Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Libraries and Miracles In Haiti

Access to knowledge is the superb, the supreme act of truly great civilizations.  Of all the institutions that purport to do this, free libraries stand virtually alone in accomplishing this mission.
--Toni Morrison

America the great and wealthy, stretching from, as she says, "sea to shining sea," hangs above a tiny island nation like a gated mansion next to a favela. We Americans look down on scenes of great wealth next to abject poverty in places like Brazil without recognizing the irony of our scorn. 

Two years ago a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, destroying an already supremely needy nation. Television news blared about Haiti being the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. I sat next to a very wealthy philanthropist at a meeting who said that no matter what others did to help, Haiti was a hopeless cause. I should learn to love bleak thoughts like that-- they enrage me. And that rage burns me to action. 

Fired by what I was seeing on the news and by that man's nihilism, I started to wonder: what else was Haiti? Truly unknown to me at that point, an itch to know started to bug me. What was Haiti? Were there strengths there we didn't consider? 

I began to talk to my students about Haiti, the earthquake, the questions in my mind about the news coverage, their questions. I told them we were going to do a research project, from fourth through six grade on Haiti to answer the questions we as a group had. 

Here are some of the things we found out, in no particular order:

* Haiti is the world's only democracy founded by a slave revolt. 

* Columbus didn't discover America. He landed on Haiti- and tried to rape it to death. But from the beginning, the Taino fought back. Like the ancient Israelites, they were a tough bunch to conquer-- and didn't stay conquered for long.

* Touissant L'Overture, a brilliant strategist and statesman, led the slave revolt against Napoleon-- one of the greatest dictators in the world-- and won.

* Haitians make art out of trash: they punch sculpture out of steel drums and get around in tap-taps: old buses covered in beautiful bright paint and French or kreyol proverbs.

* Haitian culture combines aspects of French, Catholic, African, tribal and Vou-Dou roots, making a gorgeous and exotic stew.

* Anacoana was a Taino queen who tried to make peace with the invaders. She is remembered as a mother of the nation.

* There's a Vou-dou mermaid goddess that adorns some flags, covered in sequins! 

We began to see there were two ways to look at Haiti: the poverty view or the strength view. We learned that news reporters banged away with the poverty, tragedy, horror-- but the more we dug into the music, art and culture, the more inspired we became. We used the picture books of renowned children's author Karen Lynn Williams as a starting place, including Painted Dreams, Circles of Hope and Tap-Tap. Gorgeous, wonderful books! 

We carefully planned out how to show facts from the strength perspective of Haiti-- facts our research had taught us. We painted cardboard tap-tap buses with things like mountains and the word "Ayiti"-- the Taino word for "mountainous land"-- Haiti's native name. We used brilliant colors, jewels, glitter-- we soaked our art in the richness and diversity we were so inspired by. We meant to auction them as a fundraiser for Haiti, but a fundraiser at the school I worked at was worried the school's own fundraising would suffer. Disgusted and hurt, I kept the tap-taps for a better day.

That day is today. I am going to begin to work with educators across Pittsburgh to enlarge and broaden our original ideas about Haiti research. I want to bring the strength view of Haiti-- and poor countries in general-- to kids and educators across Pittsburgh. Why? 

From a personal perspective-so I can be strengthened and broadened by the historical heroism of the Haitian people. I want to grow to be like them. I want my students to know that in the face of unspeakable privation the human spirit finds a way. And the Haitians' way seems to be with color, music, art-- what could be more glorious? Who wouldn't want to be close to that? 

How? Here's one idea: do mini-research lessons on Haiti in Pittsburgh classrooms with teachers who have the time and interest (and curricular room.) Brainstorm with them about how to show what we know after we research Haiti. The art teacher at Carmalt thought of buying actual windows from Construction Junction, a local construction reuse store, and having kids decoupage on them in the style of Haitian-American artist Jean-Michele Basquiat. She wants to call her unit, "Windows Into Haiti." Brilliant! Then- I go to Haiti in February. I bring a ton of art supplies with me, partially paid for by donations from my First Giving site (Libraries and Miracles in Haiti) I invite Haitian kids to tell their stories, express themselves, create picture books. With the children's permission, I bring some of those back. 

There's a deeper "why," and it isn't about me. It's about empowering Pittsburgh and Haitian children. If we present an idea to kids, let them figure it out, then show what they know via art, film, digital storytelling, whatever--we show them they matter. Their voices, thoughts, feelings, intellects, talents-- these things will instruct and inform the broader world. And when we add a Pittsburgh art show, with all the Pittsburgh and Haitian kids' art on display for auction to benefit the building of a children's library in Haiti-- we have let kids build a fundraiser-- and a library-- with their own hands, hearts and minds. It's a great idea. 

Please support my donation site. Please direct message me if you want to get involved. And thank you. Dr. King said, "Peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice." 2013 is going to be a year we move mountains toward justice and Dr. King's version of peace. Together, with our strength vision, in love. 

Strength and beauty in Haiti

1 comment:

  1. So beautiful, Sheila! Have you shared this video with Karen Lynn Williams? The spirit of Haiti reminds me of my trip to Nassau in the Bahamas. I went by myself for Christmas one year - mostly for the purpose of seeing the Junkanoo Festival (and learning about pirates). The tap tap bus reminded me of the Junkanoo parade.
    Jane (Pirate Librarian)