From Violence to Dialogue: Dealing with Unrest at the Children’s Academy
… if you’re determined to go to the school, be ready, be courageous. Definitely, don’t go in the truck. Burning barricades have been built by people who are angry. They’re acting in solidarity with people around Port-Au-Prince … to lock down the country and restrict movement. Better to walk so that you can talk with them.
This was the warning from a school community member given to Children’s Academy School Coordinator, Alex Myril, as he made his way to the Children’s Academy at the height of the recent unrest. While harrowing in places, we feel this is a telling example of the change that’s been going on in the community of the Children’s Academy and Learning Center (CALC), where trust, dialogue and collaboration are replacing violence as the way to resolve conflict.
The widespread protests against government corruption, the high cost of living, and inequality in general began July 2018 and continued sporadically up to the present. The opposition party, which has helped to fuel mobilization against the government, refers to this movement as “peyi a lòk” which literally translates, the country’s locked down, meaning by the protestors, “We’re not going to allow movement. We’re not allowing people to circulate and to go about their lives. Businesses, government offices, schools must shut down. We’re in control.” The opposition has been demanding that the president step down and communicating that peyi a lòk will continue to happen for days or weeks at a time until he does. President Jovenel Moise seems committed to not stepping down.
February 4-8th was a particularly difficult week. Protests with roads blocked and burning tires were widespread and in many cases, there was gunfire, rocks being thrown and violence. By now, more than two dozen police had already lost their lives. Sunday, February 10th was the 2nd Sunday of the month which means it was the monthly open community meeting at CALC. Sometimes there’s a dozen to two dozen people, sometimes there’s 80 to 100. It just depends on what’s going on. People know it’s an opportunity to come together to talk about things. A modified version of Open Space is used so everyone present can contribute to creating the meeting’s agenda. People obviously were feeling the need to get out and to discuss what was going on at the February monthly community meeting on a Sunday at 3 pm had more than 150 participants. People discussed the situation of the country, the high cost of living, the corruption, lack of electricity and gasoline which results in not being able to get around because public transportation is limited. They also spoke out against the violence used in many of the protests and the destruction of private and government property. They talked about the need for change and how it starts with education. “CALC is an example of what the country needs to prepare our children to create a better future. This school serves as a light that inspires others. We can be an example.”
CALC is an example of what the country needs to prepare our children to create a better future. This school serves as a light that inspires others. We can be an example.
While members of the CALC leadership team and staff are both saddened by and concerned about Haiti’s juncture and not seeing a clear way out, they were greatly encouraged that so many parents and community members used the monthly community meeting at CALC to express, vent, and to encourage each other. Little did they know that Monday morning would bring a new set of challenges. Alex was on his way up the mountain with our 4-wheel drive packed full with six of our teachers and staff who commute from Port- Au- Prince along with some parents and students picked up en route. He was about two-thirds of the way to the school when a neighbor signaled to talk with him. Alex stopped and listened. “Alex, if you’re determined to go to the school, be ready, be courageous. Definitely, don’t go in the truck. Burning barricades have been built by people who are angry. They’re acting in solidarity with people around Port- Au- Prince and the country to lock down the country and restrict movement. Better to walk so that you can talk with them.”
Alex, and CALC staff members, parents and students got out of the car and started walking. They were determined to get to CALC and start the school day. They were still feeling a glow of encouragement by yesterday’s uplifting community meeting. Sure enough, about a third of a mile from where they parked and around a number of turns and curves that trace the side of a mountain they came upon roads blocked with rocks, felled trees, burning tires and angry men with machetes and rocks ready to attack. The exchanges were not friendly and CALC staff and parents were horrified that the children had to witness such behavior in their own community. One parent who questioned what they were doing and began using a stick to push away a burning tire was threatened to stop immediately and leave before he gets chopped up into pieces. Thanks to informed non-violent actions and wise communication by CALC staff, everyone was permitted to pass without harm and they proceeded to pass numerous barricades to get to CALC. Once there, they gathered everyone already at school and got messages to those on the way to avoid the main road but to come and join the meeting of staff, parents, and students. They sat in a circle as they always do and members of the leadership team facilitated, inviting people to propose things they needed to talk about. As is the custom, everyone who wanted to speak had the opportunity to do so. They just needed to be brief so that there was time for others to share. Coming together in an ambiance of mutual respect, where every voice matters, being able to share what’s on your heart creates calming conditions where we’re better able to think creatively and feel compassion. For those who have felt traumatized, time and space like this can begin the healing process.
