At the end of February, I provided back-up support on two post-disaster projects. In the evenings, I met with masters students who were putting together a three-part retrospective panel discussion on New Orleans – five years after Katrina. In the afternoons, I helped my coworker Martha Bonilla prepare a small team of students and faculty for a trip to Haiti.
Soon after the earthquake, Paul Altidor (an MIT alum, consultant to the World Bank, and adviser the Haitian government) contacted Professor Phil Thompson and asked him to assist with a preliminary housing strategy for the Haitian Minister of Reconstruction. Within a few weeks time, Professor Thompson assembled a team and secured funds for a field visit.
Sadly, I ended up missing parts one and two of the New Orleans retrospective.
When Martha Bonilla couldn’t get a visa in time for the trip, I was suddenly propelled into the arena of rapid response planning.
By the first week in March, I was in Port Au Prince. By the second week in March, our team had submitted a twenty-page framework for housing reconstruction to Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive. Last week, we learned that President René Préval was incorporating our housing framework into his national strategy for reconstruction. Today, the President will lay out this strategy before the international donors community at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.
I was a last minute addition to the Haiti team. The night before I flew out, the normal emotions of anxiety and fear kept me awake into the night. I was struggling with an old question:
“Am I really qualified to do this work?”
When I returned from Haiti, sleep-deprived and emotionally drained, I found myself asking another question:
“How can I possibly give any useful planning advice in this situation?”
I come at planning from a space of humility. My transition from ‘low-ranking architect’ to ‘senior project manager’ to ‘program director’ to ‘consultant’ has been fraught with unease. In situations where I’ve been asked to ‘advise’ or ‘recommend’, I’ve always felt a tension between wanting to be useful and feeling useless. And at the end of every project, I find myself holding my breath, wondering how the scale will tip when the client reads the report.
There are the days when I crave right angles, dimensions, standardization, rationality, specialization, and specification – elements of my past life as an architect. Yet I know, we know, that these tools are insufficient to address the world’s most complex problems.
While levees have fallen and buildings have collapsed, we know that the issues of reconstruction are not purely technical. Infrastructure failure is a product of institutional failure.
One of our most important tasks at CoLab is to prepare students to be able to work effectively and yet humbly in places where concrete collapses, markets freeze, and governments are weak.
My favorite educational model: Learning by Doing.
There are some things you cannot teach in a classroom. At CoLab, we put students on a plane, throw them into the fire, and guide them through the process of learning how to listen, see, analyze, advise, and act. This is our value add.
Amy Stitely is the U.S. Green Hub Program Director at CoLab. Amy was part of the March 2010 Haiti Housing Team with Paul Altidor, Becky Buell, Martha Bonilla, Aseem Inam, David Quinn, Kristal Peters, and Phil Thompson. Our team was supported by Anya Brickman Raredon, Elijah Hutchinson, Chris Jones, Lily Song, and Oxfam International.