A Saint in Siloe
A light has gone out in Haiti.
In 2012, World Connect began working with the Center for the Arts in Siloe, a tent community in Port-au-Prince established after the 2010 earthquake and populated mostly by people who had lost their homes. Life in Siloe is grinding and difficult, and like many in Haiti its residents face poverty, a struggling economy, and a lack of access to basic necessities like water, sanitation, and health care. But it was the plight of adolescent girls, particularly vulnerable, which drove Ysmaille Jean-Baptiste to open the Center for the Arts in his home. He was committed to making sure girls in his adopted community who wished for better opportunity had a safe place to go, where they could learn skills such as photography, essay-writing, jewelry-making, English, and develop the confidence and security to believe in themselves, their goals, and their dreams, often for the first time ever.
The hope, optimism, fierce determination, gentleness, and kindness he exuded and the success he achieved stands in complete contrast to the senseless way in which he was killed on Friday, January 23, 2015. Robbed and murdered outside of his welding shop.
I know what many will say to this, as I have heard it many times before: “Ah, Haiti, what a mess. Their government is corrupt and their society unorganized so what do you expect?” But this perspective is unfair, patently ahistorical, and ultimately prevents progress. As Paul Farmer beautifully articulates in his book, Haiti After the Earthquake, the political, economic, and social challenges facing Haiti today have their deepest roots in the economic and social disparities that began with the colonization of Haiti. Occupied first by the Spanish, then the French, the exploitation of Haiti’s natural and human resources began almost immediately upon the arrival of colonizing forces. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought from Africa to work the sugar cane plantations that made the French rich and though Haiti was their adopted land, it became the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, in 1804. When France was thwarted in trying to later reconquer Haiti, a treaty was negotiated that had Haiti pay the French tens of millions of dollars in exchange for recognition and as a penalty for “taking” France’s slaves. It wasn’t until the 2010 earthquake that demands to cancel Haiti’s debt gained steam. U.S. involvement in Haiti’s more recent history included trade policies that decimated the Haitian rice market and a heavy influence over Haiti’s electoral politics, further weakening Haiti’s governance, economy, and civil society. Adding insult to injury, UN Peacekeepers from Nepal introduced cholera into Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. The disease, not endemic in Haiti, meaning it had not been seen there before, has thus far resulted in nearly 9,000 deaths. With each assault on Haiti’s autonomy, economy, health, and pride, external forces bear significant responsibility for putting and keeping the country in despair. We must stop blaming the victim.
Despite the challenges, the Haitian spirit of resilience burns strong in people like Ysmaille, the person who drove women in labor to the hospital when the time came for them to deliver their babies, the installer of water pumps, the community organizer, a professional welder, a tireless force of nature who offered to act as an agent for the talented musicians we accidentally discovered on our most recent site visit to Siloe. His hospitality was limitless as he opened his home and back patio, with its serene view looking out over Siloe, to 20 girls each week to host their arts programming, keeping them off the streets and offering better opportunities to them through skill-building, education, and advocacy. Ysmaille was a gem.
It is for gems like Ysmaille, gone too soon with too much left undone, that we must carry his work forward. With the top 1% of the global population owning half of the world’s wealth while over 1 billion live on less than $1.25 per day, as a global society we are becoming more unequal and thus increasing opportunities for disenfranchisement. With 1.1 billion people in the developing world lacking adequate access to water and 2.6 billion people lacking basic sanitation, it is clear that development and charitable efforts are not doing something right. In Haiti, 75% of the population live on less than $2 a day, making Haiti among the most unequal countries in the western hemisphere.
This is not an argument for any one solution or another; rather, a call to work harder and more carefully to strengthen the most promising local innovators of social and economic progress, both because it is the right thing to do, but also because everyone’s fate depends on it, not only in Haiti but in the impoverished, remote, disenfranchised corners of the developing world. At World Connect, our approach is to try to upend traditional international development models based on top down, imported solutions. We don’t profess to know what a marginalized community might need or must do. We prefer to allow the most effective change makers in each particular community we work with to lead the way to progress. In Morocco, we are supporting the development of young journalists; in the Dominican Republic, we are supporting public health advancement with new installations of clean cookstoves and latrines; in Kenya, we are helping women build boats and hire fisherman so they no longer need to trade their bodies for food or money; in Rwanda we are increasing access to water; in Cambodia we are supporting arts education for young people, in West Africa we are supporting the fight against Ebola. All of this we do with an ethic of prioritizing local leadership. Ysmaille Jean-Baptiste embodied the kind of local leader we seek to support and empower to be a force for positive change.
We may have lost a saint in Siloe, but at World Connect we plan to find and support dozens more. In the face of tragedy and hardship, we continue to see the forces for good more emboldened and stalwart in their drive to build better communities and a better world and they have our support. We have done this 1,000 times with 1,000 projects, but in Ysmaille’s name we will do more. Much more.
Last September we supported the publication of Rising Up, a book of photographs and essays written by the participants at the Center for the Arts. There are many beautiful pictures and stories in the book, including touching comments from Ysmaille. Please consider supporting his legacy and his work by purchasing this book from Amazon. All proceeds go directly into programming at the Center for the Arts.
It is particularly poignant that we just celebrated the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose championship for social justice, equality, and opportunity is as necessary today as it was half a century ago. In this dark moment, I am reminded of his words, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must care deeply about the small injustices even in the most remote parts of the world because small injustices add up and topple the best among us who are working hard, often in precarious environments, to make our world better.
I give the final words here to the late Ysmaille Jean-Baptiste:
“When you are in darkness, if you don’t find anyone to help, you will stay in the dark. But when you have someone helping you with love and passion it can change your direction.”
Pamela Nathenson, MPH