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Haiti forum sparks discussion

By Michelle Phillips     3/11/10 6:00pm

More than a month after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Rice students, staff and faculty are still helping in whatever way they can. On Feb. 25, the Office of Multicultural Community Relations, part of the Office of Public Affairs, hosted a panel entitled "Haiti: Past, Present and Future." The information presented initiated debates over the next step for Haiti, and afterward Rice students sponsored a bake sale that raised $200 for Haitian relief efforts. Art Rascon, an Emmy award-winning reporter and anchor for KTRK-TV, was the moderator of the discussion, which had on its panel two Rice professors and one Rice alumnus. About 60 people attended, including Rice students, members of the community and even visitors from Haiti.

Each person on the panel provided his or her own perspective on the trouble in Haiti and what should be done about the various issues there. After the initial presentations, the panel opened the floor for questions from the audience.

"It was a place where we could all feel open to express a wide range of opinions," Luis Duno-Gottberg, an associate professor of Hispanic Studies, said after the panel. Duno-Gottberg opened the panel by presenting the history of Haiti and background on current political corruption and colonial dependency, which are worsening the problems in Haiti now.

Edward Cox, an associate professor of history, followed Duno- Gottberg and focused on the history of disasters that Haiti has suffered. Cox emphasized the need for a long-term partnership between Haiti and aid-providing countries, such as Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States.

Rascon, who reported from Haiti for 10 days following the earthquake, showed footage of his coverage of people responding to the disaster. He said he wanted to focus more on the personal, emotional side of Haiti's predicament.

Jean-Marc Tribié (Brown '08), a Haitian who received his bachelor's degree in architecture and art history from Rice, provided a personal side to the panel. As an architect, he focused on the need for improved standards for Haitian infrastructure. After all, he said, it wasn't the earthquake that killed people, but the poor construction of buildings that caused them to collapse.

"'A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,'" Tribié said, quoting Stanford economist Paul Romer.

Tribié went on to postulate that the real tragedy would be if Haiti looked back on this time ten years later, and found that nothing had changed.

The debate over which course of action to take, however, continued within the audience. Some audience members felt Haiti's primary goal should be to help itself.

This idea was debated by many of the people on the panel and at the forum.

"Haiti needs help from others to get started," Shakera Reece, president of the Caribbean Student Society, said.

However, Tribié also stressed the need for Haiti's independence from the shadow of Western powers and neocolonialism. He said he wished Haitians would start to take charge of their own country, and Cox agreed that U.S. intervention may not turn out well in the long run.

After the question and answer section, Dorainne Levy, co-president of the Black Student Association, said she was encouraged by the forum to bring more awareness to the Rice campus regarding all the background behind Haiti's current crisis. Levy and Reece, both Will Rice College seniors, said they were particularly grateful that the panel and discussion were so informative.

"If there's any good cause, the students here will jump at it to help," Duno-Gottberg said. As current head resident fellow and future master of Duncan College, he said he intends to keep the initiatives Duncan has started for Haiti, such as the bake sale, going into the future.

Dolapo Sokunbi, a Baker College senior, said she is committed to continue donating to Haiti, and said she believed other students would also be moved to action. Sokunbi said the knowledge provided by the different perspectives on the panel was helpful in finding solutions. Diana Lee, a Lovett College senior, said some other practical ways she would get involved were support activities on campus, such as the bake sale.

David Medina, the director of the Office of Multicultural Community Relations, said he was very pleased with the turnout for the event, especially the large number of community members in attendance.

According to Medina, forums like this are part of the Vision for the Second Century, as Rice becomes more engaged with the community in dealing with relevant social issues.

"We just want to do our small part," Medina said.

Medina, who co-directed the forum with Jan West, the assistant director of Multicultural Community Relations, said he knew Rascon personally, and approached him with the idea of speaking at a panel for Haiti at Rice. Once Rascon agreed to do so, Medina proceeded to recruit faculty members to help lead the forum with the reporter.

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