“I couldn’t believe John and Albert [not their real names] threatened to cut me into pieces holding machetes over me,” exclaimed one parent.
“I couldn’t believe John and Albert [not their real names] threatened to cut me into pieces holding machetes over me,” exclaimed one parent. “God is good, God is good,” Mary praised, raising her hands in the air to honor God. Members of our community have lost family members in violent protests, feuds, and robberies, not to mention illness and/or curses. What complicates a time of political unrest is full knowledge that it’s these periods when bad outcomes are more likely: heart attacks and strokes, vendettas and acts of vengeance, and theft that can often turn violent. Times like this burden most people with much greater stress. Striving to carry on and adapt to an ever-changing environment and to not allow circumstances to overwhelm nor debilitate you becomes the daily preoccupation. While Haitians are known for being resilient and accustomed to enduring tremendous hardship, these last nine months have been unprecedented even for Haitians.
Sitting in a circle of parents, students and staff, one after another shared their reflections and experiences. Empathy for those who created the barricades began to emerge. “Why are they doing this? They were not at the beautiful community meeting we had yesterday. They’re struggling to find hope. They’re scared about the future. They’re angry about injustice. They want to be in solidarity with those in Port -Au- Prince who are locking down the country as their way of showing that they’re not going to take it anymore.” Students were present and some of the third and fourth graders spoke up in the discussion. Ultimately, a decision was made to not open the school until it was clear that people in the community were committed to opening CALC and to helping to ensure the safety of students, staff and other community members. It was determined that local parents would take the lead in organizing a meeting with the local protesters to listen to their concerns and to discuss how to proceed. The analysis was that the protesters were viewing CALC and its functioning as a violation of the lock down the country strategy. This would mean that efforts by CALC leadership team and the school committee to open the school or even try to convince protesters that the CALC should be opened would be counter-productive. Following this rationale, it was determined that the leadership team and school committee needed to step back and allow parents and other community members–people like the protesters–to take the lead in inviting dialogue so that altogether, they could determine a way forward.
People left the meeting and went their way feeling resolved that they talked it through, had a clear strategy and that they were making the right decision. It was their decision rather than a decision imposed on them. Some parents stayed and worked in the school gardens and did service hours. By the next day, the barricades were removed. In the days that followed people came and went to the school, parents doing work hours in the gardens, tended to school grounds of weeding and cleaning, students hung out, played, studied and worked but the school did not open. CALC was respecting peyi a lòk. Parent leaders stayed in close communication with members of the leadership team and leadership team stayed in close communication with members of the school committee.
It’s important to note that the political leader in opposition to the current president, who is helping to fuel the peyi a lòk movement, is anti-American. It’s estimated that losses in Port-Au- Prince and throughout Haiti due to destruction and looting by protesters since July 2018 are in the billions of dollars. During this time of tension in the CALC community, we were greatly concerned about the possibility of local protesters recruiting rebel-rousers from Port-Au-Prince to come to join them to do looting and destruction at CALC as part of their revolt against inequality and anti-American statement. By God’s grace and thanks to the wise handling of the situation, CALC had absolutely no damage and no theft.
The following Sunday parent leaders organized a meeting with protesters who were willing to come. They requested the presence of at least one member of the CALC leadership team. They also decided to hold the meeting at the church beside CALC’s property. It was a meeting of parents and community members, as opposed to a CALC meeting. They were very pleased that the majority of the protesters including those perceived to be leaders attended the meeting. There were those who were convinced that there would be violence in the meeting. On the contrary, there was respectful dialogue. The meeting was led by a parent who demonstrated great skill in creating conditions for people to feel respected and heard. People shared what was on their hearts. They found common ground in discussing their children’s futures and the importance of education. They resolved that CALC needed to reopen and those who had barricaded the roads with burning tires, rocks and felled trees would be part of the clean up in preparation for school to reopen. While these items had already been removed enough for vehicles to pass, remnants of them were still visible and a reminder of conflict. Those who had protested committed to being there at CALC the morning it opened to greet children and to show that they wanted to ensure their security.
CALC re-opened in the coming days just as was planned in the meeting at the neighboring church. All residue and remnants from barricades were gone and people who had been protesting joined with students, teachers and other parents in the daily open circle ceremony that includes prayer, readings, singing, and dancing. “It was beautifully meaningful,” said lead teacher Esther Remy.