PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, July 29 — The last day of the PLP Summer Project’s freedom school marked a big advance in organizing around the anti-racist, anti-sexist ideas urgently needed by workers in Haiti. After an inspirational class, much of it student-led, teachers and students broke through the cement-block walls of their tilekol (“little school,” in Kreyol). They marched to the State University Hospital of Haiti, where they showed militant support for workers in the fourth week of a strike for lost wages and decent patient care.
The day capped a week of critical, participatory, political education that involved teams of Haitian and visiting teachers and about 50 eager young people. As opposed to traditional, top-down schooling under capitalism, which imposes conformity with the bosses’ reactionary ideology and out-and-out lies, the tilekol aimed to equip its students to grapple with reality and change the world.
Our school was rooted in the practice of communist educators in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, whose influence later ranged from the Freedom Summer schools in the U.S. civil rights movement to the work of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian writer who called for “transformative education” to liberate workers’ minds.
Our first attempts to teach were bogged down by the challenge of translation in up to four languages (English, French, Kreyòl, Spanish), and also by traditional lecturing that was too dominated by the teachers. But by the second and third weeks, we gradually shifted to a more participatory style.
Seated on worn public school benches, three or four to a desk, the students became enthusiastically engaged in small-group discussions, writing projects, and video productions. Ignoring the heat, teachers and students together learned songs of struggle.
The students’ evaluations of their tilekol were moving to hear. The key word was “pride” — in their newly-discovered capacity to analyze the horrific situation in Haiti and the wider capitalist world, and to understand how they could organize a movement to defend themselves and their families of workers, unemployed, and homeless residents of tent camps.
The students learned about the history of imperialism in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, how capitalism works, including the labor theory of value. We learned how it uses racism to divide and exploit workers and the need to end sexism and violence against women as well as the differences between charity, aid, and solidarity. We also discovered the role played in Haiti today by the police and the occupying army of MINUSTAH, the United Nations’ “stabilization” mission in Haiti that functions as the brutal arm of imperialism.
They learned about The Communist Manifesto and the Paris Commune, and how those 19th-century words and deeds were relevant to their own experience.
Throughout the freedom school’s final session, the classroom echoed with the students’ dramatic production of the day before. It was inspired by a recent incident where MINUSTAH troops had chased student protestors with tear gas into their tent camp and ultimately killed a child there. As the tilekol’s students staged their theater in the Summer Project health clinic’s open-air waiting room, every seat was filled, and a dozen people watched through windows and the doorway.
In the spirit of the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, we then took the school into the streets, as we had in a previous visit to the hospital workers’ union hall (CHALLENGE, Aug. 17). We surged outside for the six-block walk to the hospital, where striking workers were waiting to start a courtyard press conference. The strikers’ leaders lined up some of our visiting teachers for speeches of solidarity, translated into French. That was good, and seen on national TV, in contrast to the mostly negative media coverage of the strike.
But then things really took off, as we began chanting in English, “Same Enemy, Same Fight: Workers of the World Unite!” We’d also learned it in Kreyòl, so one of us stammered out, “Menm lennmi, menm lit; travayè nan lemond fè nou youn!” The crowd took it, workers and tilekòl students alike, belting it out as one. Someone began singing the satirical “Poukisa?”, asking why the bourgeoisie’s dogs ate better than they did, and the students ran with it. The workers joined in, elderly women strikers smiling into our students’ eyes as they sang together.
Then came the dancing march, as they do it in South America and Africa. By the time it ended, we had circled the hospital grounds three times, singing all the way, and the hospital’s police unit had called in UDMO, the regime’s paramilitary thugs. Students responded without fear, changing their anti-MINUSTAH song to: “Why is UDMO killing us? We can’t go on this way.” We found ourselves marching ten blocks to picket the Ministry of Health, with the local press trailing. The reporters carefully edited out the inspiring scenes on the march, but they couldn’t erase the working-class unity and communist spirit of the day.
The students were indeed proud of all this — and also sad, as one 14-year-old said, that there would be no tilekòl for her on Monday morning. But the freedom school is not ending, after all. Local and international organizers of the Summer Project made a plan to continue tilekòl into August and beyond. Local teacher teams will keep it going, along with guest lecturers from strikes, tent camps, unions, and community-based organizations. Every one of our students signed up!
On this wave of hope, as we prepared to return, we knew that we had started something important, with comrades together from Haiti, the U.S., and Mexico. Where would it end? One student, a young Seventh Day Adventist, told us that he’d heard a lot of bad things about communism, but that communism would be better than what they have in Haiti today. We teachers had learned a huge lesson from our freedom school students and from the hospital strikers. What Freire called “transformation” — our ability to change the world — lies in our own hands, united in struggle.J
(In later issues: more comments from participants in the Haiti freedom school and clinic.)