While trained as a cultural anthropologist, I also work within linguistics and have worked as an archaeologist. This freedom to be more holistic in my research is, I feel, one of anthropology’s strongest attractions. Combining this with anthropology’s hands-on field research with Native American communities, I find it immensely meaningful to teach anthropology in the university and conduct research that is beneficial to others. Giving back to the community, for which anthropological research relies on, is always a concern. This is especially the case when longstanding oppression has taken a toll in communities, such as Native Americans, that not only face socio-economic, but health-related concerns. In spite of these longstanding problems though, Native American communities have continuously demonstrated their resiliency. It is this connection with Native American peoples and issues that drew me to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti earlier this year. I know no one in Haiti and have never been to Haiti, but as a cultural anthropologist and even more importantly as a humanist, I recognized the need to apply my knowledge and skills somehow.
Clean potable water has been a problem in Haiti for some time and although there are efforts to curtail continued environmental devastation, eroded land makes agriculture difficult. Socio-economic issues, such as imported commodity foods sold more cheaply than those produced in Haiti are coupled with cyclical poverty and result in significant food insecurity for many Haitians. They, too, are an oppressed community, but one marked with historical resiliency. I felt compelled to do something more for Haitians given their devastating circumstances, so organizing a water and food relief effort became evident. I envisioned organizing anthropology students from Valdosta State University (VSU) in south Georgia to collect rice, beans, and water for victims. Rice and beans are two important staples for Haitians, and consequently two affordable food sources for most Americans. Recognizing students have limited funds, I felt physical donations consisting of inexpensive bags of rice, beans, and bottled water made more sense than soliciting monetary donations. I also worked collaboratively with colleagues, administration, and student organizations from VSU as well as the American Red Cross and Second Harvest Food Bank. What began as a simple idea of collecting food and water grew into a city-wide relief effort. There was extensive media coverage including television, radio, and print media; and I began a Facebook group. Social networking quickly proved useful because it was an easy way for students and others from the community to post questions, concerns, and commentary about Valdosta’s response to the Haiti earthquake. It also enabled me to keep everyone abreast of continuing developments regarding the relief event.
The relief event took place ten days after the earthquake struck. We set up a drive-thru in the VSU baseball stadium parking lot to facilitate donation activity and the turn-out was remarkable. The American Red Cross’s disaster relief team collected monetary and blood donations, and Second Harvest Food Bank supplied a crew for collecting, palleting, and trucking donations to storage. Additionally, over 50 students from an area middle school volunteered. In all, we collected 35,000 pounds of food and water equivalent to 17 tons. Second Harvest Food Bank trucked 1/3 of the donations to Miami, Florida, where the State Department then flew the shipment to Haiti. The remaining 2/3 of the donations were picked up by the Feed the Children organization and then flown gratis by FedEX to Port au Prince where the shipment was immediately trucked to and distributed at the Feed the Children refugee camp housing 15,000 Haitians.
End of Part 1, look for Part 2 of this special 2 part article this coming Monday!
In the meantime, check out these other links about VSU's rice, beans and water drive for Haiti:
VSU Continues to aid Haitian Disaster Relief Efforts
Dr. Melissa A. Rinehart is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, Georgia. With a specialization in Native American Studies, her work bridges ethnographic and historical methodologies. As an ethnohistorian, she has several areas of interest including the removal and boarding school eras, language shift and revitalization, identity and performance, and indigenous resistance. Ongoing research projects include Native American participation at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and a book project concerning a former Catholic Indian boarding school, St. Joseph’s Indian Normal School, in operation from 1888 to 1896, in Rensselaer, Indiana.