Weaver Buildings is humbled and happy to work with such a motivated and inspiring client as the English in Mind Institute. Steph Price, the International Director for the school, shared her work in Haiti and with EIM at TEDx Great Hills this past May.
As a former advertising copywriter, I’ve always believed that image is everything. If I said the word “Paris” to you for example, what image comes to mind? Sure there’s the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysees… but more than a physical description it’s a feeling, right? The food… the music… the fashion. We have a romantic association with a place that doesn’t rely on firsthand experience, it’s just understood. But if I said the word “Haiti” to you, what image comes to mind now? Maybe something like this? The poverty, the earthquake, the trash… Reports of corruption and misspent aid? All these images have lead to a collective view from the international community, namely Americans, that Haiti is poor, violent and in some ways, beyond hope. And yet despite being only a 4-hour direct flight from New York and 700 miles from Miami, most Americans have never been. Over the years, our two countries have been connected through trade, politics, military intervention and foreign aid. After the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, Americans gave 1.4 billion dollars to the relief effort. We feel justified in having an opinion about Haiti. And given the images we see in the media it’s understandably a negative one. This branding of Haiti as poor, violent and broken has lead to an influx of charity instead of collaboration, missionaries instead of tourists, and a desire to teach instead of learn. In the process we’ve robbed Haitians of the freedom to be seen as they really are and not just our perceptions of them. We’ve also robbed ourselves of the freedom to truly experience Haiti as it is, in all its beautiful, complicated, glory. Simply put, Haiti has an image problem. One that should and can be changed. But it starts with each one of us. Are you ready? Can we do this?
Alright, let’s get started. Just like in advertising, first we need some background. Haiti is the western third of Hispaniola, an island it shares with the Dominican Republic. It’s roughly the size of Maryland but with almost twice the population – 10.4 million people. In 1804, Haiti gained its independence from France, in the world’s first successful slave revolt. The predominate language is Haitian Kreyol – a mix of French and West African languages that the slaves made up to gain victory over their French oppressors. Amazing. My first experience with Haiti was in March of 2010. Two months after the earthquake I was working at an agency in New York City when I looked at my life – 29, single, money in the bank and decided to go down and “help.” Never mind that the only skills I had took the form of writing headlines and clever jingles – precisely what a nation recovering from a natural disaster really needs. I did, however, get connected to a medical NGO and landed in Port-au-Prince to do logistics for their team of doctors and nurses. It was a huge learning curve with doctors asking for things like mebendazole, to which I would reply, “no problem” and then immediate Google: “What is mebendazole?” I did my best though and despite my lack of “real skills”, I found that the greatest thing I could do for Haiti was to connect with Haiti. To learn the language, hear their stories and find joy in the midst of tragedy.
After my first experience I returned to Madison Avenue but the thought of Haiti never left me so I quit my job for good and headed down in 2011, this time to work in education. Luckily I found a language exchange turned English school where it all clicked. I met these guys. I’d never met such eager, ridiculously loveable adults in my life, all focused around doing something positive – learning a language that could help them get into school, get jobs and go abroad… to create a whole world of possibilities for themselves. These students didn’t fit into any image I’d created. They may have been poor, but they were far from broken. This school is now called English in Mind Institute…and has nearly 200 adult students and an all-Haitian staff of teachers and administrators. English in Mind offers vocational training, job placement and opportunities to connect with native English speakers. This is where I come in. Today, as their International Director, I have the privilege of connecting our students to the outside world. And connecting the outside world, with our incredible students. Through these connections, I’ve witnessed people change their minds about Haiti. To question their assumptions. And each time, a bit of freedom and dignity is restored. So how does it happen? In my mind, there are three ways: education, collaboration and celebration.
