Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 2011 Issue »

    Symposium: Learning After Disaster

    Voices from Haiti and New Orleans

    Editors of the Harvard Educational Review
    HER Learning After DisasterThe January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti violently shook the country, killing, injuring, and displacing close to 1.5 million people and destroying buildings that once represented seats of government, commerce, education, and health. For many of us watching media coverage of the event, the images of spray-painted houses denoting the number recovered and the number dead, the panicked countenances of parents hearing their children cry out from within collapsed buildings, the piles of disfigured and bloated bodies, and the clips showing Haiti’s most vulnerable citizens—babies, the elderly, the infirm—recalled for us the soul-crushing images viewed during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. In light of the similarities facing both locations as the people struggle to rebuild their communities and themselves, the editors of the Harvard Educational Review present this symposium to call attention to the myriad issues that must be considered when reconstructing educational systems in contexts affected by disaster.

    Education during emergencies has been “recognized as an essential ingredient in every conflict and disaster response” (Cahill, 2010, p. 2). As the senior specialist for education at Save the Children, Brenda Haiplik (2010), has learned, during disaster, education is not simply a “life-enhancing” luxury; it is a “life-saving” necessity (p. 45). School structures can serve as shelters or as meeting places for the community; teachers are able to provide students and their families with critical information for dealing with the consequences of the disaster; and functioning schools give a sense of stability and normalcy and can mitigate the trauma of an emergency (UNESCO, n.d.). In the aftermaths of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricane, a number of outside entities swiftly mobilized to intervene in efforts to rebuild the education systems. Such rapid responses can be helpful as part of the triage needed after a disaster. However, often absent from these externally driven mobilizations is an understanding that long-term capacity building requires collaborative efforts, by listening to and learning from local actors’ knowledge, customs, and culture, when prioritizing the agenda and action plans.

    In this collection of essays and interviews, scholars and practitioners provide real-life examples and insights into how (re)construction efforts can and must be rooted in the actions, knowledge, and epistemologies of local people. The authors also describe some of the dangers that can arise when there is an absence of local participation. The people of Haiti and New Orleans are inextricably intertwined through a rich and shared history, and, in looking at both locales through the lens of education, additional connections become apparent. Actors in both settings are rendered mute and often excluded by the very entities that wish to help them.

    This symposium aims to disrupt this pattern by placing both contexts in conversation with each other; highlighting the voices of Haitians and New Orleanians who have been active in the reconstruction of their physical, spiritual, and intellectual homes; and uncovering the long histories and systems of power that are inextricably tied to these stories of natural disaster. Collectively the authors of these pieces ask: What role does and should education play in post-disaster contexts? What challenges do local actors in Haiti and New Orleans face in their reconstruction efforts? How can those outside of Haiti, and particularly those in the Haitian diaspora, work respectfully and effectively with local communities in rebuilding efforts?

    In a conversation with the Harvard Educational Review, Fabienne Doucet and Louis Herns Marcelin provide readers with a map of Haiti’s educational landscape before and after the earthquake. Doucet focuses on the impact of the earthquake on early childhood education, while Marcelin underscores the importance of higher education to the future of Haitian society. In the absence of strict regulations and standards, a number of nongovernmental organizations have taken over the educational sector to the exclusion of local actors. Through their work, Doucet and Marcelin offer an alternative model for the rebuilding of Haitian society, one that foregrounds the experience and knowledge of Haitian citizens.

    Charlene Désir brings this context to life through a description of her work with youth and teachers in St. Raphael building culturally relevant and affirming spaces. She shares her experience of working in Haiti before and after the earthquake and reveals the ways in which her Haitian ancestry and her relationships with community members allowed her to be more attuned to their needs and strengths. Framed by the Haitian concept of the “lakou,” a sacred community space, Désir’s story is a call to Haitians in the diaspora to recognize their own existing expertise as cultural straddlers and the wealth of resources that they can share with Haiti as it rebuilds itself.

    Maryse Desgrottes, in an interview with HER editor Raygine DiAquoi, describes her personal experience returning to Haiti after the earthquake and the work of the full-service school she cofounded, École Village Lucina. In doing so, she seems to answer the call put forward by Désir and reflects the kind of cultural brokering called for by Désir, Doucet, and Marcelin. Desgrottes stresses the importance of cultural sensitivity and shows how her bicultural fluency helps her find a middle ground between the outpouring of foreign aid and the pride of the parents at her small school in Petit Goave. Though recognizing the important role that NGOs have played in the reconstruction process, Desgrottes explains that the Haitian people do not simply want to continue to be on the receiving end of aid; they want to learn to cultivate their own resources and sustain themselves.

