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UC Haiti Initiative Takes Off

All-Campus Effort Based at UCSB’s Center for Black Studies


While the aftermath from the January 12 earthquake in Haiti might not be on everybody’s minds at this time, there is a group headquartered at UCSB that is just getting started thinking about what needs to be done to help Haitians.

This week, 20 representatives from the UC Haiti Initiative (UCHI), five from UCSB, flew to Haiti to meet with community leaders to determine how money raised through this organization could best be used; they intend to work with local groups to coordinate efforts to help rebuild Haiti.

Cat Neushul

The UC Haiti Initiative is a collaborative effort among members of the UC system, from campuses throughout California. It is headquartered at UCSB in the Center for Black Studies Research Department. The UCSB group that went to Haiti was comprised of two students, one post-doctoral candidate, and two faculty members.

“Our goal is not to come in and impose programs,” said Chryss Yost, a spokesperson for the UCHI and managing editor of the Journal of Haitian Studies. “We are trying to get all the people in the community to work together.”

The group is taking a distinct approach to rebuilding in Haiti. The UCHI is going to mobilize its resources of doctors, engineers, educators, agronomists, and other professionals to assist in the planning and implementation of relief efforts. It is going to work with community leaders to use existing organizations in Haiti to provide assistance. And it is going to pick one community to focus its attention on. Yost said the group had opted for this strategy “instead of giving $200 here and $200 there.”

During this trip the group is researching and assessing which community in Haiti to center its rebuilding efforts on, Yost said. Once a community is chosen, then the group will begin to plan how to best use the UCHI resources to enhance the area’s existing services.

Even though the UCHI representatives have a clear goal in mind when visiting Haiti—to help the people of Haiti in their rebuilding efforts—they aren’t quite sure what this is going to look like. They are keeping an open mind. “We don’t know what form this help might take,” Yost said.

While the earthquake dealt a devastating blow, the country was already facing many difficulties, Yost said, including problems with political leaders and government organization. “They’ve just had a difficult time finding a system that works,” she explained. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Yost said, as well as the most populous.

While it might not be well known, UCSB is a focal point for Haitian scholarship. It is one of the main places to study the history and culture of that country. And Yost said that Haiti is a fascinating subject for researchers, historians, and other scholars. Not only does the Center for Black Studies Research publish the Journal of Haitian Studies, it is home to the KOSANBA, an association that studies Haiti’s indigenous religion Vodou; and it has faculty members who are experts on Haiti. The Center for Black Studies was chosen as the UCHI headquarters for these reasons.

The UCHI was formed after a summit was held at the University of California, San Francisco in April of this year, when a group of students, faculty, staff, researchers, and others met to discuss how the UC system could help with Haitian reconstruction. Afterward, money was raised and these efforts were set in motion.

Isla Vista may have the dubious distinction of being a top party school, but it’s worth remembering that I.V. is also home to students and scholars who are doing excellent things in the community and the world. The UCHI is a stellar example.

Haiti is just one of the many problems that need to be addressed. We also have local problems that students could take up as a cause, like the plight of the homeless in the Santa Barbara area. As the need for medical help, shelters, and outreach increases, students could become involved with the solution. Another local problem is the need for a new and improved teen center. And there are many, many more issues worthy of attention. The image of UCSB representatives flying off to Haiti inspires hope that there are many more students willing to make a difference.

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