Haiti: Thanking those who gave

My organization, Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education, held a small reception this evening in recognition of donors who contributed to a fund we created for our Haitian alumni following the devastating earthquake in January. A few people apart from the staff showed up: members of a choir that has some Equitas staff members among its singers, board members, and friends and relatives of the organization’s staff. We were also privileged to have among us the Haitian participants who are taking part in our organization’s massive International Human Rights Training Program (IHRTP), an annual event now in its 31st year which brings together over a hundred human rights educators from around the world for a three-week training. Also present were two former Haitian participants, Jean Joseph Alfred Gibbs and Patrick Camille, who are returning to the annual program as co-facilitator and facilitator, respectively.

The get-together was a simple but significant opportunity to say thank you for donating. There was a message from the board’s president, Rob Yalden, who was genuinely touched by the generosity of those who donated. Another board member, Thérèse Bouchard, who has worked for years with civil society in Haiti, also offered words of gratitude. Our Haitian facilitator Patrick spoke next, and eloquently spoke of the transformative effect the IHRTP had on him. By the second week of the training he attended in 2002, he realized that the training was not simply on international standards, laws, and mechanisms, but was about who we are as human beings. The program affected him deeply where it mattered most: in his heart. It’s a message that left a mark on him and reinforced his conviction that teaching about human rights is so much more than teaching about what the rights are: it’s about what we value. A focus on values has guided our organization’s recalibrated efforts in Haiti, and thanks to two recent visits in the field by my colleagues, value-based human rights education is taking root with the alumni who have been part of our programs.

He answered for us a question every donor asks, no matter what the contribution: how was the donation used? Even though the amount raised didn’t rival the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars raised by other organizations (but Equitas is not a fundraising organization, we do human rights education), every dollar made a difference. He recounted the words of one recipient: “Yesterday, I had no water. Today, I can drink.” There is no gesture too insignificant.

Patrick was kind enough, as were so many others tonight, to recognize the contribution of my younger son, who donated most of the money he received from his birthday to the Haitian alumni. My son then proceeded to quietly make his way to the centre of the room and wave, and for a brief moment my heart swelled with pride. I told a friend earlier today that, at my son’s age (he’s seven), I would not have donated my birthday money the way he did. Taking the train home with both my sons, they told me how happy they were to have attended this small reception.

In an age where disasters – either natural or caused by our own hands – seem to dominate the headlines, it’s reassuring to know that there are people out there who are willing to help in whichever way they can. Colleagues and board members donated, as did their friends and families, as did the schools they visited or the choirs they sang in, and believe me, it does make a difference. Even if your donation gives a family water to drink for a day, think for a moment how appreciative they will be. Any contribution that brings people out of misery and enables them, for however brief a moment, to live in dignity, is a gesture that gives me hope.

Some final thoughts were spoken by Equitas’ executive director, Ian Hamilton, who aptly remarked: “It’s not the time for reconstruction in Haiti, but rather the time for construction.” And that means that we cannot and should not forget those still living there, suffering.

Photo of Patrick Camille courtesy of Daniel Roy.

Talking about our values: now that ain’t easy

This blog entry was initially posted Friday, May 28. Since then, I was informed that the President of Malawi has since pardoned the couple. Great news to be sure, but it doesn’t mean the discussion ends now….

Original post:
A friend of mine posted a message on a closed online community in response to my post on the Malawian gay couple being sentenced to 14 years in prison for “indecent practices between males.” The penultimate line of his post was “Let us all examine our individual and collective values.” And there’s the hardest thing about being a human rights defender/activist/educator: being able to create spaces where we can openly and safely dialogue about these values.

Other human rights stuff pales in comparison: you can educate people on existing laws, constitutions, international human rights standards and mechanisms, jurisprudence, legislations, you name it. But to get to the heart of the matter, you’ve got to push people to safely voice their values, and at times those values contradict with value sets of others. Sexual orientation is a contentious issue because, and let’s be frank here, anything other than heterosexual – namely, LGBT – can rub plenty of us heterosexuals the wrong way. Growing up in suburban, mostly white Anglo-Saxon Montreal, seeing a gay couple was unheard of in the 1970s. Homosexuals were gay, or derisively labelled “fags” or “faggots,” with a typical motion of the broken wrist to emphasize their gayness. As a child, I was ignorant, and ignorance has a tendency to manifest itself as cruelty.

Sometimes, mind you, ignorance manifests itself as just plain ignorance. About 6 years ago in Senegal, while facilitating a workshop, the topic of homosexuals came up and one participant raised his hand and pondered aloud: “Perhaps some men become homosexuals because they are constantly rejected by women.” Oh come on, if that were the case, I would have become gay several times over in my twenties. Instead I suggested that we discuss the topic further over lunch.

More recently, a friend and human rights educator wrote to me and indicated that we should not be discussing issues related to homosexuality because it is against the will of God. Go see Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.” Gays don’t fare much better in the Quran. I’d like to think that we are in an age where we can critically reflect on passages in any religious texts and interpret them through a contemporary lens and not restrict ourselves to a limited interpretation of scripture.  

