Tag Archives: grassroots organizations

Anniversary of a Bad Day

13 Jan


4293703325_3868444d23(Photo: Colin Crowley)

I’m having some renovations done to my house these days.

Walls and ceilings have been taken down, heating ducts rerouted, and old carpet pulled up. I’ve had to turn my office into a pantry, dining room and sitting room. There is rubble and dust everywhere, and while I know it’s ridiculous, I keep thinking about the Haiti earthquake as I step on pebble-sized chunks of plaster (or worse, once, a nail) and battle the endless dust.


Ridiculous because if it gives me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live in an environment where destruction has occurred , my circumstances are infinitely better than anything people had to deal with – and are still dealing with – after January 12, 2010.

Close to 60,000 homeless people woke up today to begin their seventh year in a tent in what is still a disaster zone. That alone is unbelievable in this day and age. Tens of thousands more live in utterly sub-standard housing, including the desert-scape of shacks outside of the Port au Prince called Canaan.

But everyone today woke up to a political situation that is distressingly same-old same-old. Hugely flawed elections continue to be the way a group of squabbling politicians divide up resources among themselves and their pals.

In eleven days, Haitians will go back to the polls, for the third time since August, to choose a new president. This final run-off is the last chapter in a sorry but repetitive tale of fraud, voter intimidation, and outside interference in the electoral process.

That horning in by outsiders has been taken care of by something the Core Group. Made up of representatives of some of Haiti’s biggest foreign assistance donors, it has, according to Prospere Charles of the 1804 Institute, “been pushing by all mean necessary to ensure the continuity of Haiti’s elections, no matter the flaws.”

So while the Provisional Electoral Council found that 47 per cent of the vote results it verified were questionable it is still going ahead with the January 24th vote with all the mechanisms of fraud in place. Despite their findings – and what many have simply observed – Council members seem to have been swayed by voices such as that of American ambassador Peter Mulrean, who said, “The world cannot wait for Haiti. There is no evidence of massive fraud in these elections.” After all, the country he represents put $30 million into making them happen.

What’s more, Mr. Charles summed up three big issues that neither aid nor history has resolved in Haiti. The first: “The abject failure of the international community to build and support effective public institutions after at least 30 years of unaccountable, astronomical spending and broken promises.” He also cited the complete inability of Haiti’s institutions to create a political system that is fair and free from local and foreign manipulations, as well the two-hundred year old “rift between the bourgeois elite and the mass poor in Haiti that is more pronounced than ever.”

To be honest, it is difficult to perceive much difference among or between Haiti’s presidential candidates. The whole ‘building back better’ theme failed to get through to them. They still couldn’t care less about making their nation better, or more about grasping power and money.

As I found while researching my newly published book, The Anatomy of Giving, there are many, many thousands of Haitians working hard to build a better nation, but they are being swamped by that “bourgeois elite”, the Core Group, and the deep trench of poverty in which most Haitians must try and survive.

My rubble will eventually be cleared away and my home rebuilt.

I wish I could say the same of Port-au-Prince, but that’s not on the cards – not while the same groups of unaccountable politicians continue to fight over their country’s resources and its future.

Meet Daniel Tillias

16 Apr



DSCF1057Daniel Tellias is a person I respect a lot. He  works with young people to counter gang violence and crime in his Port au Prince district, a special place called Cite Soleil.


Cite Soleil is special mostly for the wrong reasons. It is a slum where people with no money struggle to make a living; it houses many of the ill-paid factory workers who toil in Haiti’s garment industry; it’s right on the Bay of Gonâves so all of the trash from the upper parts of the city come flowing down into the St. George Canal from which it spills out onto the street and into people’s shacks; its neighbourhoods are divided by pointless, usually violent rivalry; and it is the go-to place for unscrupulous politicians for all stripes to buy gang support that makes them look like “Men of the People.”

But as Daniel says, it is also a place of resistance and struggle.

