The New York Times’ most recent story about Haiti summarizes the current situation of growing dissatisfaction and impatience with the little progress that has been made five months after the earthquake. This atmosphere that political scientist Robert Fatton describes as a period of “perilous stagnation,” has descended upon Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas is highlighted by people’s increased frustration with the Haitian government and major non-governmental organizations. Among the organizations that have dominated coverage of relief work are The Red Cross and the United Nations both of which has received thousands in donations towards relief work.
Yet untold numbers of grassroots organizations are also at work in Haiti, some that were created long before and some that have sprung up since, organizing locally since the earthquake. Mainstream media sources in the United States have rarely mentioned this type of local organizing initiated by activists and every day Haitians. Despite this inattention that we find in conventional news sources, there are many examples of people organizing as individuals and in groups and using their networks to do so. I am devoting this post to looking at a few of these in the hopes that people will follow the work that they are doing and look for more information about the different types of organizing taking place on the ground.
As an organization that addresses the issue of violence, KOFAVIV the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, is a coalition of survivors of different forms of violence who have joined together to advocate for victims of violence and affect change by educating and preventing future violence. The group, which lost about 300 members in the earthquake continues to organize out of dire necessity. Members have taken the protection of women and girls in the tents into their own hands, setting up watch in the night or accompanying people on their way to the latrines. This type of intervention has become necessary due to the lack of protective measures and the ineffective procedures offered by the police and MINUSTAH. Today Malya Villard-Appollon, a member of KOFAVIV, will testify before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva along with lawyers from MADRE and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. As she herself has stated, Villard-Appollon heads to Geneva with the following goals: “We want to tell the Human Rights Council that the systems for protecting women in the camps are broken. We get no protection from the police, or the peacekeepers. We feel we do not have access to the rooms where decisions about our safety are made. We need the support and commitment of the international community.”
Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), based in the Central Plateau, is a peasant movement for a sustainable economy and participatory democracy. Since the earthquake MPP has been instrumental is responding to the vast numbers of people leaving Port-au-Prince to resettle in more rural areas. Among the efforts they have taken on since the earthquake, there is the provision of food for people in the hospital in Hinche as well as the provision of food to assist peasant families taking in survivors, and the creation of a shelter to be run out of the Papaye training Center. Because MPP has a long history of grassroots organizing they have been well positioned to respond to the new needs coming out of the earthquake.
Many of these groups have a history of local organizing that precedes January 12, 2010, while others have been formed in response to post-earthquake needs. Biwo Doleans Sosyal was started by the staff of Bibliothèque Soleil in Carrefour-Feuilles. Bibliothèque Soleil is a community library that was started by Haitian author Pierre Clitandre and his daughter Nadège Clitandre, in order to empower and invest in the youth of Carrefour-Feuilles. The purpose of Biwo Doleans Sosyal, which emerged as an outgrowth of Biblotheque Soleil, is to offer emotional support to those in the Carrefour-Feuilles area who lost loved ones in the earthquake, as well as provide them with other types of assistance. Most notably, this Biwo Doleans has initiated a documentation plan, creating oral histories by documenting the stories of what people were doing as the earthquake happened and what they have been doing in the aftermath. This important step demonstrates how solidarity can translate into the creation of history.
Similarly, the students of the Ciné Lekol in Jacmel, have also turned to history making—using their training to document the footage of the quake as well as the stories of people affected by it. The Cine Institute Recovery and Reportage Blog is devoted to using visual imagery and cinema to document the devastation from the earthquake as well as the reconstruction process. The work of Ciné Institute highlights the role of art as a form of advocacy and memory preservation. Through the use of film, the Institute has gone from being a center for education to becoming a movement for educating others in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Another group of women that have joined together in Port-au-Prince to create change is Plateforme des femmes citoyennes, a coalition of women’s organizations whose goal is to lobby for the inclusion of women’s needs in the rebuilding process. The coalition carries on intentionally in the spirit of the work begun by Myriam Merlet, Anne-Marie Coriolan, and Magali Marcelin three Haitian feminist leaders who perished in the earthquake. This group is a reminder of how devastating loss can transform into new opportunity. By harnessing the energy of those committed to honoring the legacy of what was lost, Plateforme des femmes citoyennes is a reminder that women’s movements did not end with the earthquake.
There have also been transnational efforts likewise centered around women such as Poto Fanm + Fi , a global solidarity initiative made up of women’s rights advocates from Haiti and in the diaspora in order to “to support the needs, voices, and leadership of Haitian women and girls, and grassroots organizations in Rebuilding Haiti.” Poto Fanm was responsible for creating a “Gender Shadow Report” of the official PDNA in order to account for some of the gaps concerning women and girls and to offer solutions for how to account for their future needs in the reconstruction process as well as to advocate for women’s leadership and incorporation.
The grassroots nature of Haitian activism goes as far back as the Revolution (1791-1804) when slaves organized themselves to topple slavery and begin a nation from the bottom up. In many ways grassroots are an integral part of our Haitian roots. The wide-ranging responses by both established and newly formed organizations demonstrates Haitians' ability and constant commitment to effecting change in innovative ways. Besides these organizations there are countless individuals who organized in their neighborhoods to pull people out from underneath rubble, to establish places for shelter from the rain, to provide for medical, health, and food needs of those around them. Indeed, grassroots organizing at its best simply means taking matters into one’s own hands to get something done from the bottom up.