Prepared for Haiti
Flattened building, Port-au-Prince, January 15, 2010. Photo: American Red Cross
I had been told about poverty in Haiti, but it was only in a caravan of vehicles crawling along a dusty two-lane road to the Toussaint Louverture International Airport, on my way back to the States, that I realized I was in a ring of hell. Mountains of garbage lined the road for what seemed like miles. Climbing, crawling children, animals, adults young and old dug through the mounds for food, clothing, anything that might be of use. It was an ordinary fall day with clear skies and temperatures in the 90s. The stench was unbelievable.
This was the culmination of a trip for which I had not been prepared. It had been scheduled in the late summer of 2001, but between the planning stages and departure time, 9/11 had changed the world, and simply being in Haiti took on new meaning. For one thing, Haiti felt safer than New York; it was an unlikely target for terrorists looking to cripple the West. On the other hand, I had gone there to discuss a potential project with Aid to Artisans
that involved collaborations with my Parsons students and traditional craftspeople in the development of designs for U.S. markets, work that now seemed alternately critical and irrelevant. None of the delays or corruption I saw in crossing the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti suggested the possibility that it might take more than two days just to fly out. A new wave of demonstrations against Aristide would begin the next morning, filling the streets with burning tires, while every U.S. airport would be shut down after a Dominican Republic–bound aircraft mysteriously crashed after takeoff in Queens, New York.
The other thing I hadn’t anticipated was how quickly I would fall in love with Haiti. Everywhere I looked there was something to learn, something about art, something about a culture that felt like an answer to a question I couldn’t yet articulate. I have since learned that adherents to Vodou believe that you are singled out for care-taking by an orisha,
or god. By all indications, my orisha was Bawon Samedi
, the guardian of the dead. I frequently ran across him on buses, fences, buildings and trucks. I was even invited to be a guest of honor at a ceremony dedicated to him. Bawon Samedi wears dark glasses, smokes and does lewd dances. Like the rest of his pantheon, he is vibrant, rough, immediate and exciting. I knew I wanted to come back.
Now, in a small town in Andalusia, Spain, where I'm on sabbatical, little has prepared me for the recognition that a place that held so much inspiration, cultural wealth, human potential, resilience and faith could be leveled before our eyes in a single day. These are horrifying times. We know not only our personal disasters but also those of the world over. We live with them in a way no one has before. We believe there is something we can and should do. They make demands of us that become part of the fabric of our dreams and shape our understanding of our value and effectiveness as professionals and human beings.
As a designer, I know there are tools we use daily that could be deployed in response to situations like this. I am also wise enough to recognize the conceit in thinking that I would have the right skills and resources to address these issues effectively. Responding to disaster was not what I imagined or embraced as my life’s work, and this is not the time to entertain dabblers.
Now, at least daily, we witness situations that would have been unimaginable in the recent past. The image of Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton joining forces to benefit Haiti is filled with symbolism and potential that leave us incredulous but hopeful. Can the concentration of power, knowledge, faults and strengths represented by these men really get this job done? Is the underlying impetus for their response a fear of what may happen if this hemisphere’s poorest, least-educated and most neglected people are set adrift?
The inclination in the face of disaster is to focus one’s attention on immediate needs. For those who have limited ability to deliver help where it is needed, meaning most of us, the wisest thing to do is send money. Find the organizations dealing with issues that are close to your heart and send as much money to them as often as you can. In a world of text-messaged contributions, Twittering watchdogs and Facebook friends, there are many ways to respond, though we must be aware that our sense of power in embracing these media will diminish when our goods and services sit on runways in real time, real space and sweltering heat. We have seen how system failure impedes the delivery of aid. It seems that part of the business of disaster relief has become identifying whom to blame. Inevitably, new and improved procedures will be put in place, but will that solve the problems of the next unforeseen circumstance?
Each time we confront a situation like the crisis in Haiti, I, an educator, become more certain that we must train designers to step up to these challenges. We need to be a field of compassionate researchers, committed to processes that enrich our understanding of the interrelatedness of our disciplines and other professions, trades and industries. While the notion of the doctor/designer, the sociologist/architect, the urbanist/fashion designer are all exciting to me, I recognize that viable, ongoing partnerships across disciplines and communities are essential to enriching long-term responses to future disasters.
After reading four days of exchanges between architects of African descent from throughout the diaspora, who are engaged in crafting a substantive response from NOMA
(the National Organization of Minority Architects), I understand that I am watching a new generation of activist professionals working to reach consensus in ways that have stymied their predecessors. It seems very possible that these overlapping groups of practitioners, who have grown familiar with one another’s work in a virtual world, will find such agreement.
Looking at Haitians remove rubble, bury bodies, tend to the injured, I am also struck by the importance of understanding the physical nature of this ordeal and the reality of physical labor for most of the world. The hands, the work, the care, the craft, the culture they represent and keep alive are all connected. There will be new strategies, new technologies, new equipment, new corporate titans, new cultural influences brought to Haiti’s rebuilding efforts. Through that process, the primacy of the traditions, the skills and the spirit of Haitians must be maintained. I worry that the economics of the efforts ahead will result in a new tourist playground that obscures the persistence of old problems for the Haitian people. Booming tourist industries, as the Dominican Republic demonstrates, do not necessarily mean significant improvements in living standards for an area’s residents.
Over the last decade, one thing has become clear: human beings have played a role in augmenting the catastrophes triggered by nature. Katrina is now deemed a man-made disaster. The debris that acted as battering rams in the South Asian tsunami came from the developed world’s playgrounds. Racism and class stratification contribute to the mounting death tolls from landslides in Brazil’s favelas
. And now a lack of consistent building standards combined with environmental malpractice and the systemic role that poverty plays have helped reduce Haiti to dust.
Is this a time when the prosperous nations of the world should be focusing on the contributions design and designers can make not only to our survival and recovery in a disaster but also to our ability to predict and prepare for such eventualities? To what extent should interdisciplinary research and development activities in which design plays a central role receive more profound, long-range support from foundations and government agencies? To what extent are a design business’s nonprofit activities important for its sustained relevance and viability? To what extent should advanced education for designers who are interested in addressing these issues be encouraged through scholarships and fellowships? To what extent is this activity supportable by incubators that focus on systems and strategies as well as products? To what extent should culturally specific practices become integral to the education process of all designers to prepare them to take part in development efforts around the globe? At what point does this discussion become unavoidable for any designer? Are these questions critical if we are to become prepared for the next calamity? I think so.