I first met Daniel two years ago, when I went to check out the organization he founded, the Community Centre for Peace Alternatives, or SAKALA, to use its Creole acronym. SAKALA had organized a soccer team, called Union, built a community centre, and established a community garden on a piece of landfill using old tires as planters.

This is what it looked like in 2012 ->6758004553_18fcc3c4a3








<- And this is what it looks like now.







Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with Daniel, who speaks fluent English, last month.

So, what has been happening in the past two years with SAKALA?

I would say that the last two years have been the most difficult because that is when the international community started to forget about Haiti. And a lot has changed for me because I have understood that it would never be the change we want to see, or the improvements we want to see, with the support of the international community. It has to be by Haitians and for Haitians.

I always use this motto that says ‘it’s not about them, it’s all about us.’ It’s us who let this country fall into this trap, into this condition, so it should be about us to have it rise again.

Why do you think the international support has been drying up?

Right after the earthquake, NGOs were mostly flirting with (local) organizations so that they can justify, I would say, money that they have received. Two years later, they don’t have this money anymore. Two years later, people don’t really see Haiti as a country that has been devastated by an earthquake. They just see Haiti as a failing state, so it goes back to Haitians to really make a difference.

You just got back from India, where you went as part of the masters program you are enrolled in with a U.S. organization called Future Generations. What did you get from that trip?

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and I’m very grateful, it’s that many countries that really made a difference in their lives, they did it through their own effort.

I’m glad that I know about this and that is why I am really trying to build on this seed, trying to find in Haiti things that are working so that people will remember, again, that it’s about them to make a difference. So I would say that yes, a lot has changed. We know that we can longer depend on the aid promise, or on the international community, so we have to find simple ways to make things happen.

Do you see that as a positive thing?

When you keep receiving you think there’s always going to be a way to get something from someone. Until one day you knock at one door and you have a negative response, you start questioning yourself and saying, ‘hmm, maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe I have to find alternatives.’ When someone can have a chance to really reflect on this, that’s when I think it starts. To me that’s really positive, but we need to find people channeling this positiveness toward great effort. Instead of having people say, ‘oh, we should go look for more in NGOs. Or different NGOs, from a different country.’ They should start thinking about how would we find a way to deal with this on our own.

What about peace building here?

This is a constant challenge because while we do this, government people, business people, do the exact opposite thing, trying to pay gangs, trying to pay for demonstrations in the street and it’s really like, you try to do this with all your strength, while these people are trying the negative way and people tend to try to easiest way.

Cite Soleil is a meeting place, a place that when it rises the whole country feels it should follow, because it is a place of resistance, a place of struggle.

(But) when you have control over the head guy, even if there’s a big mess in the country, you can tell the guy, you know what? I will take care of you. But please don’t have Cité Soleil  rise and mess up everything.

So they want to keep on manipulating the people here? If they have a meeting or demonstration, they want these people to show up and make this person look popular?


It’s like they are the extras in his personal movie?

Exactly. It’s really bad because when you try to work with the guys and explain to them that we are not the enemy, that you should be working together so that we can get schools, we can get jobs, and the (politician) says, ‘you know what? I have $50,000 for you, but I need 1000 guys in the street.’ It’s like you don’t tell someone not to get $50,000.

But there have been some good changes over the past two yeas as well, right?

I am very positive about our efforts, and the kids still come from everywhere in Cité Soleil. People really respect them, and value them. People see them as the future. People see them as ambassadors. And the soccer team has even moved now to second division league. People are very excited about that.

So people talk about that, and not just about Cité Soleil as the most violent neighborhood, or the most trash neighborhood or just gangsters. They talk about these talented kids playing with a lot of fair play and a lot of happiness, and taking school and education more seriously. To me that’s good but we need to build on this to get more from it.

You were also on CNN last year!

Yeah, that was good. Coming from CNN, that has always talked about Cité Soleil for the violence and everything, it was definitely positive.  And this inspired people here, as well, to know that people really value what we are doing here.

