A few months back, I had the opportunity of getting to sit down for coffee with a good friend of mine, Arnaud Jean. He is a UMass student who happens to be taking some time off in Haiti devoted to consulting and building with others in the field of permaculture. He is doing a lot of great work, and his example can be an inspiration to us all.
All of the work Jean is doing–consulting with people at the state level in Haiti, building with other like-minded individuals, and striving to have a positive impact with Haitian youth–had me wondering not only as to how he developed such a vision, but also how he even felt that such a vision could become a reality? At some point, a strong conviction that what he was doing could be possible was needed for him take that leap forward. What enabled him to feel empowered enough to take such an initiative?
For Jean, self empowerment has always been a part him. “When I was a kid, my mom used to say, ‘Son, whatever you want in life, you will have.’ To a kid, being poor and your mom saying something like that was like a promise. And I remember my grandma used to tell us stories, folk tales, about voodoo, gods and goddesses, the kind of stories that made you feel like nothing was impossible.” Jean internalized these thoughts of being capable of infinite possibilities, and that belief has been manifested through his work in Haiti.
But this way of thinking isn’t always romantic. He continued to say,”Thinking this way can make you overestimate what you are capable of and set you up for failure after failure. But still, each failure is a learning opportunity. And it is this learning that leads to self actualization. So as dangerous as that mindset can be, I think it’s an important part of becoming.”
All of what Jean had to say resonated with me so strongly because it was something I myself had been wrestling with for some time. Recently, I have carried my own insecurities with myself and a lack of confidence in my own capacities. For many of us, Jean’s story is not much different than our own. Most of us grew up being told we had immeasurable capacities waiting to be unlocked and opened to the world. Most of us can relate to a childhood where we envisioned a reality that could be manipulated through our own vision and hard work, a reality that we controlled. A world where we believed that our outlandish dreams could come true.
So if this story is so much like my own–like our own, then why am I so interested in it? Because unlike Jean, many of us–at one point–were confronted with the harsh reality that maybe we couldn’t be and do everything we wanted, and we internalized that doubt. As we approached adulthood, we encountered setback after setback, and eventually we become jaded with life’s harsh realities. This too was the case with Jean, but somehow he was able to recapture his youthful ambition. That is what makes Jean’s story so unique: that despite continuous encounters with life’s reality, he still believes in his own capacities.
As the conversation went on, we started to explore this idea of “youthful self-empowerment”. Jean expressed his desire to facilitate others into realizing their own potential in Haiti. In a community that has experience so many hardships, it is not hard to imagine many Haitians internalizing the present realities as their only available option.
“I sometimes talk to Haitian boys and girls. Some of them seem so hopeful and others you can tell are a bit more ‘realistic’. I think, for me, my dream is to encourage the dreamers in pragmatic ways to realize their dreams. You know, after you’ve been through so much…it’s difficult to hold steady to old ideas. But can you imagine,–if Nelson Mandela stopped dreaming, if MLK, Gandhi or the Haitian forefathers stopped dreaming?”
In a community that has experienced so many hardships, many Haitians have internalized the present realities as their only available options–options that aren’t so optimistic and don’t leave much room for hope. So how can Jean facilitate some Haitian youth to a sense of realization of autonomy over their own destinies? How will Jean encourage those he comes in contact with to envision realities that are not visibly present , but realities that can become actualities through their own vision and endeavors?
The deeper we went into this conversation, the more lost we became, but also the closer we came to finding ourselves. Through discussing this topic so heavily, we were able to make connections together that we wouldn’t normally be able to do alone. I know that for myself, when I think of Haiti and other Caribbean nations, I also think of America and the depressed urban populations that live within my own domestic boarders. Being an Afro-American studies major with a concentration in Political Science and History, I have a good understanding of structural changes that have occurred domestically that have kept people–primarily of color–from achieving upward mobility and I have an awareness to the social impediments that have continually marginalized groups of people from feeling that they have any autonomy over their own reality–because for so long they have been victims to systematic oppressive forces that crippled them from having any real control. Systems responsible for joblessness, housing, and poor education–all of which keep people who are already down, down even more.
So, because of this knowledge, I find it naive for us to really expect that we can live that youthful reality that indoctrinated us to believe we could do anything we set our minds to, because it underestimates social realities that really do exist for many people. However, I also cannot just accept that social impediments are the last deciding factor in our fates. That way of thinking becomes problematic, because it means we gave up and lost. Too many of us have internalized such thoughts, especially people who been victimized to such unjust social impediments.
