SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Pétion-Ville) is a Haitian founded and run grassroots social organization located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It provides free accessible education to adults and children, and supports women's rights and economic empowerment for the poor. SOPUDEP is determined to use the power of education to improve life for the poorest members of the community, creating pride and hope for a better future. The organization was officially recognized by the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs in 1994 and again in 2000 by the City of Pétion-Ville.
SOPUDEP's most ambitious project is its accredited K-12 school. It is a comprehensive private school serving the poorest members of the community, those who cannot afford either Haiti’s public school system or other private schools. They try the best they can to adhere to the Haitian Ministriy of Education's guidlines and are able to do the national exames at their school. Founded in 2002, the school now has more than 560 students, many of whom receive their only daily meal thanks to the school’s hot food program.
Madame Réa Dol is the cofounder and director of SOPUDEP. She is also a community organizer. She directs adult literacy programs, a micro-credit program designed to increase the autonomy of women, an HIV-AIDS prevention and treatment program, a federation of organizations for women struggling for economic survival in Haiti’s difficult economy, and more. Before SOPUDEP, she worked for Pétion-Ville City Hall, but left to work hands on with the community.
On January 12, 2010, when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, there was no sign of international aid in SOPUDEP’S community (known as “Morne Lazarre”). Réa Dol and her staff came to the community’s rescue. Their school building, one of the few left standing in the area, was transformed into a makeshift hospital and shelter within 24 hours of the earthquake. Réa was able to secure large quantities of food on credit from wholesale vendors. The staff, students and volunteers at SOPUDEP fed thousands of families for a number of months. Her extraordinary work became the subject of a documentary by the New York Times titled “The Mother Figure of Morne Lazarre.”
It is essential to the strengthening of Haiti that education be brought to the masses and not remain a guarded resource for a privileged few. While historical circumstances oblige SOPUDEP to operate as a private school, its directors and teachers hold firmly to the vision of a public school system that is free and accessible to all the children of Haiti. Today, they are part of the social struggle to realize that dream. It has never been more urgent: today, only 4% of Haiti’s youth can afford to complete High School.
Please join SOPUDEP in their struggle by supporting their projects.
SOPUDEP began in the early 1990's as a group of community organizers discussing progressive political and social ideas. SOPUDEP cofounder and director Réa Dol left her job at Pétion-Ville City Hall to better dedicate her time to the poor of her community. Their first social program was one of adult literacy, which was associated with the National Literacy Program funded by the Aristide Government. Adults soon began bringing their children and grandchildren to class in hopes they too would receive a free education, as the very few pubic schools in the city were desperately overwhelmed.
In 2000, Réa wanted to start an accredited K-12 school for those children who could not afford Haiti’s schools, and sought the help of NGO's working in the area. With her mission of providing free and accessible education falling on deaf ears, she went to Pétion-Ville Mayor Sully Guerrier, who now works with the SOPUDEP team. With the assistance of Mayor Guerrier and journalist and filmmaker Kevin Pina, Réa was able to acquire a ten-year lease to a burned out mansion in the area. This mansion had once belonged to an assassin in the Tonton Macoutes, a brutal militia group that worked for the Duvalier regime. While turning this mansion into a school, SOPUDEP members even had to seal up a torture chamber discovered on the property.
The Institution Mixed de SOPUDEP opened its doors to the poorest children in the community in 2002. Initial enrolment was 160 students. The following year enrolment jumped to 340, and by late 2009 there were 568 students.
Progress was not easy. SOPUDEP fell on hard times in 2004 when Haiti’s democratically elected president was kidnapped. The government-subsidized hot lunch program that had provided so many people with a regular meal was cancelled. What’s more, political figures associated with the coup d'état government tried (and failed) many times to illegally close down this wonderful institution.
Although they were receiving some support from friends in the US, SOPUDEP was on the verge of having to close its doors in 2008 because the teachers had not been paid in months. With active promotion by Montreal photojournalist Darren Ell, help came to SOPUDEP from Canadian father and son Garry and Ryan Sawatzky, who started a foundation specifically for the support and advocacy of SOPUDEP. The Sawatzky Family Foundation had two primary goals: to provide stable salaries for SOPUDEP school’s 48 staff, and to resurrect the hot lunch program (the Hot Lunch program is currently being supported by Feed Them With Music). By mid-2008, this was being achieved.
Today, two other schools have been brought under the SOPUDEP umbrella, and the construction of a new school is underway. In March 2010 a micro-credit program to improve the autonomy of Haiti's women was also added to SOPUDEP’s list of social initiatives.
SOPUDEP faces daily challenges and continually seeks to expand the array and geographical reach of its social programs. More and more individuals and organizations are becoming aware of the important work SOPUDEP is accomplishing in Haiti, and are lending a hand to help them achieve their goal of empowering Haiti's poor majority.
