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Building democracy through education: The story of Haiti's grassroots school SOPUDEP

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Guest post by Ryan Sawatzky. 

Jean-Claude Duvalier fled into exile in 1986 and it marked a very special time in Haiti's history. It was a beginning of bidding farewell to tyrannical dictatorships. It set the stage for democratic governance, though another four, difficult years of struggle still lay ahead.

In 1990 the people voted in their first truly democratic election in generations. The fact is, a mass swelling of popular democracy had been growing prior to Duvalier's ousting, but now the grassroots movement had a way forward without direct threat from the country’s leaders. Jean-Bertrand Aristide would turn out to be the only president in Haiti's short, 23 years of modern democracy to have the poor majority’s interests at heart and create tangible results.

President Aristide was not an anomaly, but part of a broad movement that grew out of Haiti's grassroots seeking true democracy and dignity for the poor. Among the social programs that were high on the population’s bucket list, education would be paramount and it would be one of the platforms upon which all other successes of the Haitian people would be built. Unfortunately, President Aristide would be overthrown a short time after his first inauguration and Haiti would be placed under military rule for close to three, very long years. 

Following his second election to the presidency in 2000, Aristide urged the grassroots to mobilize in support of his plan to bolster literacy and education in the country. With little support from international aid agencies, his government brought public education to Haitian citizens unlike anything previously seen in Haiti's two hundred years since independence. His government built 195 new primary school and 104 secondary schools. Prior to this, there were only 34 secondary schools nation-wide. School enrollment rose to 77% and adult literacy rates went from 35% to 55%.

The government also founded the country’s largest medical school, with the cooperation and assistance of Cuba.

All this ended abruptly in February 2004 after another coup d'état dislodged President Aristide from the presidency and his popular Lavalas party from the parliament and local government. He had one year remaining in his electoral mandate.


In the mid 1990's, under President René Préval's benign governance, the Port-au-Prince based grassroots organization SOPUDEP (Society of Providence United for the Economic Development of Pétion-Ville) was providing a forum for neighborhood leaders and residents to discuss progressive, democratic ideas and plan ways to implement broader social change. Following the call to action from President Aristide in 2000, SOPUDEP would shift gears and move into providing tangible social programming by creating a government-sponsored literacy program. The program was designed for adults thirty years and older and proved to be hugely popular in a very short time. It expanded from a one-room class to over twenty-seven classes throughout the community. Soon, students began bringing their children and grandchildren to classes as well. However, the task of teaching adults and children in the same class became intrinsically difficult for SOPUDEP’s educators. For SOPUDEP co-founder and director Rea Dol, it became a paramount task to find a suitable spot to educate these children whose families could not afford to be part of Haiti's predominantly tuition-based school system.

After compiling surveys and reports of the need for a school in their area of Morne Lazarre in Pétion-Ville (a district of Port au Prince), SOPUDEP appealed to NGO's working in the area to help to bring a school to fruition. It received resounding "no's." Undeterred, Rea Dol went to then-Pétion-Ville Mayor, Sully Guerrier. In 2001, Mayor Guerrier provided a ten-year lease on an old, burned-out and abandoned mansion. Its last owner was Lionol Wooley, an assassin in the Tonton Macoutes, the unrelenting and brutal secret police of the Duvalier tyranny. A torture room was even discovered under the former swimming pool during SOPUDEP's renovations. It was quickly sealed up!

This burned out mansion became the K-12 school, Institution mixte de SOPUDEP. The school opened its doors in 2002. Enrollment for the first year was 145 students. As of 2013, there are over 745 students in attendance and 48 teachers on staff. SOPUDEP also provides an afternoon class for street kids, vocational training, and a university scholarship program to better enable some graduates to become gainfully employed.

Local and international support

SOPUDEP's success is not solely based on the support it receives from friends abroad. But without this support it would not be as effective as it is. In 2008, the school was on the verge of closing its doors for lack of funds. Teachers hadn’t received pay for a number of months. But a renewed wave of support came in a seemingly divine twist of fate. The required funding was raised to keep the school in operation and a hot lunch program was added to feed the students and teachers. This successful effort was a testament to the dedication and sacrifice of SOPUDEP’s staff and of Director Rea Dol's drive, ingenuity and unwavering passion to help her people.

While the school is wildly popular with the neighborhood poor because of the accessibility and quality of education, it is equally unpopular with the economic elite of the area. Classism exists everywhere in the world, but it is so severe in Haiti that it can result in violence against the poor and complete disregard for their human condition. This school for the poor straddles higher-end neighborhoods on the one side and impoverished communities on the other. It is looked upon with contempt from the elite side, who view it as drawing in “undesirables” on a daily basis.

