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Haiti After The Quake

Published: May 15, 2014

The January 2010 Haiti earthquake shook the island nation with a magnitude 7.0 jolt (the January 1994 Northridge quake hit a 6.7) costing the lives of at least 100,000 and challenging global rescue resources.

Political Science’s Mary Caputi, a member of the university since 1995, is an expert in post-colonial studies who was so shocked by the Haitian agony that she wrote an article on the need for social sensitivity by rescue organizations. As part of her research, Caputi glimpsed the future of disaster response that arrived in the guise of a “un-orphanage.”

Haiti was said to have as many as 500,000 orphans before the quake with the vast majority not true orphans but children given up by living parents because of extreme poverty. Enter the Apparent Project, an organization with boots on the ground years before the quake but ready to respond with fresh ideas.

The Apparent Project formed an artisans’ guild that uses discarded materials such as cereal and cracker boxes, oil drums and trash paper to create “upcycled” pieces of jewelry, journals and home decor.

“The goal is to help Haitian families to stay together,” said Caputi, who was recognized as Outstanding Professor in 2009-10. “Lagging adoptions, overcrowding and lack of accountability has made many orphanages less than adequate homes for children who often develop severe emotional problems such as reactive attachment disorder. This is why the artisan’s guild is seen as a ‘un-orphanage’ where ways are found for Haitians to be self-employed.”

Building relationships is why the organization is called the Apparent Project, she explained. “They are trying to help parents in poverty,” she said. “They seek to educate and care for street kids without parents present in their lives.”

In addition to caring for the quake victims, the un-orphanage offers parents training in such skills as basic literacy, computer skills or bookbinding. “Some skills can be marketed over the web. That way, they don’t have to depend on the Haitian economy. Jewelry-making is just one example,” she said.

Caputi’s research advice on the need for rescue organization’s cultural sensitivity is rooted in the un-orphanage’s sponsors including CAFO (Christian Alliance for Orphans) and Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). “For instance, some Haitian men believe they can sell a woman’s spirit on the marketplace,” she explained. “The sponsors oppose this belief. Some Haitian’s believe abusive relationships are OK because the man owns the woman’s body. They try to re-educate but it is a sensitive topic.”

Caputi sees the un-orphanage’s earthquake response as more sophisticated than putting splints on broken arms. It addresses the nation’s broken spirits.

“The Apparent Project is addressing problems in Haiti since the quake,” she said. “Poverty and child abandonment in Haiti are long-standing problems. What they have always tried to do is help problems endemic to Haiti and helping people to change their attitudes about gaining skills to become more self-sufficient. It is more sophisticated in its approach than remedying only the immediate problems. They address long-standing and deeper issues.”

Haiti After The Quake - Mary Caputi
Mary Caputi

Caputi argues that the un-orphanage represents an openness to alternatives in disaster response.
“They are willing to entertain other possibilities,” Caputi said of the Apparent Project. “Perhaps California has a lesson to learn from the Haitian un-orphanage. I’m not sure of any group that is training people the way the un-orphanage is. The vision of the un-orphanage is that they have not done enough if all they have offered is money and shelter.”

The un-orphanage’s example influences Caputi in the classroom. Her courses include Political Science 401 where her students perform 20 hours of community service partnered with a group outside the campus such as the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). “It is not an orphanage but it is trying to do many of the same things the un-orphanage is doing,” she said. “They want to educate and change the outlook of its clients, not just give money.”

Caputi is the author of A Kinder, Gentler America: The Myth of the 1950s and Voluptuous Yearnings: A Feminist Theory of the Obscene. She also is the author of Feminism and Power: the Need for Critical Theory (2013) and her co-edited volume Derrida and the Future of the Liberal Arts (2013) which she co-edited with Vincent Del-Casino, Jr., and to which she contributed an article. She received her B.A. from Cornell with a double major in political science and French literature. She went on to earn a master’s in International Relations from the University of Chicago before returning to Cornell for a Ph.D. in political science in 1988.

Projects like the un-orphanage will continue to speak to Caputi’s scholarship. “The U.S. and Europe’s homogeneous population base is changing and the questions I deal with in post-colonial studies are important because the new populations are the same people Western powers tried to colonize. I see post-colonial studies as being very pertinent to the present-day world. It has a bearing on the culture and politics and the economies of Western nations. It raises the question of how to maintain a cohesive national identity. Is that really something we need to hold onto?”

An earthquake strikes. Change happens. “Haiti’s un-orphanage has plenty to say about the inevitability of change,” she said. “One of the things done by the un-orphanage is meeting the needs of their clients as that need is happening. It meets the situation in front of it.”