So what are these trees that I didn’t see the last time I was here?

Those are moringa trees. Mostly they dry the leaves and use them as a food supplement. More and more people come to us and ask if they can have a couple seedlings that they can plant at home. People from all of the neighborhoods come and harvest the leaves which are really good in soup. They can come anytime they want but I really encourage them to plant their own tree.

We’ve spoken before about how international aid tends to encourage people to focus on their needs, instead of their abilities, because that is what their funding is for, and therefore fosters this situation where there is a kind of pay-off in being in need instead of organizing for systemic change.

This is the kind of vicious circle I would like to see broken, so people can start thinking they have the potential to do a lot more than what they’ve been doing so far. And that’s why I am so happy with this garden. Our wish is that we can send an example to the whole country, teach people that this is happening in Cité Soleil so it can happen everywhere. So why don’t you start your own garden? Why don’t you start eating Haiti? Why don’t you start eating what you grow? And to me this is a revolution that will make a huge difference.




An Apple for the Teacher

4 Apr


Meet Rea Dol

Meet Rea Dol

Rea Dol is an educator and founder of SOPUDEP, the Society for the Provenance of Economic Development of Petion Ville. She runs a school in Morne Lazaire where children attend Grades 1 to 11, supported in large part by a Canadian named Ryan Sawatsky. Here is my Q and A with her, carried out on a Saturday morning last month at the mobile health for women clinic where she was volunteering.


How did you get into education?

My Mom, who had nine children, never had the chance when she was a little kid to go to school. So she went to literacy school and eventually became a teacher herself. And I was so happy to see my Mom working as a teacher, even though the pay was really small. When a program started to be a volunteer, I was inspired by my Mom.

When the literacy program started, I was a volunteer, in my classroom there were 35 children. It was difficult because I had the special program for adults.

So I know that in Haiti there are so many NGOs working with children. I sent a letter to them saying, ‘I have 35 children in my class. Could you make maybe just a quick visit to see how those kids could go to school?’ Most didn’t give me any answer. One of the big NGOs said, ‘go into your community, do a survey to see if you find more children.’”

(She did that, and found many more families who could not afford to send their children to school but Plan International, the organization that had suggested she do this in the first place, was not interested in helping.)

But I’m not discouraged because I wanted to do something for the kids. So I went to the mayor of Petion Ville, and one day I was surprised. I saw a car with police, and it was the mayor. He said, oh, you’re doing a good job. If you find a place, I will give you authorization to start a school.’” That how I founded SOPUDEP.

(The place Rea found was a house belonging to a Tonton Macoute named Lionel Wooley who fled Haiti after the fall of Duvalier regime. She started her school 14 years ago with over 300 students, and now has 837. She is also building a new school at in Delmas that is almost ready to open.)


There are lots of private schools in Haiti, charging as much as $500 a year. Why is yours different from other privately-run schools?

One difference is when the kids come to my school it is like a family. So it’s not only they come to learn. We try to give a good education and training for life to the kids. Any problems the children have, they can come to us, even if it is boyfriend problems.

The parents who can afford to pay for their children, pay $10 a month, but 40 percent of the parents can’t afford to pay, and their kids come to school anyway. For example, this February, if I could have enough from the parents to pay two teachers, I would be so happy. Anyway the kids come to school because I have a partner in Canada who helps me pay the teachers.

After they finish high school we also try to find a way — because most kids in Haiti, when they finish high school, if their parents don’t have any way to send them to university, they are just sitting there doing nothing. But at SOPUDEP, we try with the friends we have outside, to help them go to university.

Why is that needed ?

The reason that is important in Haiti is because most of the parents they are like people who have given up. They don’t think about what will happen to their kids. If you want to go to school, go to school. If you want to study, study. If you want to do something, that’s your choice. So they don’t really care about their kids. Because in Haiti, the misery is a big big challenge. So its part of the job of the teachers at SOPUDEP to try and talk to the kids, even if it just for 15 minutes.

