After last month’s earthquake in Haiti, students at Mission High School took to the halls, hawking slices of pizza to raise money for the victims. To them, Haiti was more than just “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”
They knew the contours of Haiti’s history, that it was the world’s first Black republic, and the first country in the West to abolish slavery.
Knowing Haiti will not raise their scores on standardized tests since the country of nearly 10 million is largely ignored in the state’s education curriculum. But it does mean the students absorbed the 7.0 earthquake and its aftermath with more texture and knowledge than most Americans. And unlike many, their interest in Haiti has endured beyond the initial weeks of the January 12 disaster.
Robert Roth, head of the social studies department at Mission High and one of the teachers responsible for incorporating Haiti’s history, said he is proud to see his students thinking of Haitians as “strong, as like themselves.”
“They’re able to filter the media and think in a critical way,” he said.
Amber Brummell, a sophomore, proved his point. “The media,” she said, ” just concentrated on people looting [in Haiti]. But they were just trying to survive.”
Education, in a sense, has worked — providing context for students to take in last month’s disaster. They have responded, rallying in support of the stricken country. In the last two weeks, they’ve raised more than $500 selling pizza to send to a Haitian K-12 school named Sopudep on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, a school established by grassroots activists to serve some of the poorest families around the capital.
“We were hyping it to students, yelling in the hallways,” Brummell said proudly of the fundraiser. “We want to let them know we’re there for them.”
The students credit Roth and Aimee Riechel, another social studies teacher, for their knowledge. Both have made it their mission to integrate Haiti’s history into their curriculum.
“The Haitian revolution is an extension of the American and French revolutions,” said Roth, with typical quiet intensity. “Not just populist and anti-colonialist, but anti-slavery. It’s significant history for that reason.”
Clean-shaven with a cropped fuzz of grey hair, and now in his 22nd year in the district, Roth has been an activist since the late 1960s. He began teaching students about Haiti after his first visit to the country in 2000. Since then he has returned several times and co-founded two organizations dedicated to raising awareness and bringing financial support to Haiti.
Seated in Ms. Riechel’s world history classroom, across the bright, yellow hall from where Roth teaches U.S History, Brummell called Haitians “pioneers.”
“So many slaves and others used [Haiti’s] momentum to free themselves,” she said. The flags of the United Farm Workers and African Pride hang prominently on the wall to her right.
“Why isn’t it in the textbook?” asked her classmate Mabel Sisk.
People of color are too often subordinate, the two commiserated, not the architects and protagonists in the telling of world history.
“The textbooks don’t empower students in San Francisco,” said Riechel, 30, who teaches world history “with an ethnic studies lens.” Most of her class is African-American or Latino, a fairly representative cross-section of the Mission District.
Riechel integrated Haitian history into her classroom for the first time this year after speaking with Roth and learning how Haiti’s revolution more fully embodied the values set forth by Americans in their struggle for independence.
“You have to challenge the assumptions and how history is written, that’s part of my job,” Riechel added.
Many of those assumptions have surfaced during the ongoing relief effort with accusations of waste and mismanagement of past foreign aid. Before the school year, most students only knew Haiti from depictions in popular culture – drugs, violence and demonized visions of Voodoo.
Pierre Labossiere, who arrived from Haiti as a teenager 30 years ago, and spoke with Riechel’s class earlier in the school year, had a few historical clarifications.
Twenty years after gaining independence in 1804, he told students, Haiti was again threatened by France, and forced to pay more than $20 billion (in today’s money) to be recognized as a country. France justified the payment as an indemnity for profits lost from the slave trade. That debt was not fully paid until 1947, effectively continuing the colonial relationship and severely hindering Haiti’s ability to invest in its infrastructure.
Nearly 20 years ago, after the first military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Labossiere, who now works as an agricultural inspector, co-founded the Haiti Action Committee with Roth to raise public awareness of Haiti’s challenges including everything from imposed debt to foreign-backed coups.
The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, another organization both he and Labossiere helped found, has raised tens of thousands of dollars through grassroots fund raising and community events since the earthquake hit. They send the money to aid groups already established in the country.
“I found the students to be phenomenally aware,” said Labossiere. “A beautiful job from the teachers to educate them about the power relationships of the world.”
Little of it, however, came from their textbook. Modern World History briefly pauses to praise the slaves in Haiti and Barbados for their “back-breaking work,” without which these colonies “may not have survived.” The slave revolt of Saint-Domingue (the colony that is now Haiti) is mentioned in passing – after a bit of fighting, “Napoleon decided to cut his losses.”
And that’s it.
Back in the classroom, 10th grader Shavon Alexander still has some qualms about the money being poured into Haiti by our own government and NGOs based here.
“It’s ok, but what about us? I was living in a shelter with my mom a few years ago. Why [isn’t the government] helping us? But I still worked my butt off selling those pizzas. And I donated a dollar.”
Roth sees an opportunity in insuring that Haiti doesn’t disappear for his students.
“Haiti has been smashed into our consciousness now but it is already fading away,” he said of the experience of most Americans.
Not at Mission. Roth and Riechel will continue covering the Haitian revolution.
In the meantime, the students and teachers are planning more fundraising. The school’s video class aired a feature on Sopudep during the weekly TV announcements. And Mission’s Black Student Union intends to adopt the Haitian school and begin a pen-pal program.
“There is so much happening at the school now [in support of Haiti],” said Roth, “stuff I don’t know about. The students have taken it and run with it.”