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“We engage youth, and the community at large, in a different dialogue about prevention - a dialogue through which they are empowered to develop a sense of responsibility on their own terms. It is important to take the time to talk things out, and through the community blog, Transdiaspora Network explores concepts of community, social change, and HIV prevention from a different angle.” - Ariel Rojas, President & Founder

The Transdiaspora Network Community Blog represents the seeds of a response to a long overdue call to action to explore new alternatives for communication about HIV prevention – alternatives that cut across all income levels, cultural backgrounds, and social classes. This Community Blog is made possible by YOU. We are constantly looking for contributors to submit stories about their experiences or to share their thoughts on the important issues we find ourselves facing each day. We value each and every person's opinion, as well as acknowledge requests for anonymity throughout the community. If you have questions as to what relates to TDN's mission please contact us.

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Creating Community: Innovations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic*

Community is a word we throw around freely and can be as broad as a global community, or niche driven like a community of insectivorous birds.  There are open communities and closed communities, and then there are communities that define themselves and awaken all types of meaning.  I got to experience something innovative that changed the traditional meaning of community for me.  The work in both Batey Ocho in the Dominican Republic, and Kenscoff in Haiti fall under that umbrella through organizations like Global Potential and the Children Of Haiti Enhancement Foundation (C.O.H.E.F.).  This summer, I traveled for 5 weeks to spend time in Haiti, and ended up in Batey Ocho, and learned something new about the meaning of that word community and its provisions.  I can sit here and talk about my personal experience but in the spirit of community, I would like to share the work I witnessed and how community transcends itself and supports HIV/AIDS prevention.  First things first…   

Definition of Community

1: A group of people living together in one place, esp. one practicing common ownership. 2: A group of people having a religion, race, profession, or other particular characteristic in common. 3: A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. 4. Ecology a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat. 

Kenscoff is located in Port au Prince, Haiti.  Although the capital is dense and dusty, and fast, a few miles away and 45 minutes on a tap-tap up hills and curves lies Kenscoff.  The air is considerably cooler and villages are abundant.  People are friendly and say hello to one another and it is here that C.O.H.E.F. hosts a free summer camp every summer for children of all ages.  Elsie Craig, the founder of C.O.H.E.F. liaises with Janie Wynne, a staple in the community, to organize and provide services for the children in the area (who travel near and far, on foot, to attend camp- something they would never experience otherwise).  Young men and women have volunteered every summer for the past 4 years and continue to lead workshops on music, Haitian dance, environment, life skills, yoga, natural medicine, painting, and sports, and arts.  It is here that I met potential young leaders like Amouskov, the tall, basketball playing volunteer who amused the children and kept the camp organized and led meetings every day before and after camp; Blaise, who took a week off from his job at the bank to organize and run the camp with a spiritual demeanor due to his work as a young pastor; Nathalie who made everyone laugh and knows every child, woman and man in Kenscoff and kept children and adults involved in limbo with her infectious voice and laughter; and Taina who volunteered this year with enthusiasm and a zest for life, despite losing her hand in a car accident last year, surviving two of her friends who never made it that fateful day.  Volunteers from Miami, Gonaives and me, from NY attended camp, rose at 6 am daily and worked tirelessly to infuse the youth with the annual theme: “an nou plante la pe,” or let us plant peace.  It is a known fact that children involved in the arts, and children that have an opportunity to be involved with a healthy functional adult are more likely to succeed and less likely to engage in sexual intercourse recklessly.  This means that they are also less likely to fall prey to HIV infection.  Each child at the C.O.H.E.F. camp was given structure and introduced to the idea of empowerment through meaningful interaction and powerful exchange that they would not have experienced otherwise.  The exchange of ideas and the voluntary participation from individuals, and the healthy interaction of each day and each moment give new vision to the word community and to the fight against HIV/AIDS, which lies in prevention and education.  Together, the children, volunteers from abroad, and volunteers from Haiti chanted “an nou plante la pe,” simultaneously sowing the seeds of HIV/AIDS prevention. 

Peace is a word not usually associated with the Batey- an area on the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic where sugar cane field workers live, work, and constant racial tensions are rampant.  In Batey Ocho something else has been happening and community is alive, sometimes turbulent, and strong in this isolated area.  Within the mix of Dominicans, Dominicans of Haitian decent, and Haitian migrant workers something special is happening.  For 7-weeks over the course of July and August a group of students from NY live, work, and do community service in Batey Ocho.  Through Global Potential, these high school students are prepped for their 7-week life changing journey where they integrate and become one with local residents.  Students like Xiang, Leo and Freddy interned at City Hall and took ownership of projects like a Batey Ocho census.  Other students like Darlene and Stebeli interned at the Batey’s clinic, while Donald, Christian, Jean and Carizma held after school workshops and activities for youth, and worked alongside the Batey’s Peace Corp volunteer.  Vested in the idea of community, the students would coordinate community meetings where human rights and other ideas were discussed.  Alongside the Batey locals students would either spend their mornings in the goat farm planting corn crops, or with the construction project building sidewalks.  Each student lived with a family where despite language barriers their host mom was their “mom,” and their host siblings were “brothers and sisters.”  The bond that was built throughout these 7 weeks is irreplaceable, and so are the ideas, thoughts, and interactions that were shared.  Empowerment was a major point of discussion over the course of my two-week visit at the GP group meetings.  The students talked and explored the rights of women, the difference in the family structures- one man having several families, young women having children, and a lack of education.  In these intimate conversations the group expressed their views on the roles of males and females, and the roles of males and females in the Batey.  Meetings like these helped the students to understand their new community, accept and integrate with their new neighbors and families and grow closer with the youth community in the Batey.  The young women and men from Global Potential served as ambassadors of change by simply being an example of the possibilities that exist outside of the closed community and building solidarity by working side-by-side. 

What is remarkable about the idea of communities like Kenscoff and Batey Ocho is how open they are to others and to sharing their homes, streets, culture, and values.  If communities like this welcome such innovative work, what types of possibilities exist for HIV/AIDS prevention?  It seems almost limitless, and the fight may exist with simply engaging one another through crossing borders and sharing what community means by participating, accepting others and being actionable.  Community does not just mean people living together in one place with similar ideals or beliefs.  The word is also based on interaction and what is left behind in the minds of the people involved.  Whether it is a new habit, a paradigm shift, or an exchange in information- all are relevant to HIV/AIDS prevention, solidifying the fact that through the exchange of ideas and interaction between different communities and individuals we can stop HIV- one community and one conversation at a time.

*Written by Regine Zamor, who was born to Haitian parents that immigrated to the United States in1968.  Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in both Westchester and Brooklyn, Regine has a diverse background that includes the suburbs, the city, Haiti and its rich culture.  This diverse background is the foundation of her work as co-producer of documentary STRANGE THINGS, program manager at Creative Connections, and as a published freelance writer.