I think to really know the important roll SOPUDEP and other similar Haitian organizations have played and continue to play in the struggle of building a free and just Haiti, and what differentiates them from the thousands of Non Governmental Organizations (NGO's) or "Charities" that currently reside in the country, there must be an understanding of the Haitian Grassroots movement.
A grassroots movement is one driven by the politics and social conditions of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it are natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.
In a country such as Haiti, it is grassroots movements that operate as the voice of the chronically poor majority, which makes up over 90% of the country’s population. Without this organized movement, Haiti's citizens would have no way to affect social and political change in their country, that has been under foreign repression since the discovery of the island in 1492.
Haiti's modern grassroots movement gained a foothold in the early 1980's, just as the Duvalier regime - a father son dictatorship that ruthlessly ruled the country for 29 years - was coming to an end . It was this popular groundswell that began to demanded democratic governance and an end to the never ending cycle of dictatorships, foreign occupations and coups. They protested for an end to the exploitation of the poor and to have living standards raised and the rights of all of Haiti's citizen's to be recognized and respected. Leading this movement were Haitian Catholic clergymen that began using the pulpit to preach for the rights of the poor, land reform and other progressive democratic ideals. They also mobilized the poor population to peaceful protest.
Upholding the rights of all Haitian citizen's, was a profoundly disturbing idea to those elite and foreign powers looking to profit from a poor and easily exploited population. These powers met this popular uprising with vicious resistance. Terror campaigns and assassinations were carried out against the poor and in the end, claimed thousands of lives. But it was because of this incessant unified voice that demanded the poor majority have a say in the development of their country, that Haiti would hold their first democratic elections in 1987. Unfortunately, this first attempt at democracy never came to pass, when troops opened fire on voters in a church in Port-au-Prince.
In 1990, the poor would have their vote heard, and it was Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest and grassroots leader, that became Haiti's first democratically elected president. However, he was ousted two times in a military coup d'etat - once in 1991 and again during his second term as president in 2004. Even with these illegal coups that harkened back to the military dictatorships and foreign backed puppet governments of the recent past, the population's mindset had changed forever. People could see what freedom looked like, and there would be no turning back.
But seeing freedom and having it are two different things. The struggle is far from over, and upholding the rights of the poor seems something the government can't likely achieve at this moment in time because those same powers that opposed this popular movement still wield enough power to throw a wrench into the governments works. Examples include blocking capitol aid and international loans, embargoes, raising trade tariffs, flooding the market with imported and subsidized goods, smear campaigns, military occupations, imprisonment, assassinations and so on and so on. These tactics always seem to become more prolific when the ideas of raising minimum wage, taxing the rich, nationalizing resources, or anything else that might give a more equal footing to the poor majority are brought to the table.
It is the grassroots movement however, that continues to affect social and political change to try and build a country from the ground up. And even though most organizations are operating with little to no financial support, they seek to empower the population by providing basic social and civil rights, such as accessible education, building economic stability for families (by creating cooperatives and micro-credit programs), strengthening social values through women's and children's rights, changing Haiti's judicial system (which has been corrupted through years of dictatorial and foreign control), and by reinforcing the rights to a democratic government that serves the people of Haiti and not just that of a privileged few.
What is truly unique about the grassroots, is most of these social programs work hand in hand with a preservation and continued education of their language and culture. There is an encroaching cultural homogenization, a deletion of their language of Kreyol (Creole) - exclusively spoken by over 90% of the population - and that of their cultural uniqueness, from standardized education materials, the media and even through their own government (historically politicians have only spoken French, but president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the first and only president to predominantly use the language of Kreyol to address the population).
Without the preservation of their culture, there will be further class separation and it will create generational segregation that will erode the unification of community. This would eventually lead to a fractured and infinitely more disenfranchised poor majority that would be even more at the mercy of a global market that only seeks to exploit them. If Haiti's unique and unifying culture is not guarded by it's citizen's, the only remnants of culture then becomes the souvenirs for sale in a gift-shop at the airport. And considering what they contributed to humanity, when they showed us that the bonds of slavery could be broken against the odds, that would be a disgrace.
The goal in supporting grassroots organizations is not to replace the need for a government funded public system, nor is it to continue to breed a system of dependance on international support, but to temporarily fill that void and start helping Haitian's take control of empowering themselves now. It's also the hope that it would put in place, local organizations and programs that could work with and possibly be absorbed by the Haitian state.
It is critical that Haiti's citizens be directly linked to the rebuilding of their country and in control of the process. It is they that are essential to creating a country that provides for all of her people.
Supporting the grassroots is to directly support the people of Haiti! They have already made a crack in the wall of that oppressive force that seeks to subjugate them. Soon, a bigger piece of that wall will be taken out, and through our support and solidarity, in time, that wall might come down all together.
I hope this might shed some light on what SOPUDEP and other similar Haitian organizations are trying to achieve within their country and why your support and solidarity is so critical.
Ryan Sawatzky, President
The Sawatzky Family Foundation