Office of Global Citizenship

In 2005, Sewanee’s engagement with Haiti began with a relatively modest but important mission trips led by Dixon Myers. The early outreach trips took Sewanee students to Haiti to help provide medical and dental care. While students, faculty, and staff continue to participate in spring break outreach trips to Haiti, programming has expanded so that Sewanee now operates the “Sewanee Haiti Institute.” As the name implies, the Institute fosters ongoing work in Haiti from a number of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. In recent years, Professors Deborah McGrath from the Department of Biology, Alyssa Summers from Pre-Health, Paige Schneider from Politics, and Pradip Malde from Art, Art History, and Visual Culture along with staff from the Office of Civic Engagement and the University Farm have traveled to Haiti to take part in the multi-stranded programming.

Over the years, Sewanee has developed a number of programs and lasting partnerships with the Centre Formation Fritz Lafontant (CFFL), Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health), and Zanmi Agrikol (Partners in Agriculture, a branch of Partners in Health). Sewanee’s work with Zanmi Agrikol fosters sustainable development practices in villages around Mirabalais, located in the Central Plateau province of Haiti. In particular, Zanmi Kafe promotes rural development with coffee production in Bois Jolie. Sewanee’s work with Zanmi Agrikol also promotes community development through community-based photographic projects. The combination of Sewanee’s collaboration with local Haitian farmers and organizations promotes a holistic form of development.

The Haiti Institute provides Sewanee students with annual opportunities for deeply rewarding internships and research. Sewanee sends approximately six College students to engage in work related to development, including research of shade-coffee agroforestry systems and organizing information sharing workshops for local farmers. The School of Theology has also sent one student for the last two summers to assist local religious and educational institutions.

The Sewanee Haiti Institute has a central focus on the development of agriculture, and the Zanmi Kafe program, which started in 2013, monitors over forty-five farms in Bois Jolie to develop evidence-based approaches to agriculture. The Zanmi Kafe program helps farmers to adopt more ecologically and economically resilient agroecosystems. Haitian and Sewanee students jointly monitor coffee and shade tree survival, growth and health. These surveys help them to know what types of trees work best for farmers and the environmental constraints faced by local farmers. The Haiti Institute attempts to fully partner with local organizations and farmers so that they are managed and directed by Haitians. For participating students such as Christopher Hornsby, C ‘19 the work with Zanmi Kafe helped to close the gap between theoretical discussions in the classroom and real challenges of promoting development on the ground. “Without having seen the difficulties in applying certain ideas, I could not have a proper appreciation for development work and the obstacles that come hand in hand. Therefore, I could not give a stronger recommendation to students considering ANY field of study, as an experience like the one offered in Haiti will push anyone to challenge and reflect upon their understanding of the world and the way people live and work.” One of the early assistants in the Zanmi Kafe project was Keri Bryan Watson, who went on to complete a PhD in Ecosystem Services and returned to Sewanee in the Fall 2017 to serve as visiting associate professor of Earth and Environmental Systems.

The Zanmi Foto program is a fully developed photography program that captures images of the Haitian farmers and agriculture in order to support and promote community development. Duncan Pearce, a recent Sewanee graduate who worked with Zanmi Kafe for four years, describes his observations of the Zanmi Foto project. “Working with Zanmi Kafe’s sister project, Zanmi Foto, led by Pradip Malde, taught me more about the positive effects that photography can have on communities than I could have imagined. Photography allows communities the ability to document their lives over time in a way that can instill a sense of togetherness among individuals in a particular place. The tangible nature of a photograph serves as a physical reminder of the experiences had by different people, thereby preserving the unique stories of a given community.”

While the Sewanee Haiti Institute is promoting development in Haiti, it also encourages personal growth among the student participants. According to Duncan Pearce, another recent graduate who worked with Zanmi Kafe during his entire four years at Sewanee “Working in Haiti has cultivated in me a greater sense of self-confidence, particularly concerning my ability to work as an effective leader under stressful conditions. Haiti was the catalyst that awoke in me a sense of self-confidence in my leadership abilities and problem-solving skills that are so necessary for a successful physician.” Work in Haiti can also prove humbling. Again, Duncan Pearce notes, “Haiti turned my attention away from my own personal and often trivial concerns and towards more significant external problems such as the relationship between poverty and public health in developing countries. As I begin medical school, I hope to combine what I learned in Haiti with a medical education to effectively combat morbidity and mortality throughout the developing world.”

The Sewanee Haiti Institute embodies much of what the Office of Global Citizenship aspires to promote. The Institute’s programs help students to understand global problems in a particular context and trains students to respond to those problems in locally sensitive ways. As the student participants note, their experiences are preparing them for a lifetime of service and global citizenship.