One of the many things Dunreith and I love about Evanston is the parks.
There are close to 100 of them in our small city, a number that includes one that is literally in our backyard and is a rectangle enclosed by a gravel road, the backs of houses and a parking garage. The green space has swings and a field where Aidan and I for years threw the football around after school and on vacations and weekends.
The small park represents more than the total number of such spaces in the entire country of Haiti, but Cecile Marotte and a dedicated group of people are working to change that.
A French native who was trained in the United States in philosophy and ethnopsychiatry, Cecile has lived in Haiti for close to a quarter century. We met during the past two weeks at the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.
Cecile and other members have received a four-year grant from the Open Society Institute to design, develop community support for, and oversee construction of, the nation’s first park.
It is an undeniably stiff task.
Haiti has no shortage of issues, between the earthquake that rocked the city in January, the cholera that is wreaking additional havoc and the upcoming elections. And Cecile is working in Martissant, a suburb of Port-au-Prince previously known as the ‘Area of No Rights.” Even in one of the world’s poorest countries, this community stands out as having no government services.
There are no schools or running water.
Trees grow on garbage.
And murder is common.
Cecile and the other workers, all of whom are Haitian nationals, have held a series of meetings with a wide range of groups in the community, including gang leaders, who said they would like to create the park. Each meeting is recorded and minutes are distributed to all who have attended.
The ultimate vision is to create a safe and beautiful space monitored by gunless guards where people can visit, chat and tell their stories. In so doing, they have the potential to help the community heal from its many wounds, create the basis to push for greater levels of justice and possibly even contribute to reducing violence.
Sudhir Venkatesh wrote in Off The Books about the challenges and compromises that often accompany working with gang leaders, and Cecile is well aware of them. Still, to me there is something compelling about this plan, which is like a shoot growing up the cracks of cement, vulnerable to being crushed and also containing with it the seed of transformative beauty.
I’ll let you know about what I learn as the project progresses. In the meantime, I will walk around Evanston with Dunreith and an even greater appreciation of our green spaces.