About 30 Stanford students, administrators and staff gathered in the Black Community Services Center (BCSC) on Friday for the first Caribbean Student Association (CSA) Haiti Focus Group.
The Focus Group was a brainstorming session on how to best organize relief efforts within the Stanford community and Silicon Valley area, but also to provide support for students who were personally affected by the disaster. Many of the students present were Haitian or had family living in Haiti.
“I’m from Puerto Rico, and I’ve been seeing this image and thinking, ‘This could have been my island,’” said Gabriela Spencer ’11, who led the CSA event. “This is very relevant to Stanford students because it could have been the Bay Area–it’s hard for students to see that.”
Leaders from all corners of the Stanford campus, including representatives from FACE AIDS, Sigma Gamma Rho, the HAAS Center, administrators, the Stanford News Service and Stanford Libraries, also attended the event.
“CSA doesn’t have the answers,” Spencer said. “But we’re here to get ideas.”
Attendees gathered in a large circle and soon learned that many students had very personal connections to the disaster.
“I have family who are displaced,” said Faradia Pierre ’12, a first generation Haitian American. “Some of their homes are still standing, but they’re afraid to go in because they might collapse. Right now a lot of people are living outside of their homes on the street.”
The event concentrated on developing strategies to move forward. Attendees pitched ideas for raising funds and providing aid.
Some of the ideas included putting on a benefit concert with a recommended donation, setting up collection boxes similar to those used by UNICEF in student dorms, donating meals through the Stanford meal plan and finding companies in Silicon Valley to match Stanford donations.
“People need daily necessities right now,” Pierre said. “Everything about daily life is completely destroyed. Schools are destroyed; students are not going to school.”
Other ideas included an internship or abroad program specifically targeted to reconstruction in Haiti, a campus-wide collection of clothing, goods and baby supplies, creating a Haitian exhibit in Old Union and showing a Haitian documentary at Aquarius Theater in Palo Alto to raise awareness.
One theme of the event was to think beyond the fiscal resources at Stanford.
“It’s important to think about the capital at Stanford,” said Jan Barker-Alexander, director of BCSC. “But there is something else to think about in terms of what Stanford has to offer, which is intellectual capital.”
Alexander offered Harvard and MIT as examples of educational communities that have succeeded in bringing intellectual resources to previous disaster areas, particularly the involvement of their architecture and policy programs in New Orleans.
“We are the future–future policy makers and doctors,” Pierre said. “With our successes, we are benefitting other people in the end.”
Many branches from around the Stanford campus are launching their own projects in response to the crisis.
According to Sally Dickson, associate vice provost for student affairs, students at the Stanford Law School are collaborating on a Haitian immigration project.
Stanford alums have also mobilized to address the crisis. Luke Beckman ’09 and Josh Nesbit ’09, currently stationed in Haiti, have been working in the technology and strategic planning division of Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters (InSTEDD), an international, non-profit humanitarian organization, to facilitate the organization of aid and reconstruction on the ground.
As a national response liaison, Beckman has been coordinating efforts between the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Military, the Haitian government, mapping agencies, technology companies, the United Nations and other NGOs.
“My job is to support all of these different networks by keeping everyone in the loop,” he said.
Beckman’s team is currently working on creating a texting hotline, a “shortcut” for Haitians so they can report problems and communicate with a network of thousands of volunteers.
“We had a big win yesterday,” he said. “The top five Haitian officials didn’t have phones, and President Obama wanted to talk to them…through collaboration, we got phones to them and now they’re on the phone with President Obama,” he said.
Conditions for Beckman’s team have been nothing short of difficult. The island lacks enough water, security and most imaginable resources.
“If you can imagine it, it’s probably an issue,” he said.
“Most of us on the team have had four hours of sleep in two days,” he added. “We’re running on adrenaline now.”
Beckman specifically noted the country’s lack of infrastructure as a major setback to administering aid. The airstrip in the capital of Port-au-Prince was destroyed, and most roads are not navigable, which can make it impossible to transport people and supplies.
“Seventy percent of the buildings in Port-au-Prince have been destroyed,” he said. “And thousands of people were in those buildings or under them.”
Although Beckman thinks that chaos will prevail in Haiti for the time being, he is hopeful for the gains to be made during reconstruction. Missing person databases have been created, new medical centers are being formed and sources have collaborated in sharing map imagery.
“The Haitians I know personally have suffered under a lot of things for a lot of time,” he said. “And they’re still here, and they’re still kicking. They’re a resilient culture.”