By Hal Eisenberg
February 15, 2014
As I lay here at 8:26 pm it feels like 2 am, and quite honestly it is going to be difficult to find the words to describe today, as well as the personal and professional impact this trip to Haiti is having on my soul. I am sure the reader of this blog, and those of you that I will sit down with face to face in order to share my personal account, will probably expect the usual “this changed my life. I want to go back. I’m so passionate about blah blah blah…” I think I’m having a much deeper reaction. Not a negative or a positive one, but different than the normal. Maybe I should start with the end thought in mind, and work my way back to some of the beautiful blessings and stories of today. It was a long travel day full of meeting and shaking hands and having conversations with very important people. After problems with our flight and almost not getting to Jeremie, and a coarse road trip through dirt roads that were extremely bumpy and rough, lined with homes that appeared to be huts at times, I saw not just “poverty” as we would envision it, but I saw a sense of culture and a way of life. There was a man standing on the side of the road holding 2 dead chickens and trying to sell it. The roads at times, especially in the towns that are a little larger, are lined with kids and adults trying to sell products to make a living – a real sense of entrepreneurship engrained in a “I’m just trying to survive mentality.” But the end point landed us in Carre Four Sanon at St. Francis Xavier Church. It is pretty much at the top of a mountain and if I could put it in terms of what we can relate to, the entire town is maybe a block long, with the center of the town being the church. Surrounding the church in the nearby hills are many small hut like houses and habitats where everyone lives. As you pull into this “block” the first thing I saw, and added to my deep impact of today’s emotions, was the roof half completed that we fundraised for. There were welcome signs to receive us posted all over the place. After meeting the Father and his staff from St. Francis, and a much-needed lunch (I was so hungry I actually ate rice and beans), and then a much-needed brief nap, I walked over to the church we so feverishly fundraised for. The roof was almost completed and that is one of the reason I support From Here to Haiti so much, as they hire local workers to assist in the rebuilding projects, which in turn adds to their sense of the workers’ empowerment and accomplishment, since they are a part of this town and this church. As I walked around the church, and watched people work with pride and love, I felt a presence. It was a sense of “this is what its all about.” It was not euphoria, but finding the right word or phrase is difficult. Maybe it was a sense of accomplishment. I sat in the self made, very uncomfortable, wood pews made of 2×4’s without a back slant (probably extremely good for posture) and I reflected in my mind, in a meditative way, every step of this journey to Haiti. I thought about my first meeting with Patricia Brintle at Lollipops Diner in Whitestone, NY when she presented the idea. I thought about her receiving the Unsung Hero Award at The 7th Annual Shortstack Fashion Show (which seeing her “love in action” first hand makes it more than well deserved.) I thought about all the events, the meetings, the planning, the mistakes, the blessings of what this learning experience will do for Windows of Opportunity, who supported me, who didn’t quite get what we were doing, the challenges, and how we forged ahead despite. The truth is, as a leader I do not mind being completely visible and willing to communicate openly about this. I made several mistakes along this journey from the beginning, and I was not pleased with many of the challenges faced along the way (despite the “positive twist” of always seeing the moment as a blessing), but sitting there in this church – seeing all these moments as I stared at that roof – being physically there to see the culture of these wonderful people have a place to find hope, love, and family… to see the beauty of that moment — was truly priceless. To sense the lessons of the last 2 days (that I am not sure I will blog about specifically), made all of this worth it.
I thought about the fashion show last night and my conversation with Kishner earlier today as we processed the event together. There were truly 2 blessings that came out of that show. We were frustrated in the moment with all that was going wrong and the challenges we faced in running a real show, but the first blessing included the fact that despite the challenge our team came together to attempt something last minute that was near impossible, but we didn’t give up. We were going to do what we said we were going to do. However, the 2nd blessing is even more important. I realized subconsciously I was stereotyping, thinking that since I was in a developing country that we can put on any show and it will be great. How wrong could I be!!!! There is some sort of saying in Haiti, and I am sure I will not quote it correctly, but it basically says you cannot give a Haitian a plantain and tell him it’s a banana! What I learned last night is when Haitians put on a show, they put on a show! From building stages and lights and sound, along with 500 people — it was the real deal. They would love and wanted our 5th Avenue fashion show. In retrospect, I wish that is what I brought them. That chapter may be closed right now, the lesson is learned, and we are moving forward, but as I stare at this roof, I can’t help but reflect on how this trip is already having a valuable impact on who I am as a leader.