First, education. And I don’t just mean educating Haitians, I mean educating ourselves as well. Earlier, I mentioned how Haiti was the first successful slave revolt. Many people don’t know that. Nor do they know that Haiti, in order to be recognized as its own country had to pay reparations to France for over 120 years, for stolen property, i.e. their lives. Education creates understanding. Education also creates equality. Without it, there will always be a divide among the haves and have nots and this is particularly clear in Haiti. At English in Mind, learning a shared language, especially one as universal as English is a way to have your ideas heard on a larger scale. To speak for yourself, instead of being labeled. Education is also so powerful because it can’t be taken away. You can give someone food but tomorrow they’ll be hungry again, if you give someone education it goes inside of them and even if a school closes, what’s been learned remains. While rebranding can change minds, only education can truly change the future.
The second way to break the stereotypes is through collaboration. Through partnering with Haitians and creating shared leadership and trust. Why is this so important? First off, it’s dignifying. Charity is a very top-down model. I have something. You don’t. I’m going to give it to you. But in that there’s an inherent imbalance of power. Collaboration creates a level playing field. Beyond being dignifying, collaboration just works better. At English in Mind, the leadership of our principal Brunel and assistant principal Enock, is the key to our success. They have insights into the students and culture in ways an outsider never could. We’ve recently purchased land and are working to build our own school. It’s extremely exciting but without strong Haitian leadership, this new venture would likely fail. Collaboration is also important because it lasts. I’ve met many foreigners who come to Haiti to start projects, realize the complexities and either bail, or feel like they can never leave. But either outcome relies on the interest of the foreign party. Long before myself and others were involved, English in Mind students were meeting together to learn English inside homes and church basements. And even if we foreigners leave or funding runs out, our students will still be meeting together to learn English. Because it was their idea. And they’re in charge. When looking at Haiti it’s easy to make it all about us. What we can do, how we can help, but collaboration, flips the script.
The third way to break our stereotypes is through celebration! By celebrating what’s working in Haiti rather than focusing on what isn’t. Why? Because Haiti is worthy of celebration. The beach, the mountains, caves, waterfalls… it’s gorgeous. Not to mention the food, art, music. It’s no wonder Bill and Hillary Clinton spent their honeymoon in Haiti in 1975. Showing this beauty is a huge way to combat the negative images seen in the media. One place this is starting to happen? Instagram. Take the hashtag #thisishaiti as an example. “This is Haiti”, a spin off of “This is Africa” has been used in the past to describe the inconveniences and annoyances of living in a developing nation like Haiti. However, in recent years it’s been reclaimed by the Instagram world and given new meaning. Gorgeous turquoise waters? No, this is Haiti. Breathtaking mountain ranges? This is Haiti. Happiness…Resilience… THIS is Haiti. Celebrating Haiti, namely through tourism is also a powerful economic driver. Take Haiti’s next door neighbor, the Dominican Republic, for example. Last year, 5.1 million people visited the DR making it the Caribbean’s top tourism destination, bringing in around 3.1 billion dollars for the country. That’s eleven times more than Haiti brought in, just across the border. Think negative branding had something to do with that? Although all-inclusive types may not be comfortable making the trip, for backpackers and adventure seekers, Haiti is full of untapped potential. Tourism works. And it can work for Haiti.
Lastly, helping to support the positive aspects of Haiti instead of trying correct the negative ones is more likely to create long term partnerships. In 2013 we started running 10-day trips to Haiti…and in only 2 years, 2 out of 3 of our volunteers have returned to Haiti for a second (or third, or fourth…) visit. Why? Because it’s positive. And yes, even fun. It’s about making meaningful connections through shared language and exchange of culture. And that is an addictive experience. Stereotypes are of course not unique to Haiti. We hold lots of assumptions about people, cultures, races and religions that differ from our own. It’s especially easy after war, natural disasters, or political unrest to classify people as victims or villains. In the case of Haiti, this negative branding goes back over 200 years to when a nation of slaves fought and won their own independence. It continued through dictatorships, through the AIDS epidemic, through the earthquake, through cholera.
Rebranding Haiti isn’t about trying to paint a rosy picture. It’s about being able to see the country for what it is and what it isn’t. To drop our stereotypes and finally see the beauty, intelligence and humor that’s been there all along. If you’ve never been to Haiti, go. If you’ve been and didn’t have your mind blown, go back. Not because Haiti needs you, but because just maybe, you need Haiti.
If image is everything, it’s time for all of us to take a closer look.