Education in Haiti has different faces, not only the kids come to learn to read, but you must have other accompaniment for the children because they need that.

Do you have to train your teachers to do that?

 It’s a problem when the teachers sometimes don’t accept to do that. They follow the ministry curriculum, they don’t have time. (So) you inspire the teacher to do that.

How do you do that?

Not only the teachers, all the staff , I try to convince them: when you work with children you must be happy every day! The kids make you happy. You have to inspire people, not tell them you must do this, you must do that. You must follow me. No!

(Now some her students are organizing to do volunteer work. They asked her for some advice on how to collect money, and she suggested they start saving whatever money they could, and keep it at the school. Now different classes are competing to try to set up their own programs. “It’s really amazing!” she said. She also gets them to do volunteer work with her. )

We have to change the culture. Its not outside people who are going to make that change for us, even if they are volunteers, even if they have ideas for change, even if they have all the money in the world. Nothing will change if I don’t have any will to change my country. We must start here. That’s why I need the children to start here. That’s why I need the teachers to start here. I need everybody to start here.


We started very small, I didn’t even US$10 in SOPUDEP bank account. But I have ideas and will and all the determination to create something for young people, for women. So now people know.

Tell me a bit about the education system in Haiti. I know that only about 20 per cent of Haitian children go to public schools that do not charge fees, that many do not attend school at all and that there are many schools nick-named borlettes, or lotteries, because parents have no idea if their child will come out with an education or not.

The system of education we have in Haiti is a mess. We have to change it. There are many schools they call borlette, where someone sees all the kids who don’t go to school, they maybe have a room, so they put a bench and call it a school. The government is supposed to inspect this school, but it doesn’t.

What about rural schools?

 Very few teachers in the rural schools are accredited or have the education to be a teacher. And if they work for a public school, a government school, they can go three months, six or ten, without getting paid. That’s why if today I can come, I will, but tomorrow, if I have something else to do, I just leave.

What about President Martelly’s new National Fund for Education?

 That’s another mess. In SOPUDEP, for example, they take 45 children in each grade. If you have more, they take 45, they don’t care about the rest. So for the 45 students they pay US $90 per year. Just now, this year, they gave the money from last year. And the bank takes off a fee as well.

I think what the government should do is take 45 children, or 90 children, off the street, new students, and give the money for them. Right now it’s not a new group of children who go to school for free. The way they make the program is not good. They are supposed to build more public schools, more high schools, and pay the teachers, not the people who have private schools, who already make a lot of money.

So private schools also have the right to this $90?


How optimistic are you that things can change in Haiti?

It will take time. But I believe Haiti can change. It is our responsibility to make this change, not the NGOs.



Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug


The Haiti earthquake of 2010 has inspired rather a lot of books and articles describing  personal experiences of its extraordinarily destruction — or maybe it only appears that way to me as I do my own research on the effects of development aid and philanthropy in a nation that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next without much, if any, signs of progress.

Now author and activist Beverly Bell has added her voice to those of writers like Paul Farmer, Amy Wilentz, and Jonathan Katz with Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

But it would be a mistake to think she is simply giving us another version of the same horrific scenes and tragic stories of injury and loss.

There are verbal pictures of sidewalks replaced by “ground concrete that looked as if it had been through a blender, and rebar bent like bread-wrapper twist ties,” and anecdotes of people finally making it home only to find that their entire family was dead.  What makes Fault Lines unique is that it is the only book I have come across which grounds the earthquake and its aftermath in the points of view of people who have been largely missing from the rest, those of Haiti’s many, usually ignored, grassroots social movements.

