Habitat for Humanity sponsors “Truth Talks”

On Monday, the international organization Habitat for Humanity co-sponsored an event to raise awareness of human rights and poverty issues through presentations delivered by two distinguished guest speakers.

Dr. Basilio Monteiro, a professor with the College of Professional Studies, provided a glimpse into local poverty within New York City and Anne Lescot, an activist, anthropologist, and filmmaker, illuminated the human rights violations occurring in the Dominican Republic as experienced by Haitian descendants toiling on the sugar plantations.

The lecture event entitled “Speaking the Truth: Truth Talks” marks the start of “Act! Speak! Build!” Week, where each Habitat for Humanity chapter nationwide deals with the issues addressed by the organization: poverty, homelessness, and affordable housing.

Junior Ketienne Telemaque, who chairs the “Act! Speak! Build!” committee, hopes that this event and others scheduled throughout this week will raise awareness within the student body on campus.

Dr. Monteiro focused on the face of poverty in the United States, while Anne Lescot gave prominence to the effects of poverty in Haiti. Specifically, Dr. Monteiro’s presentation revealed that despite the image of grandeur that is painted of America, severe levels of poverty continue to reside in our backyard. He provided statistical figures which helped to further underscore the severity of poverty in this nation. Monteiro noted that there are about “37 million, or 12.6 percent, poor people hidden in this land of plenty.” Two interesting points can be derived from this data.

First, most of our nation’s poor are not considered to be so, according to government standards. Did you know that the government considers any family of four earning more than $19,971 per year to be living above the poverty level? Second, a large percentage of nation’s poor are the working poor. Unfortunately, there is a common belief held amongst members of our society that links the face of poverty with those destitute individuals living on the street or in homeless shelters; Dr. Monteiro’s lecture helped elucidate this inaccuracy in the hopes that the plight of working class citizens will some day be adequately addressed.

To further Dr. Monteiro’s position, Telemaque concluded, “The face of poverty has been skewed. Half of poor people in this country are working people, so poverty isn’t only represented by the homeless man or woman lying on the street corner, but it is also represented by the working class person living right next door to you.”
The second guest lecturer, Lescot, who flew from Paris to attend the event, discussed the deeply-rooted issues of poverty in Haiti and the circumstances facing thousands of Haitian descendants working on sugar cane plantations in the Dominican Republic. These Haitians live in perpetual fear of being repatriated if they step off of the cane fields. Sadly, between 20,000 and 30,000 workers are sent back to Haiti each year, many of whom will be unable to make a living for themselves.

The irony underscored by Lescot is that despite the poverty-stricken conditions attached to living in the bateyes, or migrant labor camps, Haitian descendants are probably safer in these housing communities than outside of them. Despite the widespread and evident contributions of Haitian labor to Dominican society, these workers are treated as sub-human. They are viewed as dispensable. Draft animals used for physical labor in the Dominican Republic are insured because it’s cheaper and easier to replace laboring human beings than it is to replace animals.

Lescot called on all students to analyze the situation occurring in the Dominican Republic. By doing so, we can realize the impact that Americans can have in improving the lives of these laborers. The discussion uncovered that the consumer brand Domino Sugar, invested in by the Fanjul Group-one of only three families in the Dominican Republic to own the privatized sugar cane plantations-produces two out of every three spoonfuls of sugar consumed in the United States. By putting corporate pressure on the Dominican Republic, and even those companies that use Domino Sugar, Lescot proposes that Americans can have a far-reaching affect on the current situations in the Dominican Republic.
However, the discourse was not unilateral. Several students took advantage of the opportunity to engage the speakers on matters of foreign policy, personal experiences with the violation of human rights, and ways in which powerful nations like the United States can affect change internationally.

Habitat for Humanity President Malessa Rodrigues also notes that there are other initiatives being implemented by the organization in addition to “Act! Speak! Build!” Week. One such effort features the newly developed “Fact of the Week” campaign aimed at advocating for change while educating St. John’s students. The campaign will present a “Did You Know…?” question relating to poverty, homelessness, or affordable housing, followed by the call to action line “What are you going to do about it?” Rodrigues hopes these new initiatives will further motivate students to become involved in the organization’s endeavors.
These issues of poverty are just as much local as they are global. More than one in 10 citizens in this country live below the poverty level and the gap between those who have and those who do not have is widening. As of 1998 the top 20 percent of the population held 83 percent of this country’s total net worth. These figures are clear evidence that fellow working class members need help from anyone who is willing.

Visit Habitat for Humanity’s page on St. John’s Central or email [email protected] for information about the ways you can become involved.