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Brown starts aid efforts in Haiti disaster’s wake

News Editor
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In the two weeks since an earthquake devastated Haiti, the Brown community has begun mobilizing to aid the worldwide relief efforts. With immediate support from students, faculty and staff, President Ruth Simmons launched the Haiti Crisis Response Committee Jan. 14 to coordinate extensive relief efforts and to provide recommendations to the University about further measures the community can take to assist the Caribbean nation. The committee has met twice — once Jan. 15 and again Jan. 22 — to discuss ways to harness the outpouring of community support.

“The distressing situation in Haiti following the massive earthquake has left us all searching for ways of getting involved to bring aid and comfort to the people of Haiti,” Simmons wrote in a University-wide e-mail on Jan. 14. “The urgent need for virtually every category of assistance calls upon us to respond quickly and decisively.”

Coordinating University efforts
The committee, which was introduced in the e-mail and includes professors, administrators, undergraduates and medical students, has already spearheaded fundraising efforts, organized drives for much-needed supplies and planned educational opportunities on campus in a push to provide relief.

“Part of the real catastrophe here is the incredible poverty and inequality,” said Matthew Gutmann, vice president for international affairs and a co-leader of the committee with Professor of Africana Studies Barrymore Bogues. “What the president has asked us to do is to coordinate our efforts both long-term and short-term.”

To manage the relief efforts, the committee created four working groups — a group charged with organizing fundraising efforts, a communications group that will develop a Web site, a group to address medical and health issues and a scholarly task force to provide educational opportunities.

The committee has already set up various Web sites to offer information to people looking for ways they can help. In addition, four members of the medical school traveled to Haiti earlier this week to provide first-hand medical care, Gutmann said.

“There’s a lot of people who want to help out, and we want to make sure we’re doing what’s best for Haiti,” he said after the committee’s second meeting, during which the working groups reported on their first week of discussions. “Everything is really up and running.”

Showing support
In addition to providing avenues for coordinated relief efforts, Brown has also reached out to those who have been directly affected by the disaster, including Haitian students and other members of the community.

“We’ve been in touch with all the students we know of,” Gutmann said. “Everybody seems to be OK, but at the same time, there are people who have family that have been killed.”
Gutmann said student groups have also approached the committee searching for ways to raise money and awareness.

“Students here have been incredibly active in terms of coordinating efforts on campus,” Gutmann said. “Students have got to be at the heart of all this.”

Many student groups are already involved in the relief efforts, with plans to host concerts, clothing drives, open-mic events and teach-ins across campus. One of the working groups is putting together a teach-in, a day-long academic event scheduled for Feb. 19, Gutmann said. A Facebook group, which sprung up immediately following the earthquake, had more than 1,200 members as of Tuesday. WBRU held a telethon Jan. 24 to raise money for Providence-Haiti Outreach.

Gutmann said his committee’s most important tasks are to keep Haiti “alive in people’s minds” once the sensational media coverage ebbs and to continue to improve communication with the nation.

Brown has also allocated a variety of resources to help the committee educate the community. Gutmann said the University is designating funding for future speakers and providing staff support for various lecture series to be held later in the semester. “We’re really trying to keep the expenses to an absolute minimum so all the money can go to Haiti itself,” he added. Though the committee has many ideas, no long-term plans will be finalized without input from intellectuals and political leaders in Haiti, Gutmann said.

Will Perez ’08 MD’13, who spent a year in Haiti before medical school and is now leading the medical working group along with Professor of Medicine Timothy Flanigan, said one of the things his group is trying to do is “harness the energy and activism on campus” to create long-term relationships between groups in the Brown community and Haiti. But Perez said it was important to provide support without creating a situation in which Haiti becomes more dependent on outside resources.

“We literally have a nation that is dependent on charitable aid,” he said. “There’s no sustainability.”

Perez has provided people with a list of small, on-the-ground organizations seeking funds. He said many of the bigger organizations such as the Red Cross are “getting paralyzed” by the sheer number of donations, leading to an inability to get money directly to people most in need.

“You can’t go into Haiti like you can any other country,” Perez said. “They have no infrastructure. People are doing the best they can.”

Perez said his direct connection to Haiti has led others to reach out to him, too.
Immediately after the disaster, Perez said he received an outpouring of support from other students — his e-mail inbox was flooded with notes from people asking if he was OK. But Perez said all the well-meaning messages were ultimately too painful, especially because four of his friends had died.

Like Perez, Max Clermont ’11, who is one of three undergraduate students involved with the crisis committee and whose parents are both from Haiti, has been directly affected by the disaster. As of Tuesday, Clermont said his family has not heard from his grandmother.
He already knows of family members who have been lost.

But Clermont said he is encouraged by the amount of support he has received from members of the community looking to help.

“This is obviously something that is very personal,” he said. “The outpouring of support from administrators, professors and students has been one of the greatest things.”

Honoring Haiti
The crisis has also galvanized already-established community interest in Haiti. There is an ongoing effort to digitize Haitian documents at the John Carter Brown Library, which also contains one of the world’s leading collections of Haitian artifacts, said Ted Widmer, director of the JCB. The digitized documents would be available to all residents of the island nation. Coincidentally, the library received a “very generous donation” earlier this year from a member of the library’s board to provide support for a year of digitization, he said, adding that a scanning machine necessary for the project arrived yesterday.

“We were already considering Haiti as an important priority in the years to come,” he said. “It’s all the more urgent that we do this because we’re all very concerned about the libraries in Haiti and their conditions.”

Brown has also reached out to Haitian scholars affected by the earthquake, Widmer said, adding that Patrick Tardieu, one of the leading senior librarians in Port-au-Prince, was invited to start a residency at the JCB beginning as early as next Monday so he could rebuild his collection of archives. In addition, former Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis is scheduled to give a lecture here on May 7.

“When the earthquake hit, I was in the position of knowing other people out there,” Widmer said. “Together, we need to make a global appeal to people who admire (Haiti’s) rich history.”

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