It is thanks to Bell that we learn, for example, of the relief project set up by the Association  for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of Port au Prince to provide daily meals to people who had lost everything in the earthquake. With some international support money, APROSIFA contacted 60 neighbourhood street vendors and paid them to purchase food from Haitian farmers and cook meals for ten to fifteen specific homeless families. Officially, the project provided food for approximately 4800 people every day. In fact, that number was far higher, she writes, “because when the women finished serving those they were responsible for, they kept dishing out food to hungry folks who dropped by until their pots were empty.”

In Belair, another extremely poor part of the Haitian capital, an organization with a long history in the neighbourhood called Solidarite Ant Jen (Solidarity Among Youth) took over a damaged kindergarten and began offering shelter and meals to four hundred displaced, along with medical and psychological care.

And in the country’s Central Plateau, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay provided lodging, meals and clothing to several dozen of the estimated 600,000 earthquake victims that fled the damaged capital and thus received no international disaster aid at all. The movement took up a collection to help peasant families inundated by the sudden return of traumatized relatives and even slaughtered two cows so they could bring food to patients at the Partners in Health hospital in nearby Mirebalais.

It is not that international participation was entirely absent from these projects. In Belair, water was delivered by a Canadian non-profit and some funding came from a German company. But unlike the vast majority of well-meaning emergency aid efforts – often surrounded by foreign soldiers and in some cases throwing sacks of rice out of helicopters “as if we were dogs,” as many complain to Bell — these alternative programs were set up and directed by Haitians. In these few salient cases, our good intentions met their terms,  their requirements.

The difference is summed up by APROSIFA’s Rose Anne Auguste when she points out that local organizations like hers “have our own vision of reconstruction for our country. We have a philosophy that corresponds to our reality, not the reality of the international community. What we want is for the international community, the foundations and agencies, to hear our philosophy and our dream for our people, our country.”

But that indigenous vision was rarely taken into account as hundreds of international agencies, large and small, scrambled to deal with symptoms — the medical emergencies and the lack of housing, food and water. It was also largely ignored during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase as well. As the tide of cash that flowed into Haiti in the early months of 2010 receded again, what has been left littering the shore are hundreds of examples of foreign plans and initiatives that fail to meet the needs of Haiti’s vast majority of poor.

“Corporations with little or no knowledge  of Haiti,” Bell writes, “were brought in as volunteers to plan, kick off and even staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the actor with the single greatest operational influence over shaping the reconstruction model after the quake.”

Talk about Haiti with most people and they will inevitably ask what happened to all the money that was pledged and donated by governments, international lending institutions and regular folk like them. The short answer is: we just don’t know. A lot went back to donor governments, with the United States, for example, using half of its $1.3 billion relief funding to pay itself for its emergency efforts and security.

Of the just over $6 billion in financial aid from global donors, including Canada, almost 90 percent went to non-Haitian organizations. Less than ten percent — $580 million –went to the Haitian government, and less than  one percent — $36 million — to local Haitian NGOs and businesses. As a Canadian International Agency press release announcing an initial grant of $150 million put it, every dollar would go “to facilitate rapid action by trusted and experienced humanitarian agencies.”

But how those agencies spent, and on what, is considered proprietary information. While some of it may have been helpful, “the lack of transparency,” writes Bell, “has also empowered opportunists to disregard standards, quality and honesty.”

The justification used by the majority of big donors, many of which have been working in Haiti for decades, is that local institutions and government lack “absorptive capacity,”  the ability to use the money properly. Yet as Solidarity among Youth volunteer and psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois tells Bell, “what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the thirty-five seconds of the earthquake is finding themselves, from one day to the next, standing with bowls in their hands and waiting for someone to give them a sheet so they can sleep. This dependence is terrible for people’s identity. People need to know we can count on ourselves. We have the capacity.”

