Friday, November 3, 2006

Valley man makes Haiti his mission

Reed Lindsay helps a neighborhood come together

Express Staff Writer

Reed Lindsay

When Reed Lindsay graduated with a degree in philosophy, it was uncertain where he would go with his education. Helping to organize a neighborhood council, throwing a block party and forming a school on a troubled Caribbean island were probably not high on his lists of possibilities. And yet, Lindsay, 31, who grew up in Sun Valley, has managed it all and more.

A correspondent for the new 24-hour Spanish-language television news network Telesur, Lindsay reports on Haiti, where he lives. The Latin American television network is based in Caracas, Venezuela, and is funded jointly by Venezuela, Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia.

The son of Barbi Reed, owner of the Anne Reed Gallery in Ketchum, Lindsay graduated from The Community School in 1994. He graduated magna cum laude from Williams College in 1998. After studying in Spain and Argentina, he interned for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., where he began writing about Latin America.

"I really liked writing about the issues on U.S. policy in Latin America. But I wanted to live in Latin America instead of being removed."

Lindsay moved to Mexico City where he began doing his first real journalism. Self-taught, he managed, as a freelancer, to cover " a lot of different subjects."

In 2001, he moved to Argentina after the uprising that resulted in the withdrawal of millions of pesos and dollars from banks. There was plenty going on. He filed at least 20 freelance stories over a two-year period, for such publications as Houston Chronicle, Newsday, The Observer, The Toronto Star, San Francisco Chronicle and The Scotsman.

But in March 2004, his direction changed when he traveled to Haiti three days before Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left the country escorted by U.S. soldiers.

Lindsay was there for three weeks and vowed to return.

"It was a real experience for me, totally different, there was a zoo of journalists with bullet-proof vests. But I didn't speak the language. It's a fascinating country, so misunderstood and mis-portrayed by the media, so much yellow journalism that makes it out to be such a violent place.

"I've sought out stories my colleagues are not doing. They're so much censoring themselves. I went back in October 2004. On my first day, four bodies were found executed."

The dead men had been Aristide supporters and witnesses claimed the police had committed the murders as a warning to other supporters.

"That story got more attention than three years of freelance work," Lindsay said. "I felt like I could work here and really make a difference."

He stayed on, began to learn the language and found a place to live in a poor but safe area of Port-au-Prince, called Jacquet. The streets are dirt and pothole-ridden, and there is no running water.

There is a pump from which he can fill a basin of water for use in his home. He also has a generator-inverter for electricity and a satellite dish, both things necessary for him to do his job.

He sold stories on human rights abuses, and at one point was the only journalist who was able to get inside the penitentiary after a massacre. Despite professional success, he said the country's poverty is overwhelming.

"At first, there was no place to look for hope. I was depressed."

In April 2005, along with some other neighbors, Lindsay and a young Haitian named Reagan Lolo, 22, who worked with him as an interpreter, started Asanble Vwazen Jake (Creole), or Neighborhood Assembly of Jacquet. The idea was that by organizing and working together they could improve conditions in Jacquet.

"I wanted to do something for the neighborhood," Lindsay said. "They had no jobs and the kids weren't in school. I needed to give back and show them I wasn't just there for the cheap real estate."

Lindsay and Lolo ultimately decided that the community organization, which they call AVJ, would be "democratic and participatory, without a president, or all-powerful committee that could later be susceptible to corruption," he said.

"Instead, any neighbor could participate and everyone would have the same voice and vote. Any actions taken by individuals or particular working committees within AVJ would be held accountable to all the neighbors of Jacquet in the weekly Sunday assembly.

"Some weeks, we'd have five to 10 people in our house for a meeting. Sometimes there were as many as 40 people gathered in a driveway or the street."

Their first official function for the community was a DJ and basketball block party.

"More than 1,000 people showed up. We put up a hoop, and built a stage. Kids play there all the time now. After that we did a street cleaning thing but there's no trash pick up. I was questioning the whole thing when the guys said, 'Let's do a school.'"

It was an "a-ha" moment and the result has grown beyond any of their expectations.

In Haiti, approximately 90 percent of the schools are private and only one out of every 50 students actually graduates. Often, students are well into their adult years by the time they are able to graduate. In order to pay the school fees, many of them quit to work. Jacquet has no public school at all.

"They value education so much," Lindsay said. "It's so important to them."

When the school began a year ago, there were 12 to 15 students and school was held in a private school after their classes were out. When that fell through, classes were held at Lindsay's house.

"I was super busy and there'd be 30 kids on the floor, just learning basic stuff. Thirty to 40 percent don't know how to read or write."

Finally, another private school let them have space three to four hours a day, five days a week in the afternoon. They added a sports program on Saturdays taught by a former pro-basketball player.

Most of the children are between 7 and 11 years old. The classes are taught in Creole, the language spoken by the vast majority of Haitians, while the advanced classes learn French. They also teach Haitian history and culture, something the private schools do not, concentrating instead on France instead.

The AVJ organizers also have plans to add garden projects, to encourage dental hygiene by providing children with toothbrushes and "to give back to the community since the community is giving them an education," Lindsay said.

By the end of the school year, this past June, there were as many as 130 students. There are 15 volunteer teachers aged 16 to 30, most of whom are students at other schools themselves.

"They want this to be a model for Haiti. They want there to be neighborhood committees all over Haiti," Lindsay said. "It's so inspiring. They have hope for their country. There's so much enthusiasm. It's made me believe in humanity.

"It just needed the spark—me and Lolo and a couple other guys—now there are 15 guys, and some women are starting to get more involved. Older people are also starting to come to the meetings, expressing themselves. But it's hard in Haiti just getting stuff done. Writing a letter can take weeks for them, the level of education is so low."

Bringing renewed hope to the country was the controversial election in February 2006 of former President René Préval. He was elected with 51 percent of the vote.

"The poor see him as an ally," said Lindsay, who once interviewed him at his home in a poor neighborhood.

Lindsay was in the valley recently and spoke to students at The Community School about how he became a journalist and about the AVJ school.

Donations to help the school may be made to a non-profit umbrella organization for the neighborhood assemblies in Haiti called "Friends of SODA." There is an account at Bank of America. Lindsay said AVJ has applied to the Global Fund for Children for a grant to pay for water, food, materials, and books, but until they receive a grant they are in need of help.

For more information, contact or Barbi Reed at 726-3036.

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