samedi 20 novembre 2010

Haitian Studies Association Conference

Last weekend I had a wonderful time attending the Haitian Studies Association
conference at Brown University. The theme for this year’s 22nd annual
conference, “Haiti, History, Healing: Facing the Challenges of Reconstruction”
necessarily invoked and referenced the impact of the January 12th earthquake.
For two days Haitian and Haitianist scholars, mostly from U.S. and international
colleges and universities met to discuss and present on an array of
interdisciplinary topics. This year was the largest conference in the organization's
22 year history. The schedule was packed with several panels taking place
concurrently, my only regret was that I could not be everywhere at once to
participate in all the lively discussions or connect with as many people as I
wanted to!

The conference organizers were committed to offering viable strategies for
addressing the issues surrounding Haiti’s rebuilding in diverse ways. We
wrestled with questions such as what is, and what should be the role of the
diaspora in the rebuilding? What are some effective strategies for dealing with
the problematic NGO deluge in Haiti? What do viable transnational
partnerships look like post January 12? The ostensible concern with thinking
about Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake manifested through conversations
about infrastructure, economics, politics, and education as well as through papers
on culture, literature and religion. I participated in one such panel on the visual,
textual and media images of the earthquake coverage for which I gave a paper on
Haiti parmi les vivants, Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s widely circulated testimonial
and the Ciné Institute film Haiti’s Heroes to explore how Haitians are using
cultural production to offer up their own images that we can read as counternarratives
to the dominant media images. Stéphanie Larrieux of Clark
University provided some analytical tools and a theoretical lens for watching and
understanding displays like the “Hope for Haiti” telethon that aired shortly after
the earthquake.

Gabrielle Civil’s paper “ Reconstructing Silence: Jacqueline Beaugé- Rosier’s A Vol
d’ombre as Poetry/ Translation/ Performance” was a powerful example of how to
think about reconstruction as a lens for viewing literature. I especially
appreciated that Gabrielle focused on poetry by a woman writer that many
people had not heard of. Following her paper, Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley also
offered new theoretical concepts for understanding sexuality and gender in Haiti
in a paper on the documentary film “Of Men and Gods.” The type of scholarship
on these panels demonstrates the kind of groundbreaking work people are doing
to use new frames for thinking about old concepts. Of course the old staples
were also present, there were at least two papers that looked at the work of
Edwidge Danticat and one that focused on the representation of violence in
Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Colère that were given by graduate students from Yale and NYU.

In the words of HSA president and professor of psychology at the University of
Miami, Guerda Nicolas, the conference was “dedicated to the lives of those
whom we lost during the quake, the survival of those who continue to defy the
odds, and the hope for a better Haiti to come.” Themes of loss, hope and
solidarity were evident through personal conversations with people, many of
whom had not had a chance to connect since the earthquake. As Marc Prou
put it, “through the various presentations at the conference, we hope that all of
us will find a common place to grieve, reflect, and develop strategies for the
reconstruction of our homeland, Haiti.” Here I am reminded of the important
social and emotional role that an academic organization can play. HSA operates
in many ways like a family of people who love, care about, are committed to and
conduct their research on Haiti -- at times with passions bordering on obsession.
As Dr. Prou also noted in his introductory comments, the earthquake has shifted
the contours of Haitian Studies and there lies “critical work” ahead for
Haitians and members of the diaspora. The program reflected this critical work
in conversations through panels with titles such as “The Republic of 10,000 NGOs - Roles and Impacts of NGOs Following Haiti’s Earthquake” organized by professor and Poto-Mitan filmmaker  Mark Schuller and featuring feminist scholar and sociologist Carolle Charles and Alix Cantave. (Unfortunately, neither Tatiana Wah nor Nancy Dorsinville, both of whom were scheduled to be a part of this panel, could attend and thus were not able to contribute their important work to this conversation).

