A few months ago we created an interactive exhibit for Unbound, a student-led movement that helps people get involved in fighting modern day slavery. We shared Restavek: A Day in the Life at their annual conference and also at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center here in Cincinnati. It was so impactful that we are now getting many requests to bring the exhibit to other places.
A few weeks ago we packed ourselves into a borrowed Ford Explorer (thanks Camilla and Claude) and our exhibit into a borrowed horse trailer (thank you, Clint) and hauled it 500 miles north to Winterfest 2011 in Rochester, New York. Winterfest is a faith-based conference for high school and college students and this year they invited us to bring our exhibit and talk to students about the issue of restavek.
The exciting thing about this conference was that young people from all over the East Coast came, including many Haitians!
At Restavek Freedom our staff is almost all Haitian. I am one of just a few Americans out of 33 employees and my role is here in the US, so while I email, Skype or call our team in Port-au-Prince and hear stories about the children in our programs in Haiti, I don’t often get the chance to have live face-to-face interactions with hundreds of Haitians in one day. I was excited to be interacting with people who know and love Haiti and, to be honest, I was a little nervous.
I love to talk with people and have presented our work often to school groups, volunteers and basically, anyone who asks me what I do. Talking about restavek doesn’t make me nervous, generally speaking, but this time I would be in a crowd that already knew about restavek or perhaps even had a restavek in their home. I expected it would be a different experience entirely. Perhaps this time I would be asking rather than answering the questions.
I am kind of a justice news junkie. Reading about historical and modern day slavery and making connections between the two is part of my daily life. And I definitely keep an ear out for what Nicholas Kristof, IJM, Free the Slaves, and Sojourners are writing about and what (sorry to all you conservatives) NPR and Huffington Post are reporting on. After the weekend at Winterfest, I want to tell you that nothing - nothing at all - comes close to learning from people one on one, learning from people who have lived in Haiti and who have seen the cultural dynamic of restavek up close.
I met many wonderful and kind, insightful and friendly Haitians like Rebecca and Timothy, Djellounda and Saida (just to name a few). I am so thankful to them for sharing their perspectives. They articulated the difference between physical discipline to a biological child and abuse of a restavek. They shared their thoughts on whether the system could change and end. They shared their personal stories about their own childhoods, families and personal questions. Their stories reminded me that all of us are doing our best within our cultural norms.
The discussions reminded me of a concept from author and priest Henri Nouwen – that we are all susceptible to carrying out injustice simply by carrying on what is accepted in our cultures. It reminded me that given different circumstances I too could be living with a restavek child in my home. It reminded me to question my own behaviors and attitudes and examine what I may be doing that perpetuates injustice or marginalizes others.
Restavek Freedom lives by a principle that we will not demonize people who have restaveks. Adults who have children in restavek are doing so because they learned that it was ok, normal, and acceptable from the generations before them. This is why in addition to working directly with children our team in Haiti also spends much time talking with adults and inspiring new thinking that challenges the ways of prior generations.
Over the next few days I will post a few videos of some of the stories people shared at Winterfest. They are fascinating and helpful, insightful and sometimes sad. Most of all these stories give me hope. They show me that as we all begin to question our norms – whether Haitian or American, Korean or Mexican - we will move further away from the damaging practices of our past and toward a future full of justice and opportunity for all.