First Responder

Melinda Miles '98's work in Haiti is all about bringing people together. Those connections were vital in getting aid to the country immediately after the earthquake and may be key to building a new, stronger Haiti.

by John MacMillan

The first thing Melinda Miles ’98 did when she heard the news last January of the devastating earthquake that nearly leveled Haiti was pick up the phone. As co-founder of Konpay, a nonprofit that collaborates with local and international groups to bring aid to Haitian communities, Miles has spent years building relationships with people around the world, and now she was counting on them to come through.

“I immediately asked everyone, ‘What are we going to do?’” she says of those first few conversations. “I called everyone I knew in Congress, but I didn’t get much movement there. Then I went to my contacts in the Dominican Republic, and that’s when things started to happen.” Working almost nonstop with her connections, Miles was able to mobilize the Dominican Republic Navy to use five of its ships to start delivering supplies and aid to the devastated country. “We were among the first groups to offer help,” Miles says. “All those calls and relationships I’ve built up really helped get things going very quickly and very early on.”

For the past few months, Miles has been shuttling back and forth from her home in Easthampton, Massachusetts, to Haiti, where she continues to work closely with local groups, organizations, and NGOs, ensuring that aid gets to the people and places that need it most. Each trip is emotional, and she can’t help being consumed by the sight of collapsed houses and storefronts and desperate families. “There’s a grief I can’t describe that comes from seeing this place I love just completely destroyed,” she says.

Lately she’s been frustrated by what she calls inaccurate media reports of improved conditions and smooth delivery of supplies. “The fact is, so little has been accomplished,” she says. “So little has been done with the aid. So little has reached the people.”

In early March, she testified before Congress for a second time, hoping to make senators aware of the inefficiencies in the current system of delivering aid and the challenges that lie ahead for rebuilding Haiti. “It’s been difficult and so much has been lost,” she says, “but with the loss comes an opportunity to build a better Haiti. That’s where I’m trying to focus my attention now.”

Your son’s father is from Haiti and you have many friends there. What ran through your mind when you got word about the earthquake?

It was the longest, darkest night of my life. There were about thirteen hours during which the phones were down and I couldn’t reach anybody there on the ground: my son’s father, my co-workers over there. Then I just went into action mode.

You’ve met with members of Congress a few times now. What do you tell them about the situation in Haiti?

A lot of my conversations with Congress get described as “stunning” or “scathing.” The first time I spoke to them was nine days after the earthquake, and I was very upset at that point because we were hitting a wall trying to get supplies and surgeons into the country, yet at the same time we were seeing footage of John Travolta landing his plane at the Port-au-Prince airport. I wanted to know who was coordinating things and why, after nine days, amputations were still being performed on kitchen tables and nobody was getting any food. The second time I spoke to Congress was in March, and it was much the same. They had been hearing reports that things had dramatically improved, but that wasn’t what we were experiencing on the ground. So I went in and gave them the full story of what’s really going on.

You first went to Haiti in 1993, on a high school trip. What are your memories of that experience?

I was a junior at Cathedral High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, and they offered a weeklong trip to Haiti. They called it experiential learning, and that’s what it was. We worked in wound clinics and rudimentary AIDS clinics in the mountains, but at the same time we were able to meet with human rights workers who were the same age as me. This had a profound effect on me, that these teenagers were living in such brutal conditions but trying to do something to change them. It was also the first time I saw how people lived outside of the United States. Before this, I thought everyone everywhere was living about the same. To realize how huge the gap really was was probably one of the most meaningful things to happen to me growing up.

What is Konpay?

It’s an organization I co-founded in 2004, after I moved to Haiti full-time. Loosely translated, it means working together for Haiti. Through my years of studying and working in Haiti, I came to see that what Haiti really needs is a community working together, so the idea of Konpay is to strengthen existing organizations and create connections to help existing groups in Haiti access the resources—not just financial but also the expertise—that they need to build stronger communities.

What have been some of Konpay’s recent projects?

For the past five years we’ve been focused on food safety and the environment. We go into the community and find leaders who are truly at the grassroots level and bring them together to take advantage of expertise, make their own plans, and develop their own strategies. Since the earthquake hit on January 12, we’ve been coordinating with other organizations and NGOs, bringing them together to be more effective in responding to immediate needs. We’ve worked to create an alternative structure for the distribution of aid in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, the two largest cities affected, and we’ve tried to create a space where our Haitian partners can reclaim their own voice and offer leadership in the new Haiti, which has not always been the case.

How did your anthropology major influence your view of the world?

I actually studied anthropology and political science, and it was my experience in Haiti before coming to Smith that inspired me to choose those two courses of study. I felt that in order for me to be useful in the world I really needed to understand where people are coming from themselves and how to relate to people where they are. I also wanted to have an understanding of politics and international relations and the international economy.

You seem very committed to creating true partnerships with Haitians rather than simply going into the country and forcing your own agenda on people.

I think that’s one thing that makes me a little different from your average NGO worker. I really try to prioritize the Haitian perspective. One thing I learned very quickly working in Haiti is that people don’t trust very easily, and that is based on past experiences with foreigners coming into the country and starting huge projects and bringing huge influxes of funds, but never following up. So I focus on building long-term partnerships. The only way I was able to mobilize things so quickly after the earthquake is because I had developed strong relationships with different groups and people. It was almost as if I had been working my whole life to be ready to deal with this kind of situation.

How do you balance your family life with all of this?

It’s been a challenging couple of months, but I’m extremely privileged to have such a supportive family and network of friends in my organization to be able to do it. The truth is, I would have loved to have run back to Haiti the day after the earthquake, to be on the ground helping, but I’m glad I wasn’t because I needed to be with my son and I needed to be here so I could help coordinate our efforts in the United States. I will say that being a mother has given me a different perspective on this tragedy. In the past I’ve been more active in things around the environment, but I feel myself very moved by the situation of women and children in the camps that have been set up. There’s very little security and many women I know, and their daughters, have been raped. People are sleeping under sheets, there are no private bathroom areas, and there’s no way to protect people in this kind of environment.

Can any good come of this tragedy?

Absolutely. What the earthquake did was destroy a system of centralized government, of centralized finance, that was never Haitian to begin with. The whole system has been set up to suck resources out of rural areas and center them in these overpopulated cities that are unsustainable. There is no infrastructure outside of the major cities. Decentralization could lead to a much stronger country by creating better national production and jobs that are sustainable and don’t destroy the environment. But change will only happen if Haitians can have leadership. Right now there is lots of talk of the UN and the United States and other donor nations getting ready to put money back in the same hands in the same places. That can’t happen. The time for change is now.

Summer ’10 SAQ