Saturday, the 20th of December, was International Solidarity Day. There are so many ‘International Days of ____’ that they seem to lose their meaning, but Robi thought he could use the theme of the day as an excuse to try out something he’d been wanting to do for years.
If you ask Robi where he went to school, his first answer will be ‘the University of the Ghetto’, said with a straight face. Then he may tell you where he graduated from high school, his associate’s degree, and his Master’s degree. But he believes that what he’s lived through in Cite Soleil has taught him more than any classroom with four walls ever could. Intellectual debates on subjects such as death, justice, human nature seem to happen on a whole other level when there is a good chance that your discussion will be cut short by gunshots or a police raid.
Yet people from Cite Soleil aren’t treated like intellectuals – and tend not to think of them as such – which is why Robi decided to organize a day of debate and dialogue around the theme of solidarity . He invited about 80 community and youth leaders from Cite Soleil, Belaire, and Martissant to come to SAKALA, a community center in Cite Soleil where he is a board member. The participants were randomly divided into five groups, each one given the task to discuss one of the following themes: solidarity, konbit, development, leadership, and the meaning (or lack of meaning) in ‘international days’. They were told to define the word as it applied to the reality they were living in, and find something practical to do in SAKALA to put it into practice. The solidarity team had their debate as they helped prepare lunch in the kitchen. The development team thought about restructuring SAKALA’s community library as they debated whether education could really lead to development if the streets weren’t safe.
After a few hours of talk, everyone reconvened and sent one delegate to the front of the room to sit on a ‘panel of experts’ to debate how marginalized neighborhoods like Cite Soleil could move forward, and what solidarity really meant you could be killed for being in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. One man brought up the question about whether the people in the room were prepared to show their solidarity with young people from Cite Soleil who were illegally arrested. The role of the United Nations’ peacekeepers was questioned. The debate went on so long that lunch had grown cold in the back of the room by the time that people were ready to finish, and they insisted on singing the Haitian National Anthem before they ended.
A young man from Cite Soleil who was in law school had pointed out that he had never heard a debate like this in all of his time at university. Robi took the time to point out that everyone here was an intellectual – they had all graduated (and by ‘graduated’ he meant ‘survived’) the University of the Ghetto, and that they should never wait for someone with a degree or fancy title to tell them what to think. People latched onto the idea of the ‘University of the Ghetto’ that it became somewhat of a rallying cry by the end of the day. Young men and women came up to Robi afterwards, wanting to organize discussions like this once a month, but with more concrete themes such as how to avoid getting swept up in police raids, what the UN had a right to do in their neighborhoods, how they could keep young people off of the streets. They didn’t want outside experts, but local ones – people who had lived what they were talking about.
At 5 o’clock, just as the National Anthem was playing, a volley of bullets that lasted almost a minute could be heard outside. That night, there were gunshots in all four corners of Cite Soleil, keeping families awake. In the morning, people would find the body of a young woman who was in her last year of high school and was in Cite Soleil to spend the holidays with her aunt – a bal eskiz, or a stray bullet, the cause of death. For all of the wise words and big ideas shared during the debate, it was a reminder that it is so, so easy to talk about change, but so, so hard to make it happen. Ideas are not bullet-proof.