Tè tremblé,” were the words our Creole-speaking students at Soehl Middle School in Linden, N.J., used to describe the event that devastated their homeland—literally: “The earth trembled.” Like many of us, I spent the Martin Luther King holiday glued to my television, watching the news in sadness and frustration. The island of Hispaniola holds a special place in my heart, both because of my many Haitian students and because of my connection to the Haitian immigrant community in the Dominican Republic.
For the past four years I have led groups of teachers on a human rights focused tour in the Dominican Republic. One of the key objectives of the annual trip is to broaden participants’ understanding of the root causes of extreme poverty. While many of the teachers traveling with us have done research at home on the global issues we explore, nothing prepares them for the intense emotional and intellectual experience of spending a week in some of the world’s most impoverished communities.
I have noticed that even the most well-intentioned among our group often revert to stereotypes about poverty in order to make sense of the misery around us. In our first debriefing, participants express sadness and sympathy for the people we have visited. Then some offer suggestions: “If only they had more education and fewer children.” “If only the extreme heat didn’t dampen their motivation to work.” “If only their government wasn’t so corrupt.”
By the end of our week together, through site visits with teachers, community activists, and ordinary citizens, they can see the bias inherent in their “suggestions” as their understanding of extreme poverty becomes more complex. We consider how the island’s legacy of slavery, military occupation, and colonization formed the foundation for these conditions, and how debt, trade, and other current policies may be working to exacerbate them.
Much of our learning occurs through visits with Haitian migrant workers living in unspeakable conditions on Dominican bateyes (shanty towns). Unable to sustain themselves in Haiti, these migrants have crossed the border to find meager employment as cane cutters or day laborers, joining families who migrated before them or living among Haitian-Dominicans who were born into the batey life.