I once read an article about MacArthur Fellows that highlighted their transnational and cross-sectoral life experiences. It affirmed my belief that our world’s increasingly complex problems are often solved by leaders who can transcend geographical borders, break down sectoral silos, and connect dots across fields and global communities in a way that others are challenged to do.
However, as a transnational and cross-sectoral bridge builder myself, I can attest that building “new boxes” that can hold solutions to our communities’ enduring issues is often a brutally challenging journey. My particular journey as an advocate for community-led structural change, spanning over three decades, has left me believing that social change should be led by communities, with communities, and for communities. At the same time, I’ve learned the hard way that most donor countries and philanthropic institutions that state their commitment to community-led development rarely put their money where their mouths are. It’s a reality check that leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) activists in the U.S. and all over the world. And being a woman always adds insult to injury, because no matter how much we women, and especially women of color, do the grunt work that allows critical change to take root (from President Biden’s election victory in the U.S. to Liberia’s peace process and the everyday victory of cities, towns and villages’ survival), we get discounted, underpaid, and marginalized thanks to the crushing grip of patriarchy.
Since my Haitian and international network and I led the launching of Fondation Communautaire Haitienne-Espwa, known internationally as the The Haiti Community Foundation, we’ve had to deal with no less than four disasters, from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake to Hurricane Matthew in 2016, to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and now the 2021 Haiti Earthquake. Truth be told, our focus has been more on community-led development, community philanthropy, and nation building than disaster relief. However, when you live within a community, when you are close enough to hear its heartbeat and the yearnings of its soul, you cannot ignore the pain inflicted by the disasters that wrack its body.
What have we learned over the years? Women, children, the elderly, and the handicapped are usually left behind by most international aid stakeholders who are unfamiliar with the topography and sociological patterns of local communities and who (to be blunt) are unwilling to learn them. As a result, the Haiti Community Foundation gives priority to single mothers, lactating mothers, and physically disabled community members who cannot get to the centers of towns where aid is distributed. We’ve been funding more women’s groups and we carefully nurture and support women leaders through our community representation policies not just because they are often not noticed by funders. More importantly, they know how to get things done and they are and know the heartbeat of their communities. We’ve also learned that disaster readiness and response is not a separate funding category but rather is just a regular part of life and good development.
Our community-led approach helped us to build a cross-sectoral community leaders network of over 1,000 leaders in the Grand Sud region that showed its priceless value as a human infrastructure after Hurricane Matthew and at the very onset of the 2021 Haiti Earthquake. Our network mobilized, brought life-saving water, medicines, and medical supplies to Pestel and Corail’s towns and villages that had lost 95% of their housing and 100% of their water distribution systems to the earthquake. We haven’t stopped helping and with other organizations and funders, we’re planning reconstruction and training leaders to respond to the next disaster.
The amazing support, solidarity, and endorsements that we have been receiving from international development, humanitarian and philanthropy leaders from all over the world has stunned us. Somehow, while we had been building our community-led institution the hard way and shifting the power to Haitian communities, the world had noticed our work. We’ve received a great number of donations as well as offers of support and partnerships with a gratitude tinged with incredulity. “It only took you a decade to gain the recognition for the great work that you’ve been doing all along” said my husband with his usual dry sense of humor. His comment hit a nerve. Young white do-gooders with no solid community experience seem to easily attract praise, support, and significant levels of financial resources while we experienced BIPOC community leaders toil in obscurity and struggle to access resources for our communities year after year.
In one of my other lives, I am the Director of Imago Dei Fund’s Girl Child Long Walk Project where, with a great team that includes co-authors Emily Nielsen Jones and Rev. Domnic Misolo, we’ve built and are launching a Fellowship working at the rare intersectional space of faith, gender, equality, and community-led development. We are very excited about the incredibly talented and diverse cohort of leaders and student fellows that we’ve attracted that include eleven women and three men from various African countries, the United States, Pakistan, and Brazil.
(If you are interested in learning more about the very brave work of faith-inspired change agents around the world to untangle contradictions at the nexus of their own faith tradition, culture, and gender norms, please consider joining our upcoming reading journey beginning in just a few weeks!)
During the interview of a candidate for the fellowship, I was reminded of why this work matters. “I wondered,” she said with a voice filled with Read More