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Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Making of a Beautiful Time in Haiti with Forced Evictions Team

When we were still stateside before we left, we began to develop a spreadsheet of different organizations which began with not one phone number or e-mail address. How were we going to arrange the meetings? Who would take us seriously enough to sit down with a group of "blans" (as Haitians refer to non Haitians) to speak about intensely controversial issues facing their country? I was uncertain and unsure, and contemplated my worst nightmare that after all of our work of planning and reading materials and learning that we wouldn't be able to arrange to meet with anyone. Bit by bit we began to add in contact information from speaking with people that we knew working on the ground, other student groups that had done similar work in Port au Prince, and a good amount of googling. After reaching out to all of our contacts, when we departed JFK on Sunday, we still had just two standing interviews scheduled.

(Kelly Starcevich, David Ragonetti, Diana Schaffner, at Le Plaza hotel recapping notes from the day)

A man rolled open the sliding iron gate spray painted with a #3 for the address on it. With my level of kreyol meager at best at this point of the trip, I blurted out the name of our Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) contact hoping the man opening the gate had any idea who she was. He did. The eight of us wound around the side of the house that was the headquarters, passing by a gathering of men on the front porch spouting off to each other in heated conversation-- I knew it had to be about Haitian politics. Elections are Sunday. We gathered in a circle to chat about the project with IJDH and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). We were there to help, but our contacts in Haiti lived and breathed the issues every day. I was humbled by our inexperience and wondered what the value of my speculation on issues I was only beginning to understand really were. But then, the conversation took off.

(David Ragonetti, Kelly Starcevich, Diana Schaffner, strategizing over lunch at C-Jean hotel)

The top Haitian lawyer running the grassroots org we were working with sat down and joined our conversation, running back and forth between the front porch's heated political chanting and our discussion. Maybe people were really interested in hearing what we had to say. The next thing I knew, we were were throwing questions at him and pressing him with follow-up questions to really get him to explain his analysis. Our understandings began to deepen with every word that came out of his mouth explaining the complexities of the issues and the problems of the institutional players from NGOs to UN orgs to government actors.

(Kelly Starcevich, Diana Schaffner, David Ragonetti, after morning meeting to plan for the day's interviews)

I gained more in this one hour of conversation with him than I had in the eight months of planning for the trip. Our work took on new meaning to me. I truly felt his energy for the rights of the IDPs in a way I had not been able to before. I had read article after blog after tweet after story of people being evicted from the tent cities, but those descriptions paled in comparison to hearing the way that this man described the problems. As I struggle to articulate in writing here the impact it really made, all I can say is that it shifted something in my perspective that made the suffering and the struggle come alive for me. This conversation laid the groundwork for the next days’ interviewing with a revived confidence and energy for our work the carried over each day.

(Kelly Starcevich, David Ragonetti, Laura Raymond, Diana Schaffner, outside of UN log base)

Each morning I squeezed into a car with Diana Schaffner & David Ragonetti of Fordham DRN and Laura Raymond & Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, guided by the finest driver, impromptu kreyol teacher, political commentator, and translator I could have ever asked for, Junior. I came to know and love the my group and develop a closeness in part by the endless hours spent in the car sweating and practicing kreyol as we went from interview to interview, in part by our common passion for the work that we did, and in part by the interplay of personalities of the group that added to the bonding experience overall. I could not have picked a better group of four to travel around with day by day. Our work blossomed from our humble planning in New York to a feeling by the end of the week that what we had started was only begun and that we only needed more time to set up the next set of interviews that we wanted to have. I'm encouraged that our work will continue here and the connections that we made among each other will continue long after the trip's end.

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