After Earthquake, UMass Boston Increases Its Efforts in Haiti

Crystal Bozek | February 19, 2010

When the news broke about the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the first thing on Professor Alix Cantave's mind, like many others, was contacting his family, friends, and colleagues in Haiti.

Only after days of watching, waiting, calling, and praying did Cantave begin to realize the extent of the work that lay ahead: The Haitian government has estimated that more than 217,000 people have died, 300,000 are injured and 1,000,000 are homeless.

“Afterward you start thinking, 'Wow,'” said Cantave, associate director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture. “There are no words to explain the kind of feeling. This country that has already faced so much. This is one more thing.”

By the weekend, faculty, staff, and students had already started putting into place a far-reaching strategy to help the country it has held deep ties to for decades, organizing trips and fundraising efforts.

Stepping up to help Haiti is nothing new for the UMass Boston community, many of whom are natives of Haiti, live there for part of the year, or have family there. Massachusetts has the third-largest Haitian population in the country, with the bulk of Haitians in the Boston area. Several Boston officials are of Haitian descent.

The university has been involved with Haiti for close to two decades, with the Haitian Studies Association (HAS), a national educational organization, headquartered here. The university also operates a Haitian Studies Project through the Africana Studies Department (ASD). The Haitian Creole Language and Culture Summer Institute was founded in 1995, with several students going on to other colleges and universities across the country to spread the teaching of Haitian Creole studies.

“UMass Boston has had a long-term engagement with Haiti,” Cantave explained. “It's important for UMass to continue this role, to have a leadership role.”

Since 2008, UMass Boston has partnered with the State University of Haiti's National Institute of Administration, Management, and International Studies (INAGHEI) through a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and Higher Education for Development. Faculty members have been working with the Haitian Presidential Commission on Education to reform preliminary, secondary, and higher education in the country. The Haiti Today ourse has offered students a chance to study abroad in Haiti, with Haitian students coming here to learn.

“Our professors have gone down to help, and their professors have come up here to learn and develop curriculum,” said Marc Prou, professor of Africana Studies and director of the Haitian Institute. “We've had an exchange going on.”

Several UMass Boston professors, including Cantave and Prou, plan to visit Haiti to meet with higher education officials there and examine the infrastructure of the remaining schools, and hope to bring civil engineers to assess the damage. A trip with students is also being set up for spring break through the Office of Student Leadership and Community Engagement. Also, on February 8, Professor Ernst Metellus of INAGHEI visited UMass Boston to speak with administrators and faculty. (View a slideshow of Professor Metellus's visit here.)

“They are looking to us to help,” Prou said. “If you ask higher education officials in Haiti, they all know UMass Boston.”

UMass Boston has also dealt with the tragedy on a campus level, offering students and faculty counseling and help. The university's Interfaith Campus Ministry held an emotional memorial service February 3 attended by close to 100 students, faculty, and staff members. The Haitian American Society (HSA) raised $4,000 in relief funds in the week following the earthquake, and faculty and staff were encouraged to donate to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Employees Charitable Campaign.

“As a Haitian citizen, I was very touched to see that after this tremendous tragedy the whole world came together in order to help us,” said senior Alain Menelas, president of the HSA. “I would like to thank the whole UMass Boston community for their help and concern.”

UMass Boston is also solidifying its involvement in the earthquake-torn country, hosting both a forum and workshop in the coming weeks. The first forum, “Understanding Haiti: Past and Present,” will feature insights, research, and personal experiences from both faculty and students. The event, hosted by the Trotter Institute and HAS, is scheduled for Wednesday, February 24 in the Campus Center ballroom. Then, the Center for Rebuilding Sustainable Communities after Disasters (CRSCAD) is hosting an international workshop on rebuilding Haiti on April 9, titled, “After the Cameras Have Gone: Rebuilding Sustainable Communities in Haiti after the January 12 Earthquake.”

“We expect to have people from all over the country, all over the world, attend this event,” said Adenrele Awotona, the founder and director of the CRSCAD. “We will look at best practices of how other countries have rebuilt after earthquakes and disasters. We'll look at everyone's role in rebuilding, particularly children, women, and the disabled, the vulnerable populations. Everyone must have a role.”

Cantave said it is important that even with all the research, support, and advice UMass Boston will provide, the people of Haiti must ultimately guide their own rebuilding.

“We will be a partner in what is happening. We are not going down to impose a particular view,” he said. “We will help them have the conversations. We will continue to help them with curriculum and training. We're going to continue what we've been doing for the past two decades.”

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