    Turning our attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Kristen Buras offers an analysis of events that sits in stark contrast to the ideals of cultural sensitivity and empowerment shared by Désir and Desgrottes. Drawing on five years of research and activism in New Orleans, Buras describes how actors at the local, state, and federal levels—under the banner of “conscious capitalism” and education reform—contribute to the disenfranchisement and dispossession of Black communities. She elucidates what can happen when educational rebuilding efforts are imposed on communities without their involvement or input, and in turn, she argues for education reform principles rooted in democracy and critical consciousness.

    Finally, Joyce King uncovers connections between the earthquake in Haiti and the hurricane in New Orleans through historical analysis and discussion of the media portrayals of Black people during the aftermath of both disasters. Through the process of “critical studyin’,” she remembers the shared histories of resistance and revolution in both contexts rooted in cultures and epistemologies of the African diaspora. She offers this piece as a contribution to Black community healing and as a call to parents, educators, students, and scholars to use this historical moment as an entry point for (re)focusing curricula and teaching on the importance of human worth and dignity.

    More than a year after the earthquake shook Haiti, and nearly six years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, the rebuilding has not ended. However, for those of us separated from the disasters by distance or circumstance, the desperate images that once captured our attention and moved us to philanthropy or action have faded to the recesses of our consciousness. The authors in this symposium not only resurrect the sense of urgency felt in the immediate aftermaths, but they also document some of the lessons learned and offer hope for the future.

    We dedicate this symposium to the memory of those who perished as a result of the earthquake in Haiti and the hurricane on the Gulf Coast, and we offer our support to those affected by more recent disasters, particularly the tragic earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan. We stand in solidarity with members of all these communities, who tirelessly and lovingly build, educate, and struggle for justice in the aftermath of disaster.


    Cahill, K. (2010). Introduction. In K. Cahill (Ed.), Even in chaos: Education in times of emergency (pp. 1–4). New York: Fordham University Press and Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation.

    Haiplik, B. (2010). Donor investment for education in emergencies. In K. Cahill (Ed.), Even in chaos: Education in times of emergency (pp. 44–60). New York: Fordham University Press and Center for International Humanitarian Cooperation.

    United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. (n.d.). Post-conflict and post-disaster responses: Nine reasons to provide education during and after conflicts and disasters. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/pcpd/education-in-emergencies/nine-reasons/

  2. Share

    Summer 2011 Issue


    Symposium: Unraveling the Double Bind
    Women of Color in STEM
    Editors of the Harvard Educational Review
    The Double Bind
    The Next Generation
    Lindsey E. Malcom and Shirley M. Malcom
    Inside the Double Bind
    A Synthesis of Empirical Research on Undergraduate and Graduate Women of Color in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics
    Maria Ong, Carol Wright, Lorelle L. Espinosa, and Gary Orfield
    Pipelines and Pathways
    Women of Color in Undergraduate STEM Majors and the College Experiences That Contribute to Persistence
    Lorelle L. Espinosa
    Unique Challenges for Women of Color in STEM Transferring from Community Colleges to Universities
    Marie-Elena Reyes
    Symposium: Learning After Disaster
    Voices from Haiti and New Orleans
    Editors of the Harvard Educational Review
    Rebuilding a Country, Cultivating Local Capacity
    Interview with Fabienne Doucet and Louis Herns Marcelin
    Raygine DiAquoi
    Diasporic Lakou
    A Haitian Academic Explores Her Path to Haiti Pre- and Post-Earthquake
    Charlene Désir
    Race, Charter Schools, and Conscious Capitalism
    On the Spatial Politics of Whiteness as Property (and the Unconscionable Assault on Black New Orleans)
    Kristen L. Buras
    “There Is a Lot That I Want to Do”
    Reflections on the Relief Efforts in Haiti
    Raygine DiAquoi
    Who Dat Say (We) “Too Depraved to Be Saved”?
    Remembering Katrina/Haiti (and Beyond): Critical Studyin’ for Human Freedom
    Joyce King

    Book Notes

    Storytelling for Social Justice
    by Lee Anne Bell

    Quality Education as a Constitutional Right
    edited by Theresa Perry, Robert P. Moses, Joan T. Wynne, Ernesto Cortés Jr., and Lisa Delpit

    Black Youth Rising
    by Shawn A. Ginwright