And so the question I posed to Jean was how do we mobilize oppressed communities? How do we give these communities a feeling that they can actively shape their own realities and combat the forces that have so long been against them?
It was at this moment when Jean saw it as an appropriate time to give me a lesson in biology. Describing the cell: “when many cells come together they form tissues, the tissues forming organs, the organs forming organ systems, and then an organism. At each new level, there is a new reality. Now, apply that to people”. The cell is the individual, the body is the community.
And then, the dialogue transformed and wasn’t just about how to mobilize others, but first how to integrate ourselves. Although I never grew up in the ghettos of America, I still felt alienation growing up because the color of my skin. I remember teachers never encouraging me to push myself because they didn’t think I could, fellow students always questioning my intelligence, always being suspected as a thief when walking into stores, and a continuous stream of events where I had been profiled because of my skin color. My blackness has always been perceived as a negative trait by the standards of others, and that mainstream perception negatively affected how I perceived myself for a long time. It influenced what I believed I was capable of. Once someone who believed they were innate with huge potential turned into a black male who lost faith in fairy tales. But now I long to feel that youthful empowerment again.
And my story–although it is my story–isn’t much different from others’. In fact, my life probably parallels with so many who experienced some form of alienation, but maybe not alienation based on race. Jean asked me how common is it for people like me–people who have been put down for shallow reasons–to struggle with these same kind of questions that we happened to be contemplating over? How many of us have self-actualized what others thought about us and believed that that was the actual reality–a reality that didn’t deem us as being worthy of self confidence. And because of this self actualization, we haven’t taken risks, we haven’t reached for what we wanted, or aspired to be who we want to be because so many people instilled doubt in us, and we fully accepted it.
This might have been the answer me and Jean were searching for: that because the challenges of others are so much like the ones we experience ourselves, in order for us to truly mobilize and assist other individuals, as well as other communities, we have to first mobilize ourselves. We have to see within us–at the individual level–the latent potential of nobility that has been inherent in all of us from birth, but has yet to be activated. We have to first look inward and cultivate ourselves, then share that with others. We have to see, acknowledge and believe in our own self-worth. Change begins at the individual level. In order for us to be active agents of change within other communities we have to start with fixing our own problems.
But this is a very abstract answer. And when I expressed that to Jean, his response was that “every person is different, so every answer will be different. Take this idea, and make love to it”.
So that’s exactly what I did this idea: I made love to it.
Like Jean, I am a member of the Baha’i Faith. So in order to really expand my thoughts and find a solution with a solid foundation, a friend suggested I search the vast and abundant sources that the Baha’i writings had to offer, especially when it pertains to current issues–like inequality.
It was then that I came across a quote that “highlighted both the complexity and the interdependence of the problems facing humanity.” Stating that “none of these problems–the debilitating inequalities of development, the apocalyptic threats of atmospheric warming and ozone depletion, the oppression of women, the neglect of children and marginalized peoples, to name but few–can be realistically addressed without considering all the others. None can be fully addressed without a magnitude of cooperation and coordination at all levels that far surpasses anything in humanity’s collective experience.” (Baha’i International Community, 1993 Apr 01, Sustainable Development Human Spirit)
In the same way Jean was comparing the process of the cells forming organisms to the individual and the community, social inequalities also fall into this process. Indeed, all individuals are different, our experiences may not be concretely the same, but we can use our individual experiences to relate to one another. In the same way that people are struggling with questions similar to my own, they are also struggling with similar problems. Oppression is oppression, exploitation is exploitation, no matter what forms they take shape in, because they are all unjust and perpetuate some form of inequality.
When we reach this realization that all injustices–no matter what form they are manifested in–are interrelated, then we can start to make real progress.
In the conclusion of my first post, Thoughts on Newtown, I emphasized a need for a perspective that looks at all the layers of injustices. A perspective that understands that all the injustices the occur around the world are linked, and that in order to adequately address one, all the injustices need to be addressed and their connections to one another need to be openly acknowledged.
So to piggy-back off of that idea: we have to start understanding that the empowerment of Haitian youth is linked to the the empowerment of youth everywhere, to the empowerment of the women everywhere, to racial justice everywhere, to economic justice everywhere, to environmental justice everywhere--to justice everywhere through the empowerment of people everywhere.
This post, like so many of my previous ones, isn’t intended to magically offer any definitive answers, but rather to ask appropriate questions that put us on the right path to finding the gold we are constantly mining for.
I understand that maybe this is too idealistic for many to vibe with, but I just found that this conversation Jean and I had needed to be shared with other like-minded individuals. So take this post, and in the words of Jean, “make love to it.”