Physician Gregory Schneider, a professor at St. John’s College, has traveled with St. John’s students to Haiti on spring break trips since 2007. Last year he founded Project Treehouse, a nonprofit that aims to provide health care and political support in Haiti. He and nine other adults (he says conditions in Haiti are too tenuous to bring students) will conduct mobile health clinics in the Port-au-Prince area of Haiti from March 17 to 24. There is a fundraising event at Evangelo’s (8:30 pm Wednesday, March 10. $5. 200 W. San Francisco St., 505-982-9014) for the trip.
SFR: Do you think Americans have received an accurate picture of Haiti?
GS: What wasn’t always conveyed was actually how relatively peaceful…the aftermath was. The mainstream media likes to emphasize conflict. [Our colleagues in Haiti] will talk about how they slept on the street for three nights, but they all formed a community and they all tried to work together and support one another. You don’t hear those stories as much.
What else should people know that they might not have heard?
We’re not hearing the stories of the other places in Haiti that are being affected in the aftermath of the earthquake. [With Port-au-Prince,] you’ve got a city of 2 million, a million of which are displaced, a projected 750,000 of whom are going to be refugees. They’re going to go, for the most part, somewhere else in Haiti. And how is the rest of the nation going to deal with that? One of the places we’ve gone to is a tiny village called Limonade. They have 500 refugees. Five hundred may not sound like a lot but, in a village of about 3,000, in a country where 80 percent of the population is unemployed, to have 500 more mouths to feed [is difficult].
What attracts you to Haiti?
Haiti is a very vibrant place. Like much great art, some of it serves as a counter to the suffering that is so endemic in much of Haitian life. The fact that you can write about pain, you do come forth with poetry, with a novel, with a very brightly colored painting—their paintings tend to be full of primary colors—I do think speaks to the resiliency of the human spirit. The key is, how do you help people to be aware of their own resiliency?
Are there other aspects that point to that resiliency?
Haiti is the nation with the first successful slave revolt in human history. It’s the first independent black nation. Unfortunately, what happened after the slave revolt was that the elite who ended up governing borrowed their models of government from the French, so the cycle of oppression continued. There have been inklings and kernels of an emerging democracy—they’re just inklings and they’re just kernels, but they’re there.
What is the economic situation in Haiti?
Haiti was the most profitable colony in the French empire. It had a very successful coffee and cocoa industry. Thirty years ago, Haiti used to produce 80 percent of its own food. Due to a combination of environmental factors and trade policies, they import 70 to 80 percent of their own food.
You have said that Haiti has a ‘culture of dependence.’ Can you elaborate on that?
Even though I’ve said it’s a culture of dependence and I would stand by that statement, that’s also a culture that can be reinforced if the coverage is like, ‘Oh, those poor Haitians’—and they always are ‘those poor Haitians.’ Just like a culture of dependency can be fostered over a generation, it can be unraveled over a generation.
What is Haiti’s best hope?
There must be an emphasis on partnering with locals on the ground in order to have a real sense of local investment and involvement. Sweeping the streets, clearing rubble, staffing a medical clinic, handing out food—all those are opportunities for employment. They’re opportunities for employment and locals to be involved, to learn skills. [America’s] goal must be that we will someday be able to leave.