Courtney Spence on How Haiti Relief Trip Teaches Commitment to a Cause

In Chapter 7 of 16 in her 2011 Capture Your Flag interview with host Erik Michielsen, non-profit founder and executive Courtney Spence answers "What Did Traveling to Port Au Prince, Haiti One Year After the Earthquake Teach You About Commitment to a Cause?" Traveling to Haiti for five days during the one-year anniversary of the earthquake educates Spence on why and how relief efforts must be long-term focused. During her trip she meets local students, artisans and young professionals. Drawing on experiences from Uganda and New Orleans, Spence prioritizes spotlighting recovery and reconstruction after the tragedy. Spence is founder and executive director of Students of the World, a non-profit that partners with passionate college students to create new media to highlight global issues and the organizations working to address them. Spence graduated with a BA in History from Duke University.


Erik Michielsen:  What did traveling to Haiti one year after the earthquake teach you about commitment to a cause?

Courtney Spence:  Traveling to Haiti and being there the anniversary of the earthquake, January 12th, I think it was 4:57 p.m., I don’t know the exact time in the afternoon it was.  It was very – it’s very hard to describe.  I was only there for five days, but those five days have certainly changed the course of my life, and I know that Haiti will always be a part of my personal life and most likely now my professional life as well, but the things that I saw and the people that I met, it was both a feeling of ‘oh my gosh, that has happened a year ago and there is still so much, you know, rubble, collapsed buildings, people living in tents.  Port-au-Prince is just – I mean the traffic and the population density that all of these people that, you know, 80% of them don’t have jobs, and you see this, it’s very, very visual, and I don’t have something to reference it from a year ago.

I have been told by people that have been there for a while that it actually looks, you know, much better than it did before, but I don’t think I appreciated the true massive event that it was because when I went I’ve never seen anything like that ever in all of my travels, and so there was a part of me that, particularly on the day, that was the anniversary, how do we understand that in, you know, forty seconds of time, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and millions of people were displaced and are now, you know, without homes?  That – it’s overwhelming, and at the same time, you know, you – I had a really incredible opportunity to meet with individuals that are pushing along, pushing forward, that’s what you do, life is hard, and there’s this understanding that I really felt from every Haitian that I met that this is just how life is.  We got dealt this, you know, this hand of cards, and we’re just gonna do something with it.  

So it’s, you know, meeting young people that are going into IT world and helping bring wireless access to rural parts of Haiti.  It’s people that, you know, artists that have now been able through great NGOs and organizations have made a deal with Macy’s and anthropology to get their -- their vases, and, you know, their paper-mâché, beautiful, beautiful artwork sold in the U.S., and are making a living as an artist in Haiti.  It’s meeting these people, these individuals that are so positive about where they’re headed and so encouraged by what they can do and what the Haitian people can do.  It’s also staggering to see that.  Having those two overwhelming senses when I was there that happened to be on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, and although I think it did get some news coverage, I felt that it was overshadowed by other news of the day, and it was all in all very disappointing to me in some regards because I’ve seen this in New Orleans with Katrina, I’ve seen it in northern Uganda where, you know, the LRA has left, and so we have now forgotten these people that still have to rebuild their lives and that are at their most critical moment of rebuilding their lives.  

That’s when we need to be there.  That’s when the media needs to be shining a light on the progress that’s made but the progress that still yet to be made because, you know, we have so many things that pull us in so many different directions, and we seem to really gravitate towards the massive tragedies and not really think about what is the long, hard, marathon, running work of rebuilding and reconstructing and building back better, and that’s the place that I wanna be in, not just the immediate ‘oh my gosh, can you believe how horrible this is?’  It’s ‘oh my gosh, it’s a year later, and where are they, and what can we be doing, and why don’t we feel the sense of urgency now that we felt then because they still need help and we have abilities to that?’  So it was a – yeah, it was a – it was an incredible, incredible trip.