As Fault Lines so clearly shows, the 2010 earthquake response only mirrors the inadequacies of decades of top-down development aid, with impoverished Haitians obliged to take whatever they can get rather than designing and implementing their own ideas for social and economic progress, supported by our collective solidarity. Well-intentioned as many non-profits may be, what they cannot do, says Bell is “alter the structural nonaccountability between  their employer, the government of their host country, and the people with whom they work. The agencies’ foreign funding, largely foreign staff and political relationship with Haiti dictate much about their effects in Haiti.”

More heartening news however can be seen in the continued combative response of dozens of organizations, which may have lost their offices, their only computer and even their own members in those fateful thirty-five seconds of devastation. Fault Lines describes how they have demonstrated against donations of Monsanto seeds, and for proper housing. They have forced the courts to bring criminal cases against men who raped girls and women in the IDP camps. Their relentless campaigning may seem modest, even puny, compared to big, publicity-grabbing schemes like five-star hotels and the Caracol Industrial Park, like a shout in a hurricane. But they are the best hope there is for solutions to the vast inequality that lies at the intersection of Haiti’s social and economic tectonic plates.

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

(A slightly longer version of this review came out today in Rabble.ca)

Media Awards — With a Difference

18 May

Journalists Protest against rising violence during march in Mexico CityWhat do a documentary film called The Bengali Detective, a 20-something Somali-born model and Indonesian artesanal tin miners have in common?


They were all featured in one way or another at what was for me an unusual awards ceremony in London earlier this month, a combination of top-end cocktail party and thought-provoking look at a few of the multitude of fascinating stories from the developing world British viewers are offered on a regular basis by their national media. The annual event is put on by One World Media, a non-profit that promotes and supports media coverage of, to put it broadly, developing world issues.


The Bengali Detective, from Native Voice films, is about a team of detectives, actually, who investigate crimes in Kolkata, and attempt to win a talent show with their Bollywood dancing. The model, Samira Hashi, took part in a documentary made by BBC Current Affairs, visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, from which her parents fled when she was a baby. And the tin miners were the subject of the winner of One World’s Press category, an article called Death Metal by The Guardian’s Kate Hodal.

Inside Voladora Radio

For me, personally, the work of both nominees and winners, from journalism students to field-seasoned documentary producers, brought a mixture of admiration (for the dozens of examples of excellent reporting), jealousy (as I couldn’t help recall the many times my article ideas here were met with the ever irritating ‘but-what’s-the-Canadian-angle?’ response), curiosity (to know more about the many fascinating stories to which we in the audience were briefly introduced) and a recognition of the way our nations and cultures the world over are woven together in a vast web of strange, comic, tragic and compelling situations.

That we can only scratch the surface of these worlds through such stories about them is frustrating yet challenging. There is so much going on, so many characters — from Josephat Torner, an albino man in Tanzania who tries to counter the terrible superstitions that have lead to the murders of people with albinism, to former Afghan member of parliament Azita Rahfat, who decides dress one of her four daughters as a boy to gain social respect — and so many struggles in the world around us. Why would we not want to know about these things?

Yet in a recent podcast put out by the Center for Global Development in Washington, Nicolas Kristoff said he was “deeply concerned about the collapse in coverage of global news,” particularly in television.

“Your average news consumer is much less exposed to international stories, and those that they are exposed to are particular, segment stories,” he says. “It tends not to be development stories and I think this is going to be a real blind spot in the US and also, to some degree, globally.”

The contradiction here of course is that we are better able to access global stories and news more easily than ever. We are more avid than ever for information that should help us make better decisions socially and politically. Average people are more aware than ever that we live in an inter-connected world.

Yet national media are more convinced than ever, it sometimes seems to me, that domestic audiences are turned off by anything that is not local and trivial. It is easier to inform ourselves about the Kardashians than Kazakhstan, Kolkata or Cairo. We are encouraged to skim and peruse, to flip through pages, keep our brains on stand-by mode, rather than glue our attention to stories that are factual, compelling and meaningful.

One World Media and its annual awards go a long way to countering the inanity, just as their fellowships and student programs help younger journalists to both learn about and take on reporting in the developing world.

