Lide Haiti: Helping women and girls help Haiti

"I would like to see the girls become the leaders of their communities. This is what will bring real change to Haiti, and this will be the fulfillment of my dream." - Soeurette Rigodon, Deputy Director

Founded five years ago by actor Rainn Wilson, fiction writer Holiday Reinhorn, and executive director Dr. Kathryn Adams, The Lide Foundation provides instruction in the arts and literacy to over 550 adolescent girls at a dozen locations in rural Haiti. This mid-sized nonprofit helps high-risk girls build their confidence and develop life skills.

Adams spoke with me about Lide, how she's working to pass the torch of leadership to local staff, and what we can all learn from listening to the communities that we serve.

(Responses have been edited for length and clarity)

How did Lide get started?

Lide began as a short term project to provide healing through the arts for adolescent girls who had survived the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. During a two-week program, we (Reinhorn, Wilson, and Adams) watched girls mend and find their own voices. Afterward, we watched those same girls try to hang on to those voices and teach other girls what they had learned.

But they needed support, and so the idea of creating year-round programs aimed at building resiliency and empowering adolescent girls began.

We asked that original group what they would call the program. "Lide," they said. There are two very similar words in Kreyol. With an accent, the word means "leader," and without an accent, it means "idea." We asked the girls which one they meant. "Both," they said.

What guides your organization?

A core Lide belief is that each individual has dignity and value. So it seemed like an "of course!" to take this program to what those in Port-au-Prince often call "the outside," meaning Haiti's rural communities.

Through training local community members, Lide has grown from one pilot program in Gonaives to serving 12 different communities in remote areas and over 550 adolescent girls.

We now train other organizations in Education in Emergencies and Education for Resiliency, and we will sponsor 50 academic or vocational school scholarships this year for girls from the programs who have demonstrated Lide's core values of unity, compassion, perseverance, and service.

What do you wish you had known when you began?

It was our aim to see the programs in Haiti run and led by Haitians. From the get-go, we trained locals to facilitate programs and hired Haitian support staff. This has enabled us to grow organically - beginning facilitators become today's Master Teachers and participating girls become apprentices and then facilitators in their own communities.

I wish we had early on adopted the idea of apprenticing leaders. My job is to work myself out of a job.

How has Lide navigated the unique challenges and opportunities that arise when serving communities located outside of the United States?

Every day is a learning process, and step one is to accept that you are a learner! We are not the ones in the know when it comes to the culture. Additionally, a group should only go where asked and where they can raise capacity so that work is sustainable.

Step two is to always remember that we are NOT in the [United States]. We learn from our staff who are the experts on local culture.

In Haiti, there is a culture of silence. If there is an accident, a piece of equipment breaking or malfunctioning, no one seems to know how it happened. But this is not deception or intentional malice. I learned this only by asking, by listening, by opening my heart to what the culture was saying. As one staff member said, "I was afraid." In Haiti, like many other countries where authoritarianism is the rule and not the exception, a mistake means failure and being fired or imprisoned, or, at its extreme, even being killed. This is not just at the government level. It filters down into educational systems, into family dynamics, and into the self.

From an American perspective, I might have said, "Take ownership. Learn from your mistakes." But with openhearted listening and seeing beyond the behavior, I realized that I first needed to allay the fears. Now we practice turning mistakes into innovations.

What advice would you offer to other organizations that work with young women and girls from underserved communities?

Include girls and women as collaborators and contributors in the earliest planning stages and throughout. Be prepared to be astonished by their strength and [resilience]...and sometimes to have your heart broken by what they must endure.

Remind yourself that you cannot be everything. The young women and girls we work with face many battles: unequal access to education, poor water quality, lack of access to healthcare, violence, lack of paid livelihoods, and a life filled with extremely arduous domestic labor that starts when a girl is not even big enough to carry a bucket of water.

Sometimes I want to just take a girl away from the pain in her world and provide everything she needs: medicine for epilepsy, three healthy meals a day, schooling, clothes, a clean and dry bed off the damp dirt, and love.

Know what it is that you can do. Do that the best that you can. And find partner organizations who do what you can't to bring all the pieces together.

What do you consider to be LIDE's proudest accomplishment?

Two months ago, Lide was asked to train another organization. It would be in Haitian Kreyol, and I assigned the task to Soeurette Rigodon, who has been by my side since the beginning. She started as a counselor, became a coordinator, and in January 2017 was recognized as the Deputy Director that she always was.

I trusted her knowledge, but she did not trust herself.

However, [Rigodan] took the reins [and did the training, despite her fears]. Her words flowed eloquently and with joy. She had trainees up doing activities and completely engaged in what they were learning.

The organizer of the training leaned over to me and said, "She is a gem." She is.

Though our work helps hundreds of young girls grow, as an organization our pride comes from seeing the staff become increasingly independent as they begin to take ownership of the organization that truly belongs to them.

What's next for Lide?

We're starting a "transitions" program for older participants that will focus on professionalism, career planning, family planning, reproductive health, and early childhood development. We'll offer assistance with the steps that can sometimes stop women from progressing, including getting the proper identification and the equivalent of a social security number, and opening a small savings account.

Our arts program will be creating a YouTube channel featuring Lide participants' original works. The aim is to reach out to girls in Haiti who are not in Lide...yet.

Organizationally, we'll be expanding our apprenticeship program and mentoring a new class of beginning facilitators. Lide will continue to expand our Education in Emergencies and Education for Resiliency work through continuing partnerships in Haiti and elsewhere.

To learn more:

lidehaiti.org

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Laura Lane Miller holds a creative writing MFA from the University of New Orleans and is the former marketing director for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. She currently divides her time between Chicago, Mississippi, and San Francisco

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