Saturday, February 11, 2017

Community Organizing
Lessons in Resistance from Haiti

The first time I saw an agricultural organization, at work in Haiti, was on LaGonave.  A group of men were walking down a dirt road singing with machetes over their shoulders.  When we returned form conducting a mobile clinic, the fields were cleared and being planted.   

Combite or agricultural work party; a place to work, ing and share stories in rural Haiti

Later when I asked some small boys to bring a wheelchair to a woman down the road they picked it up and ran in unison, singing the same song.   

I did not need to know the words to the song. I could feel the pride and commitment and unity.   Ah, I think to myself this is the story of Haiti no one tells.   It also became the story I wanted to know. 

Observers say that when the marines landed on LaGonave the island was organized into agricultural zones with a queen for each zone that helped guide the growing and harvesting and distributing of food.  The island was self -sufficient and there was enough for everyone.  

This practice was brought from Africa and after the revolution, evolved into its own unique Haitien form of small, local cooperatives that worked together, played music together and helped each other through difficult times.

My country and its wealthy allies in Port Au Prince and Florida, did everything they could to undermine this system.   It’s a familiar formula.  Create fear and mistrust of one another.  Divide people and all the while work towards a profit for the few.  Destroy public education and minimize local power.  Use the church to undermine local spirituality and Christian behavior.  

In my own country, the last decade has brought the destruction of local democratic organizations.  They seemed like a good idea but then they seemed too messy and too much work and they stood in the way of “progress.”    In Portland neighborhood associations are compromised. In schools, site councils have all but slipped away.   Students tell me the once vibrant super indent council is a hoax.  Parents say all decision-making bodies are simply a rubber-stamping of a principal or administrator's agenda.   These bodies are law but in the last decade, people got busy and worked more and let their local, democratic organizations loose much of their power.   People joined more gyms than local, service organizations. 

I recently read the book, When Hands Are Many; Community Organization and Social Change in Rural Haiti by Jennie Smith.   I read this on my bed in Haiti, while a new administration in my country destroys much of what I held dear. 

I like, many people, wonder what went wrong in our country.  People are always wondering what went wrong in Haiti.   But I suspect they are one and the same.  

Jennie Smith paints a picture of rural community organizations in which men and women come together to solve their own problems and improve their communities.  In some organizations, they help each other with fieldwork and play in bands together.  They pay for each other’s funerals and when a woman, in labor, needs to be carried down the mountain on a door, they are the ones to do it. 

And so, while my government, rounds up the people I offer you the image of these same men who grow our food and scares the children of our country as sure as the dictators of Haiti scared the rural poor, I offer an image of a group of men in Haiti, walking to a field to work together as brothers.   The owner of the field offers a good meal under a broad canopy of shade.  They sing and later, as night approaches, play music on homemade tin instruments. 

I offer you this inspiration from a place of deep poverty and corruption; a place that has known unspeakable violence; this image of local cooperation and friendship.

To be honest, I have only had glimpses of this in Haiti.   I suspect that the United States saw it as communist or voodoo and had no real idea of its purpose and nature.   USAID, Monsanto and missionaries worked to bring the people into their own forms of local organization which often revolved around a priest who was getting really, really rich.   Stories are lost and the people displaced.   This rich history of agricultural collectives is increasingly lost. 

As my country faces a political party that won the Electoral College by appealing to small, rural communities but now forces the heavy hand of executive order, I consider the power of resistance at a local level.  We can get to know our neighbors, join our neighborhood association and get involved in our communities. 

I doubt that a rah-rah band will accompany me to my meetings this week but I will keep the spirit of the Haitien agricultural cooperative in my heart, as I move forward.

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