Like the super educated scientists who must spend their days working for Big Pharma searching for weight-loss remedies instead of a cure for malaria, I am sure that most smart journalists would rather be chasing unique and amazing real stories than providing free publicity to people who don’t need it. I have always believed that the whole point of being a journalist is to discover and write about the interesting aspects of reality, to be lucky enough to find curious stories that reveal more than first thought — like my article from Mexico about obligatory literature classes for beat officers to try to combat police corruption — and to give a voice, as many of the winners’ speeches noted, to the voiceless. It should be about explaining the world and shedding a light on its injustices as much as informing the public.

This is not the first time, I know, that I have written about this. But as can be seen in my earlier post ‘From Underdogs to Watchdogs,’ a short article about Ayiti Kale Je, or Haiti Grassroots Watch, what One World Media also suggests is that independent, investigative journalism can also, in its own words, “contribute to international development worldwide.”

In a world where ignorance is a tool in the hands of governments, big corporations and the global elite in general, independent information is one of the few arms with which people can fight back. So there is a thread here that is not hard to follow. What we write and what we read, what we film and what we watch, all matter. How we support independent media in nations wracked with poverty, inequality and corrupt governments matters even more.

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

SPI Demonstrators on September 24

Designing It for Themselves

18 Apr
Playground Designed by the Kids Themselves -- including their own idea for a roof-like garden, the Sky-o-Swale.

Playground Designed by the Kids Themselves — including their own idea for a roof-like garden, the Sky-o-Swale.

In the late 1980s, the Mumbai-based Indian Alliance, a grassroots social movement of the urban poor, began talking with the members of Mahila Milan, or Women Together, about housing solutions. Several hundred families were going to be evicted from the sidewalk huts in which had been living, in some cases, for decades. Eventually, the women came up with their own design for the kind of apartments that would suit their and their families’ needs. They were taller than municipal apartment units, with a loft for sleeping, wider corridors and toilets at each end instead of inside the apartment itself. And those features all responded to the realities in which the poor of urban India lived, with frequent power outs and lack of running water, among other things.

In 2008, in the Toronto suburb of Kingston-Galloway, some young designers at a firm called ArchiTEXT became involved with the local community in a design initiative that would also incorporate a poverty reduction strategy. The project included working with about 50 people, mostly youth and even children, in coming up with a design that would transform an old police station to a community centre. Over a year and half, anyone interested in participating in the project could learn about everything from design processes (using a free Google version of Autocad) to green building mechanics to building codes through weekly three-hour sessions.

The result, inaugurated in 2010, is called The Storefront, and with its Eco-Food Hub kitchen, community garden, solar panels and multi-tasking resource centres, it’s pretty amazing. Various foundations and government bodies kicked in the money for it, but it is clearly a project that was directed by a community in need — many of the area residents are new Canadians from nations as diverse as Somalia, Jamaica and India — rather than any authority or developer.

Last week, I had a coffee with Zahra Ebrahim, the founder of ArchiTEXT, a social purpose business that is all about creativity, innovation, community and not fitting in with anything else. “Making social change happen is our new thing,” she said. “We’re calling it funding the misfits, everything from the policy level to the community design level to the financing. It’s really emergent because this is Canada and we don’t think of ourselves as needing to look at poverty in the same way.”

At the same time, traditional non-profits and charities are hampered in the way they work with poor communities. “The things that are frustrating for me is that social problems are generative, they’re root problems, yet not-for-profits get money and if they don’t deliver that outcome they don’t get funding, or if they deliver that outcome more efficiently than they planned, they lose the money.” Instead, she said, we need to be concentrating on finding alternative metrics.

Talking about the 80-unit apartment buildings designed by slum dwellers in Mumbai and also financed by a hodgepodge of different non-profits and other agencies, she picked up on something both groups had in common. Like the women of Nagpada, Kingston-Galloway was organized, had built what Ms. Ebrahim calls “social infrastructure. It’s based on a community that was like this ,” she said, joining fingers — “ten years before we came in.” So when they arrived with tools and learning, this community was ready. “I don’t do anything,” she says.

