26 Reasons for Environmental Optimism in Haiti


For many Haiti evokes images of absolute poverty, environmental devastation and desperate emigrants. When I think of Haiti, I see 26 young leaders dedicated to serving others and the environment.

I was invited by the State Department’s Fulbright Program for the Western Hemisphere to co-lead a course in Environmental Leadership and train 26 Haitian students from three of the country’s universities in the skills and qualities necessary to lead. In a process coordinated by the U.S. Embassy, the students were selected by their deans based on their subject area of study and their Grade Point Averages. Through a combination of field visits, experiential exercises, readings, discussion groups and case studies, the students furthered their understanding of the need for each individual to take thoughtful initiative in addressing the environmental challenges in Haiti.

During the course there were several ‘Ah Ha!’ moments for the students. The most profound were when the students realized:

  1. By making changes in their own behavior they can affect positive change in those around them.
  2. Leaders do not need to have all the answers, but rather need to know how to bring together the relevant parties to find answers.
  3. Leaders are not only those in positions of authority, and the students began to see themselves as leaders.

In respect to the first point, the students took to heart the notion of change beginning with the individual. It was noted that here were students at the top of their classes in their respective universities studying environmental management and yet each time they would get a cup of water, they would use a plastic cup and then immediately discard it. This became an unexpected entrée into the subject of integrity in leadership. It is much easier to blame others for the trash choking the waterways or littering the nearby islands and imagine all sorts of solutions to “educate” others. In not so subtle ways throughout the week, these inconsistencies between articulated values and behavior were pointed out. By the end of the week, the students had taken to writing their names on their cups and toting them from session to session.

Second, through the analysis of several case studies in the country, there was recognition that complex environmental problems cannot be solved through traditional leadership. Rather, they require collaborative solutions that draw upon the collective intelligence of those affecting and affected by the situation. A noticeable shift occurred where students in the early part of the course focused on persuading others of the correctness of their individual point of view, while towards the end they were truly making an effort to understand the perspective of their fellow students.

Finally, the students showed increasing leadership from small actions to huge commitments. One student, acknowledging that her neighbor was reluctant to speak up, encouraged her to share her ideas. Later in the week, a small group organized a ‘spectacle,’ where the students sang ‘I believe I can fly’ and went on to explain their belief in their capacity to change Haiti. On the last day, the students announced the formation of a ‘Group of Reflection’ that continues to meet to reflect and take action on environmental problems in their communities. These students recognized that through effective collaborative leadership, even at their own hands, Haiti can address and overcome environmental challenge.

These students—26 reasons for environmental optimism in Haiti—are at the center of significant positive change in Haiti.