In a roundtable on the “Gender Specific Needs of the Reconstruction," feminist
activists Anne-Christine d’Adesky, Taina Bien-Aimé of Equality Now and Nadia
Todres, a photographer for the Haitian Adolescent Girls Network addressed
some of the major issues facing women in the camps. Leonie Hermantin of the
Lambi Fund chimed in regularly for this session ,weighing in the on the
relationships between women’s organizations in Haiti and women’s groups
doing transnational work in Haiti. This was the only panel that addressed the
reconstruction from the perspective of gender and it was unfortunate that this
could not have been a plenary session. The discussants took hold of the
following questions: how are gender specific issues being played out in the
reconstruction? What are some of the ongoing challenges that reconstruction has
introduced for women and girls? How have grassroots women’s organizations
in Haiti responded to these needs? How have Haitians in the diaspora
attempted to build transnational alliances with women in Haiti in response to
these needs? Specifically, this panel took on the issues of rebuilding from a
gender specific perspective by discussing major issues such as the high incidence
of sexual violence in the tents, the escalation of infant and maternal mortality
rates, and the prostitution of young women. D’Adesky spoke about the need for
monitoring to collect data about the incidence of sexual violence in the camps.

She also called for members of HSA to “step it up” in regards to work that
addresses the needs of women. Taina Bien-Aime provided an overview of the
delegation of lawyers and women’s health specialists who traveled to Haiti in
May 2010 in order to investigate the prevalence and patterns of rape and other
forms of gender based violence as well as of the petitions before the Inter-American
Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) calling for the IACHR to require that
the government of Haiti and the international community take immediate action
to protect Haitian women from sexual violence. This delegation partnered with
KOFAVIV in Haiti which resulted in the report entitled “Our Bodies Are Still
Trembling: Haitian Women’s Fight Against Rape.”

The conference featured two keynote speakers, Professor Laurent Dubois who
spoke on the theme of revising our understandings of Haitian history focusing
on early 19th century understanding of democracy, and Professor Emeritus
Patrick Bellegarde-Smith who gave a lecture entitled “Foundations of Haiti: The
Telescope of History.” Bellegarde-Smith also received the Association’s Lifetime
Achievement Award for his work on Haitian history and vodun.
The final plenary section was a discussion about rebuilding the Haitian higher
education system which featured several scholars and administrators based in
Haiti and the United States. This panel included Pierre Michel Laguerre,
Director General of the Ministry of National Education in Haiti and Yves Voltaire
from Université Publique du Sud aux Cayes. Laguerre emphasized the link
between the legal system and the education system as well as the importance of
not only considering higher education but also primary and elementary levels of
education, “il est encore temps de penser aux enfants de notre pays.” He
ended on a positive note, declaring that “une nouvelle Haïti est possible.” Yves
Voltaire tapped into the energy and solidarity of the association, noting that HSA
is “becoming my family as well.” Voltaire offered several tangible solutions for
addressing higher education: to design and implement masters and doctoral
programs, organize e-learning and e-teaching, implement overseas scholarships,
create community colleges, and encourage innovative entrepreneurship. His
presentation also showcased the activities of the students from his university,
describing their unparalleled drive and desire for education. Fritz Deshommes
from l’Université d’Etat d’Haïti expressed that his only regret was that more Haiti-based
scholars could not participate in the conference. In making this point he addressed
what was the greatest weakness of the conference, and is always one of the
greatest challenges for HSA. The topic was brought up again at the business
meeting during a discussion about HSA finances.

The final speakers on the panel were Alix Cantave and Marc Prou who reported
back on the meeting on Rebuilding Haiti and Improving Higher Education that
took place in Port-au-Prince from October 26-27. Like their co-panelists they
outlined some of the challenges to the Haitian university system and emphasized the fact that the change needs to come from within that system rather than from the
outside via the diaspora, NGO’s etc. They also outlined what HSA is trying to
trying to accomplish through the partnership, mainly being able to create a
consortium of institutions that would support the rebuilding with the
participation and leadership of Haitians in Haiti.

I am always struck by the rigorous inter-disciplinarity of HSA as well as its
political import as compared to other academic conferences (although right now
I am in Texas at the American Studies Association which is more like HSA in
terms of its political commitment!). There were panels on literature, religion,
economics, and political science. The array of people present was equally
impressive; there were scholars, practitioners, activists, and artists present to share
how the earthquake had impacted their work and to offer new lenses
through which to understand post-earthquake Haiti.

For me, the most powerful part of the conference was the feeling of camaraderie
and solidarity that imbues the organization and its members. Being part of this
community as a junior scholar is particularly edifying, given the opportunities for
mentorship and guidance that senior scholars like Claudine Michel, Gina Ulysse,
Marc Prou and others are so committed to providing for students and junior faculty.


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