Now the Community Design Initiative group is looking for ways to help people running small businesses from their apartment towers use space in the community centre instead. They want to attach another wing and a second floor, and is the subject of a national case study.

Sure, Kingston-Galloway is not a developing world slum. But like many urban enclaves in North America, it is a place often described as “troubled,” where people live with little money and narrow horizons; the solutions to their everyday problems are usually delivered from on high, are pretty stingy, and don’t really change anything. Because of their collective experience and ability to take charge, this corner of Scarborough at least represents something different for the thousands of people who live there. “It’s making everyone not go ‘oh my god, I can’t wait to get out of Kingston-Galloway,’” she says. “It’s ‘I love Kingston-Galloway.’”

Readers can check out what’s going on at The Storefront at its website, and the cool stuff ArchiTEXT is doing here — and of course , the story of the Mumbai slum dwellers, and other social movements, is told in my book ‘Broke But Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and Their Radical Solutions to Poverty.’

More Idle No More and the Two Row Wampum

1 Feb
The Two Row Wampum

The Two Row Wampum

Earlier this week, I went to an event organized by Idle No More at our city hall as part of an international day of action to press their demands now that parliament is back in session. It seemed like a good opportunity to listen to what some of the movement’s participants had to say.

The first person I spoke with wasn’t even supposed to be there, she told me. A teacher at a Six Nations Reserve school – and officially an employee of the federal government — she had been obliged to sign a new “code of ethics,”  she told me, “or we’d lose our jobs. And it had in there no protesting.” That’s why she couldn’t tell me her name she added.  “We can’t talk about it. We can’t talk to our kids about Idle No More when it has everything to do with their future.”

But she was also the first person who spoke to me about the Two Row Wampum. This is a belt with two rows of purple beads and three rows of white, which codified the relationship, first for Iroquois but later for other native groups as well, set up between them and European colonizers in the 17th century.

The purple rows represent two boats, the native canoe and the European ship, sailing the same waters on their own independent trajectories. “The two lines are never supposed to touch each other or intersect,” she said, meaning neither could pass laws that would interfere in the steering of their craft.

Whether Canadian governments of the past have respected the intent of such an agreement is certainly open to argument but now, with the Conservative government and their omnibus bills, that policy of non-interference or imposition of dependency has certainly gone by the wayside.

Rather, said one speaker, “We are being run off a cliff by people who don’t know what they are doing.”

But what kind of movement is this exactly? This is a question I am still trying to answer. I got much closer after speaking to a young man named Earl Lambert.

INM’s goals is not so much to devise native-led solutions to endemic native poverty in Canada, he said, but “to bring awareness of specific issues that are being ignored by our provincial and federal governments, and poverty is one of them.

So we want to raise awareness around those issues, but we don’t want to stray from the core unifying theme of Idle No More, which is to stand up for our land, our territories, and our right to make decisions about our environment.”

Different communities have different agendas and priorities, especially if one has resources an another does not. “You’re going to have  two different outlooks on how they want to be dealt with on a nation to nation basis by the fed government,” said Mr. Lambert, “ but it’s not something you can put a band aid on and say, ‘okay, everything’s fixed now.’ I think it’s  something that has to be individually addressed, from province to province, region to region or nation to nation.”

So what is next for this movement? “This is just another seed being planted today,” said Mr. Lambert. “This is my 13th rally, so I see the seed being nurtured, and what we want to see is different nationalities come together, so people understand that this is about our children. It’s about our future. It’s about protecting our environment. It’s not just an Indian thing; it’s something that affects all of us.”

“Hopefully, he added, more and more people “will come on board and  say, ‘Right  on. Thanks for taking a stand, for not being afraid to get out there and speak up.”