A Haitian proverb goes: Fanm se poto mitan, which means “women are the central pillars of society”. On Friday, Jan. 31, the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP), along with the Feminist Alliance, hopes to familiarize the Vassar community with the profound implications behind the proverb by holding a screening of the documentary “Poto Mitan” followed by discussions.
Since its founding, VHP has worked in solidarity with Haitians in hopes of seeing the country through a different lens.
The movie “Poto Mitan” is told through the perspectives of five Haitian women, whose personal stories allow a look into the consequences of what some call neoliberal globalization: poverty, violence, worker exploitation and a lack of education. On the other hand, the movie also tells how individual hardships are offset by hope, resilience, and collective willpower.
Said Haitian-American scholar, activist and performer Gina Ulysse, “[The film offers] a rare glimpse into how Haitian women in the struggle understand their complex conditions and what they are doing for themselves”, It is particularly meaningful to invite our own community to learn about Haiti’s current state of affairs and its interactions with the world.
“[Haitian women face hardship with] incredible strength and dignity,” Tamsin Chen, VHP President for External Operations, and Robyn Yzelman, VHP Women’s Initiative Director wrote in an emailed statement. Last year, the newly-formed Women’s Initiative grew out of past focus group discussions held with women in the village. They have organized themselves into a co-operative, and we are working with them to grow their efforts.”
“As privileged, western-educated students,” Chen and Yzelman wrote, “we try to educate ourselves and others about Haiti, its culture, as well as the complex, often exploitative relationship it has with the United States, its former colonial powers, and the rest of the western world.”
One of the filmmakers, activist and Northern Illinois University professor Mark Schuller will lead a discussion themed “Haiti Women, Pillars of Global Economy” following the screening. As an anthropologist who has been working in Haiti since his first visit in 2001, Professor Schuller has been most grateful for the opportunity to people in Haiti and consider “Poto Mitan” his greatest achievement of his work in Haiti so far. “[I made this film] in an effort to raise Haiti’s profile, to raise standards for how Haiti is being portrayed, to raise awareness and funds, and to raise people’s voices in demanding change,” he stated in a recent interview.
During the discussion on Friday, Schuller will invite all participants into conversations about feminism, globalization, and the impact of international aid and foreign policies on Haiti. Schuller was previously an assistant professor of Anthropology at Vassar and is currently an assistant professor of Anthropology and NGO Leadership Development at Northern Illinois University.
The film aims to raise awareness of women’s role in Haiti. On a website about the film, Haitian American scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, said, “‘Poto Mitan’ brings honor and respect to the women who have been the true backbone of Haiti. In conditions of despair, they bring hope to a people by their efforts and well-reasoned arguments, by their keen intelligence, and their undaunted spirit.” Haiti was the first and only successful slave revolt that led to a free nation. In this way, it has a strong history of activism and collectivism.
The website states, “In Haiti, as elsewhere, poverty and income inequality intersect with gender inequality. Women bear the brunt of this neoliberal globalization. But Haitian women are organized in their effort to change things, and women have respect in the country, referred to as pillars of the family, the community and society. Women are ‘Poto Mitan.’”
Students raising money for their upcoming trip to Haiti will be serving an optional dinner for a small fee. The dinner is catered by local restaurants including Thai Spice, Kismat, Twisted Soul and Marco’s Pizza.
VHP has a strong presence on and off campus. In the past they have hosted a wide range of on-campus events, including hosting co-founder of the Haitian People’s Support Project Terry Leroy.
While here she spoke about her organization’s reforestation efforts in Haiti. Yzelman wrote, “In 2012, VHP became a 501c3 non-profit organization, giving us the opportunity to fund our initiatives in Haiti with grants from the non-profit world.” Their on-campus events receive funding from the College. The event on Friday is funded by the Tatlock Endowment for Multidisciplinary Studies with help from the Feminist Alliance of Vassar College.
Members of VHP take an active role in learning more about Haitian culture in order to spread awareness. VHP has had an active presence in Chermaitre, a rural mountainous village located in the Northwest region of Haiti, since its founding by Lila Meade, the present Assistant Dean for Campus Life, and Andrew Meade, the Director of International Services, in 2001. There they work to implement education, health, clean water and reforestation initiatives. Chen and Yzelman explained, “Our proceeds are funded in large part by Haitian art sales we hold on and off-campus, in the process promoting the art of Haiti, and supporting the livelihood of hundreds of Haitian artists and artisans.”