirteen to 60-something. The only “man” in the group is an infant who spent much of the meeting nursing at his shockingly-young mother’s breast.

Just finding their meeting place promised to be a challenge. Most of Site Solèy consists of clusters of beaten-up one-room homes, stuck together cheek-by-jowl, with winding corridors no wider than three or four feet leading around them. Suzette was able to explain to me how to get to her neighborhood, but there was little chance she’s be able to explain how to find her home. But when I got off the back of a pick-up truck on the main road, just past the UN tank keeping watch over the area, my questions were answered. A pack of children I had never met started yelling “Steve! Steve! Steve!” They were Suzette’s look-outs, and they led me straight to her.

The group sat in an eight-by-ten foot entrance in front of one woman’s home. There were no chairs, so we all just sat on the floor, leaning against the wall. The ground rules for discussion that Wonn Refleksyon depends on were written in chalk in a clear and careful hand on one of the walls.

Initially, the women crowded very closely together to give me as much space as possible. As small as the place was, I had several empty feet on each side of me, but they were nearly on top of one another. I asked whether they were shrinking from me because of my smell. Then they laughed, and spread themselves more evenly around the room.

In some ways, Suzette ran the discussion the way she had run the one with her Kofaviv colleagues earlier in the week. She read the text aloud – this time a little folktale about some mice that steal some cheese and run into trouble because they can’t figure out how to share it – and then asked group members to spend a few minutes thinking about it. She sent them into small groups, asking each group to settle on a question. When the groups were ready with their questions, she asked the class as a whole which one they wanted to start with. Someone chose one, and we were off.

But in some ways her leadership was very different. Whereas on Tuesday she had behaved as on group member among many, controlling the activity only in the sense that she led us through the steps in the procedure she had chosen, on Saturday she was a forceful and very active presence all through the dialogue. She wanted to make sure that all the women spoke up, so she spent the whole class pushing the quieter ones, asking their opinions, insisting that they respond.

The difference in her approach was only natural, reflecting as it did the difference between a group that’s been meeting together, in one form or another, for several years and one that was in its third week of work.

What will be interesting to track is whether and how Suzette’s leadership of her Saturday group changes as the group’s experience grows. Will she remain its dominant figure even as other members grow more accustomed to the work, or will she be able to let go of her central role and share leadership of the group with its members? If she can let go, if the group can take shared responsibility for its work, then there is no telling how far they can go together.

Suzette and two of her look-outs:


Suzette and two of her lookouts