SOPUDEP and Haitian Grassroots, Sept 7, 2011
some other grassroots organizations that work along side of SOPUDEP. From left to right: Les Petits Amis de SOPUDEP, Fanm Viktim Leve Kanpai (FAVILEK) and Pax Christi Ayiti (PCA)
Some of you may have noticed, that a few months ago the website banner was changed from, "SOPUDEP School - Knowledge is not a privilege of power, but a right for everyone", to what is currently above, "SOPUDEP - a Haitian Grassroots Social Organization". "School" was dropped from the name, simply because working with SOPUDEP over the past three and a half years, I have seen SOPUDEP as an organization that address numerous issues that face the poor through different social programs. They needed to be promoted as such.
While they have mainly focused on providing education for both children and adults since the mid 1990's - including basic literacy, formal education, as well as cultural and health, education - they have tackled other social issues, such as disaster relief, integrating homeless children and those in servitude into a formal education system, and economic development (Micro-Credit). SOPUDEP, and namely founder/director Réa Dol, not only work within their own organization to provide for their community, but collaborate with and support many other Haitian social organizations throughout Port-au-Prince and beyond - as can be seen with Les Petits Amis de SOPUDEP and MOJUB. We all felt it was time to promote SOPUDEP as the multi-faceted organization it really is. To be fair though, their K-12 school remains their biggest project to date and continues to be at the top of their funding priorities.
The new site banner also contains the word, "Grassroots", and I thought I'd spend this update clarifying what this word means. 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.
The Sawatzky Family Foundation