A way forward must be to discuss our individual and collective values openly in a spirit of kindness, willingness to tolerate-accept-embrace, and ultimately respect each other. Vitriolic speech for either an anti-gay or pro-gay stance has no place in this type of dialogue. The blogosphere and online comments on related stories are abundant with viewpoints from opposite ends of the spectrum. We have to express our concerns, our fears, and our hopes. But those in authority, like the judge who sentenced the couple in Malawi to 14 years in prison, should not be in a position to impose such unreasonable sentences and utter blatantly discriminatory comments justifying the prison term to protect the public from “people like you.” His sentence was a judgement based either in fear, ignorance, political pressure, or all of the above. Whatever the justification, let this case be a catalyst to encourage people to be honest and open about their values, willing to listen to others whose views may differ from theirs, and ultimately become vulnerable – and strong enough – to admit that their values can and should change over time.


Notes from the Field: Playing with Trainers in Vancouver

Had a great day. It certainly helps matters that the sun is shining, the air is delightfully fragrant from the cherry blossoms, and the participants were eager and enthusiastic to learn. The participants in question are day camp leaders and coordinators who have been implementing the Play It Fair! program that Equitas has been running for a number of years now. The program promotes human rights values – cooperation, respect, acceptance…seven values in all – through games. The key to the approach is that the learning from the games is always discussed with the children afterwards and enables them to reinforce these values in the day camps and in their daily lives.

A number of participants highlighted a challenge with the group discussion that follows a game. The format of the discussion has questions relating to three aspects: the “feel” questions, asking children how they liked the game, the “think” questions, asking them how the game relates to their personal experiences and what the game makes them think of, and finally the “act” questions that prompt children to suggest ways they can improve day camp life with concrete actions.

The format is simple but there are still challenges to leading a group discussion. Some leaders do not have much experience facilitating such discussions, others rely too much on asking the suggested questions in the Toolkit (thereby making the discussion rigid), and others mention that having a group discussion is challenging with multilingual groups of children.

The challenge of leading the group discussion was raised last night over dinner (which included my first taste of beef tongue, masterfully cooked by Tom, one of the coordinators at the Britannia Centre here in Vancouver, on a small heated black rock. He also shocked me with the knowledge that I have been pronouncing Osaka improperly all my life.). My thoughts remained on this (the group discussion, not the Osaka thing) until this morning. I had some solutions to propose, such as developing cards with symbols signifying words or feelings and having the children use symbols to express how they felt, but I felt I didn’t have much to offer. A quick message to an online community of human rights practitioners yielded a number of good suggestions from across Canada, Egypt, and China. Some suggestions: drawing images, painting, pantomime, sculpturing (making human sculptures as a way to represent power relationships between different actors), theatre of the oppressed, using (and not using) symbols. We also explored non-verbal ways of communicating with each other. The response I got from my online inquiry reaffirmed to me the value of networking with others to get their ideas, and it’s something I expect to do more of in the future.

On another note, Tom highlighted the introduction of journal writing for camp leaders. The journal was a regular, often daily reflection the leaders made on the games they played. The journal was private and to be shared only with their supervisor. Tom praised the added value the journals made to the leaders’ abilities to facilitate the games; they wrote their impressions of the games, how well they went (or how challenging they may have been), and how the children were internalizing the values promoted by the games. Writing in a journal was not an automatic gesture for some leaders, said one participant who kept her own journal. And it has to be said that writing is not for everyone either, but it can be a powerful tool. I offered them a simple framework I use when writing a reflective journal (not my idea): three questions – What? (what happened), So what? (what did I learn, why is this important, what does it mean?) and Now what? (what will I do differently now?).  I’d read in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom the other day that if we as educators want to ensure critical thinking among learners, we should be equally critical about our own practice. I felt I learned a lot from the participants today, and I’m thankful for that.

All the participants got to lead the rest in some of the Toolkit games, and we enjoyed being kids again and playing Rock, Paper, Conflict, The Inuit Hand Game, and my personal favourite of the day, Crazy Stories, which was a collaborative story-making activity that had us all laughing (the entire Toolkit is available here).
And now to end this entry, at least one mention of the joys of travel. The day more than compensated for minor annoyances the day before such as the customs officer in Montreal who felt the need to probe everyone’s carry-on luggage for liquids exceeding 100 ml. One could see his eyes bulge with rapturous excitement as he grabbed my new tube of toothpaste and searched for its volume. “It might be over 100 ml,” he whispered to his uninterested colleague. Alas, his disappointment was quite noticeable when he saw “85 ml” at the end of the tube. Honestly, our delays are long enough as it is at airports, should we not be entitled to qualified personnel who can do their job of protecting us rather than inspecting us in the hope of finding a liquid over 100 ml in our bags?
Perhaps one final note, a success story. Our lunch was catered by Pot Luck Catering, a small organization where former street children prepare the food, here they are: http://www.potluckcatering.org/about.html.

And another final note, to all Vancouver hockey fans, Canucks rock! And good night.