Rea Dol is not a stranger to politician’s threats, including one incident that involved armed guards coming into the school during operating hours, or shysters trying to lay claim to the school building. In 2008, a new mayor, Lydie Parent, tried with all her might to illegally evict SOPUDEP in order to sell off the building, even though there were two years remaining on the lease. Because of an outcry from international supporters, Mayor Parent was eventually forced to back down. And so it goes that some people would rather see the building sold off for a quick profit than to have it remain a haven of community pride and strength.

Plan for a new school premises

Having picked up long-term supporters internationally over the years and a growing insecurity about the vultures that would inevitably swoop in with their building lease expiring shortly, Rea Dol made the push to secure SOPUDEP’s future and purchase land for a new school.

With help from Seth Donnelly, a social studies teacher in the San Francisco Bay area, connections were made and money was secured to buy land for a new school in 2009. This land, located a little more than one mile down the hill from the current school, was cleared and the outer wall was erected with money collected from various funders. But the project would slow due to a drying up of donations and a hiccup in the school’s design. The latter would be later be corrected by former mayor Guerrier, an engineer by trade. He began working on a volunteer basis for SOPUDEP after he left office in 2004.

Another major reason for the delay was the 2010 earthquake. SOPUDEP, like many other institutions, confronted chaos and endless tragedy on January 12, 2010. Twenty-three students and two teachers died (outside school grounds—thankfully, school had ended for the day). Many of Rea’s students ended up living in camps down the hill. Rea joined the rescue efforts, securing rations to feed families that weren’t receiving help from the international aid agencies parked down the mountain, organizing search and rescue parties, and transforming the school into a shelter and makeshift hospital.

She took it upon herself to find shelter for each of her students and their families and try and get these children to come back to school as soon as possible. “It was important that the students come back and regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. It would help ease the trauma”, Rea explained.

By 2012, little progress had been made on the new property. SOPUDEP’s lease on the current building was expired and being renewed month to month.

Rea’s dream to help provide accessible education was now on a razor’s edge. As 2013 rang in and as feared, agents from the government started coming around the school, asking questions and giving a heightened sense of urgency to complete some classrooms at the new site.

To understand Rea’s stress is to understand the dismal situation of education in Haiti and that of most social programs. Education in Haiti is a constitutional right, but due to the lack of social infrastructure, going back to the 19th century when France and then the United States extorted so much of the young country’s financial resources, much of Haiti’s social programs have been left to throngs of missionaries showing up on the country’s shores. From this, Haiti has evolved into the “Republic of NGO’s,” and education is the privatized system we see today.

Because ninety percent of the population is chronically poor, tuition rates are well out of reach of the majority and only 54 percent of children will ever go to school for any length of time. It is easy to see why it is so important for grassroots organizations to try to provide some sort of accessible education to their community. It isn’t a perfect system and it’s only a temporary solution until public education can be bolstered, but it is what Haitians have right now.

As an international observer, it might be easy to view President Michel Martelly’s claimed education plan as a slam-dunk success. Even to some in Haiti, looking at the endless billboards touting the thousands of children in each community who have gone to school for free, the plan could be believable. But talk to the people it’s supposed to be helping and it’s a different story.

I spent some time with Rea last November. I started a foundation in 2008 specifically in support of SOPUDEP. Over time, I have become an advocate for Haiti’s grassroots organizations more broadly. After talking to Rea and other grassroots leaders and educators around Port-au-Prince, it seems that the claimed figures of the education program are fixed. Some claim they are an outright lie. The bottom line is that public education has not been assisted, not in the slightest!

And so this is the predicament Rea and other grassroots educators face: there is too little alternative to the high tuition fees that leave most students behind. Community educators must try to be the solution until sweeping political change in the country starts to happen, including creating a public education system. That means finding support within the community and abroad for education projects that truly benefit students and their parents and communities. Partnerships with the international community are what Rea nurtures, not just for SOPUDEP, but also for other grassroots organizations lacking support.

Thanks to SOPUDEP’s supporters, new and old, the first five classrooms of the new school were completed in March 2013. “We have something to work with now,” says Rea. “If we lose the old school tomorrow, we can continue on doing the work we do. We must celebrate this achievement!”

While government and corporate powers work out the grander issues, good work can be done supporting the poor majority and nurture their ability to create economic and social change for themselves. It was this very reason that I created The Sawatzky Family Foundation. I wanted to provide a link from our world to theirs to better bring support and advocacy for their own initiatives. We have worked with SOPUDEP for over five years. In that time we have seen huge impacts made on their community and beyond.

Dollar for dollar, what would be a fraction of the annual operating costs of a multinational NGO can create huge waves of social progress when given at a grassroots level because it is directly injected into the community.

Ryan Sawatzky is President of The Sawatzky Family Foundation, based in Orillia, Ontario. The Foundation receives vital support from school boards and teacher organizations in several provinces in Canada. Please visit http://www.sopudep.org for more information about SOPUDEP and how you can support it.

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