I made this trip about Windows of Opportunity’s journey and the Love in Action Program (that started off as a Shortstack program and then The Inner You became heavily involved – which is part of my lessons along the way on the need to communicate and plan better – a leadership 101 error, but I digress momentarily). As I sat in that church and processed who I am and my journey in love and faith, I wondered if this trip was the universe/spirit/God’s way to teach me a very deep lesson. I know leadership development. I know how to teach it, how to inspire, empower, and make a difference. I know how to create programs and curriculum. I know how to stay in the moment. I think Haiti is supposed to teach me, inspire me, and bring me back to who I truly am. It is to serve as a reminder of the miracles around us everyday…
Speaking of miracles, I do have to share with everyone the other miracle of today – a reminder of who we are and the wonderful team I have around me. Just about an hour down the mountain was our first stop at Jeremie. Jeremie is a much bigger town that really simply has a Mardi Gras Louisiana feeling to it. This is always something that sticks out to me – even when I was in Nigeria. The way of life here is so different, and we see “poverty”, but they are blasting music, dancing in the streets, living life, and seem to be somewhat happy. In Port Au Prince last night it seemed like a block party every other street, with BBQs and all. There was a positive vibe all around.
In Jeremie (and I will get to the beautiful blessing soon) we had to make several stops for provisions and to meet people. At the first stop we had to stay in the car as Patricia and her husband Joe ran to get the items we needed. There were 2 kids that came to the windows begging. We had nothing to give as 2 of our suitcases didn’t get on the little puddle jumper from Port Au Prince to Jeremie, due to the plane having too much weight on it. We were told not to give in to the kids begging because if we did, everyone would rush the car. This one girl, no more than 10 years old, stayed with her hands glued to the windows just staring at us. It broke my heart. I was told by Kishner, (our amazing cinematographer, who is quite the visionary and a native of Haiti) that many of these kids, even if they have a home and a place to live, will come to beg because this is all that they know. Giving them something justifies or enables them not to do something perhaps more substantial. It is the prefect example of how they (and all of us really if you think about it) have the power and drive to do something, but if not provided the “window of opportunity” (excuse the pun – I cannot help myself) we will stay stuck in the same feeling helpless routine. They aren’t trained or taught how to believe and dream. This was another real powerful lesson for me. The girl did not leave the window until we drove away about ten minutes later. I just could not help but ponder what was in her mind, and wished that she could be in my leadership class.
We then met the Mayor of Jeremie, who was quite amazing, and agreed to come to Carre Four Sanon this week so we can interview him for our documentary film. What mayor does that? Keep in mind the population of Jeremie is 31,000 so it’s a bit larger than some of the villages we are going to. I couldn’t get over that. He is coming to us? First off, we could not get to our mayor if we tried, never mind coming to us. He spoke to us about his shirt that he had on. It was Haitian fashion and with pride he stated that he had that shirt for 25 years. Such a different view than what comes in and out of fashion annually in the United States. Would Mayor Deblasio be bragging about his 25-year-old shirt? We met the mayor in a gated area, which seemed like some government building, and we had onlookers from the above building that gawked in awe, and this only heightened my awareness to the importance of the moment we were in. It was the first time that Patricia at From Here to Haiti met him as well, and his time and gratitude was quite humbling. I am looking forward to interviewing him this week.
Our next stop is not only the blessing I was referring to before but also quite frankly my favorite part of this trip so far. We stopped at the Bishops home and as we met with him and shared what we do, he asked Kishner if he would come back to Haiti to do a film workshop with the kids in the future. Kishner agreed and the Bishop decided that he wanted to take us next door to show us their library that seemed to double as a school for the arts. What happened next was unexpected, unplanned, and I do not think I will forget it for the rest of my life. We walked into a dance class in progress and Patricia turned to Shannon and asked if she would dance for them. Now, for those of you who do not know Shannon, she is an incredible dancer, who has danced for teams and won national competitions, and has a very impressive resume. She also basically stopped dancing due to back surgery, but came out of retirement last night to dance at the fashion show, and help us meet our commitments to their church fundraiser. She did so great, that it inspired Patricia to ask for her to do a repeat performance. Of course, without hesitation, Shannon (who also by the way, along with her family were instrumental sponsors of this venture) obliged and she began to play Empire State of Mind by Alicia Keys. She began to dance as the class of students looked on. Simultaneously, and I do not know how this happen so quickly and on time, but Kishner and I got 3 cameras rolling, with 3 different angles, and mind you – still not knowing what was going to happen. It was like some other force or intuition said “hit record…” And then the chills began. As Shannon finished the first verse to the song that has somehow become the theme to NYC lately (does anybody remember Billy Joel?) and that this group of dancers never even heard before, they all as if on cue, and as if they had rehearsed for days, came out and danced alongside Shannon. Then they retreated gracefully, and Shannon joined them in formation, followed by each one of them drifting to the middle of the dance floor for a beautiful solo. They came out in perfect rhythm to this song. Not planned. Not rehearsed. Not choreographed. Completely beautiful. All natural. It was as if 2 different cultures came together as one with no hesitation. It was pure beauty and breathtaking. I have chills now just thinking about it. It may have been the most incredible “multicultural we are ONE” thing I have ever seen. It was also a much-needed icebreaker from this quiet stress we had from yesterday’s show that I am pretty sure up to this moment was still in the back of everybody’s mind. Shannon’s dance set the stage to feel good about moving forward towards our adventure.
Lights just went out. No generator or power. The place runs on some sort of inverter batteries at night. It’s pretty dark. It is time to go to sleep.
If you have stayed with my blog so far, Thanks!