As an active parishioner in the outreach ministries of St. James Episcopal Church in South Minneapolis, Ruth Anne Olson has dedicated her time and energy to getting to know the people of St. James’ partner church and offering them the communal support they need to keep their small school operational.
It’s an opportunity Olson, 70, can only describe as uplifting.
“What you experience is just a tremendous amount of hard work, of joy, of laughter, and a real sense of community and purpose,” she said.
It sounds rewarding, and from her description, it’s clear that the people of St. James’ partner parish are resilient and optimistic. But it certainly doesn’t sound like Haiti — at least when contrasted with the recent painful images coming from the island country in the wake of a devastating earthquake.
In July 2008, after being a guest on another church’s trip to Haiti earlier that year, Olson immersed herself in a Haitian village, with no preconceived goal, simply to experience what life and the people were like. She realized at once that the images of poverty, sadness, corruption and hopelessness portrayed by American media only told one side of a beautiful, multifaceted story of Haitian culture. “All those things exist there, there’s no questions about that,” she said. “But that’s not what you experience.”
“They’re full of life, they’re joyous, they’re upbeat, they’re hard working, they’re optimistic, and they’re thankful,” said Louise Robinson, a fellow parishioner of St. James who accompanied Olson on two trips. “They’re a million things that you wouldn’t associate with poverty.”
This realization in conjunction with the Haitians’ simple request for Olson to tell their story was all it took for Olson, a retired educator and longtime writer, to develop a plan. “I wanted to do what they asked me to do — not to give them money or help get them to the United States, but just, ‘please, tell our story.’”
Olson has since made two return trips, most recently in June 2009, equipped with an interpreter and a tape recorder. She sat down with 10 members of the village of Matènwa, ranging in age from 14 to 96, and listened to their stories of life in Haiti. The final product, called “Images of Haiti,” is a series of 10 posters, each showcasing an image of the storyteller along with their tale. The posters are printed in both English and Creole, the native language of Haiti, and are currently on display at the Kenwood Retirement Community where Olson lives with her husband.
This display — which touches on themes of social issues, education, the dynamics of family and community, and the wide range of skills in Haiti — is just the beginning, Olson said. She imagines the posters hanging in school buildings, hospitals, and other public places where passersby could glance up and take notice.
“Very few people would ever have the interest to stay and read every single one of the posters but even if they stop, look at it, and read one paragraph, they’re going to know a whole lot more about what Haitian life is really like,” she said.
The production of the posters, and the book compiling them, was nearly called off when the earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12. Olson said it felt so wrong to insert herself into the agony without really knowing it. But after several friends and supporters told her it was important, now more than ever, to tell the Haitians’ stories, she continued moving forward.
Eveline Pierre, founder of the Haitian Heritage Museum in Miami, points out that Olson’s project not only honors the Haitian people, but also plays an important role in their history.
“Most often, the people are hungry and the people are working, so art and culture are not a top priority,” she said. “You need a place to conserve culture and the stories are an oral way to do it. [Ruth Anne] is preserving a glimpse of their culture and her project has been thrust into a greater position now because of that need.”
Additionally, understanding the Haitians’ unbreakable sense of community, ceaseless work ethic and extensive knowledge of the landscape is imperative to the world’s relief proceedings in response to the earthquake. “It’s important to understand their culture and their strengths so we don’t make inaccurate assumptions about what they need or what they may want,” Robinson said.
Olson cites, as an example, the recent efforts of Canadian and American military personnel to rebuild an orphanage in the coastal city of Leogane.
“It’s a wonderful story and yet my heart sank when I read about it,” she said. “With all of that economic resource and that muscle power that these young men in both militaries had to offer, they didn’t go to people in positions of leadership and say, ‘What do you need us to do?’”
Olson explains that Americans of all kinds — government officials, health clinic workers, relief volunteers and educators — should seek to help the Haitians in the way that they need it, not in a way that we think is right.
“The quake struck at 5 [p.m.] Haitian time, and it’s absolutely clear that by 5:30 people were beginning to rebuild,” Olson said. “It’s not a question of ‘will they?’ It’s a question of, ‘wow will we help them do what they already know so well how to do?’”
She hopes the people’s stories in “Images of Haiti” are one small step in that process.
“It may seem small in scope, but it’s so profound,” Pierre said. “These individuals in the posters take an active role in determining how the world perceives them instead of CNN doing it. It’s a personal look on the inside, and people will want to see that.”
Ruth Anne Olson’s posters are on display at the Kenwood Retirement Community 10 a.m.–6 p.m. through March 28. Olson will also discuss “Images of Haiti” at a book signing on March 1 at 2 p.m. at the Kenwood Retirement Community, 825 Summit Ave.