Shaping the University’s response to the crisis in Haiti, students led the way

 On February 2, Saybrook Interim President Bob Schmitt issued a statement expressing Saybrook’s solidarity with the people of Haiti and describing the steps that members of our community are taking to address their suffering. 

 At many institutions statements like these are drafted only at the highest levels, with the people they purport to represent not finding out about them until long after the fact.  In this case, however, the statement was conceived of by students, and a diverse spectrum of the community was instrumental in its development.

 The Haiti earthquake took place on January 12, just as students and faculty were beginning to travel to the Residential Conference of the Graduate College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies.  The idea of issuing a statement about  earthquake was first brought forward not in the boardroom, but in a classroom, by Janine Ray, a PhD student in Human Science with a concentration in Social Transformation.  She walked into the January 2010 Residential Conference intensive on Global Citizen Activism, Theory, and Research (co-sponsored by the Social Transformation Concentration and the Human Science degree program), knowing that she couldn’t pretend the earthquake hadn’t happened.

 “It turns out we were all feeling that way,” Ray says.  “We’re the Social Transformation concentration:  we all thought we should be doing something.”

 So the participants in the session began to ask themselves:  what realistically could be done? 

 That session turned into an impromptu think-tank, which was continued during the Social Transformation Concentration meeting the next day, attended by people from other programs, including the College of Mind-Body Medicine, who generated even more ideas.  Saybrook President Bob Schmitt was informed of the process early on, and provided his ongoing blessing and support.

 “Eventually,” says Ray, “we were asking ourselves ‘okay, who’s going to try making sense of all of this on paper?’ And since I’m going to be taking (Psychology faculty member) Benina (Gould’s) course on refugee resilience, I said I’ll get started on that.’”

 Ray developed a first draft, and then had several classmates, including Richard Wright, examine the document and suggest changes.  Then they began showing it to faculty, and the process accelerated from there.

 “It went from my hands to Joel’s hands to (Associate Dean of the College of Mind-Body Medicine) Dan (Sterenchuck) and (Mind-Body Medicine program co-director) Don (Moss), and (Human Science faculty member) Marc Pilisuk had some ideas, and it just kept getting bigger,” Ray says.  “It was still mostly students working on it, but by that point we were realizing that this is getting bigger than us, and we made sure to work with the administration so that it could all be done in a coordinated way.”

Once the first draft was completed, it was circulated to the faculty leadership of the three Saybrook Colleges, and then to the administration.  By the time it was officially made a Saybrook communication and statement of principle and action, students, alumni, faculty, and administrators had all come together to agree on the following four actions:

1.    The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM), which is a collaborator in Saybrook University’s College of Mind-Body Medicine, is planning to undertake a trauma project in Haiti. CMBM will train hundreds of local Haitian health, mental health, and education professionals in how to use their innovative educational and psychosocial trauma model for helping the population to heal from the devastation and trauma from the earthquake and its aftermath. This CMBM model is being used effectively in Kosovo, Israel, Gaza, New Orleans, and with US military returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

2.    The Saybrook College of Psychology and Humanistic Studies will open its course, “Refugee Trauma and Resiliency” (STR 7115), to non-matriculated students during the Spring Semester, 2010 This course is designed for the beginning student in Refugee Mental Health or Human Rights, or for the experienced student who would like to develop an independent project based on one of the areas in the syllabus. It is preferable that individuals taking this course are interning in a mental health center that services refugees and immigrants, or working in the field with refugees or internally displaced people in areas such as in Haiti, Afghanistan or Iraq, or with an NGO such as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or UNICEF.  For more information, please contact Annie McGeady, Saybrook’s Associate Vice President Enrollment Management and Admissions at [email protected].

3.    The Saybrook Alumni Association is raising funds to send Saybrook alumna and immigrant from Haiti, Marie Fonrose (Ph.D. ’03) to Haiti to provide therapy and counseling services. Marie has experience as a therapist, has worked with Haitian immigrants in the DC area, and knows the language and culture of Haiti, having immigrated to the US at the age of 12. She is also experiencing this current devastation from a personal perspective; 11 of her relatives died in the earthquake, including a half-brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For further information, or to provide support for Marie’s intervention work, please contact George Aiken, Ph.D., Saybrook’s Director of Alumni Affairs, at [email protected].

4.    The Saybrook community is committed to addressing, through scholarly inquiry and action, the underlying structural social and economic inequities that are exacerbating the Haiti earthquake crisis. Saybrook offers courses that focus on such global social inequities, such as “Globalism and Power,” and “The Human Right to Adequate Food,” and many members of the Saybrook community have signed the “ONE Campaign” petition supporting provision of debt relief to Haiti by international creditors, including foreign governments, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank.

 Ray says she’s thrilled … and proud … with how it turned out.  “Number one,” she said, “These are all doable things:  they’re all attainable.  Not everything that was suggested during the process was, but people did homework to find out whether we were spending our time on attainable goals or whether we were looking at pie-in-the-sky things that were never going to happen.  The result is a realistic set of goals that, if we come together and follow through, really will make a difference.”

 “Everybody was kind of hungry to participate and do something,” she adds.  “We’re all overworked and in school and don’t have a lot of time, but when we all got in there together we came up with a workable project that everybody could contribute to.”

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