By Miriam Arghandiwal
Published: Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Paul Burke, a professor at Sacramento State, has been a social, political and humanitarian activist in Haiti since 1988.
When Haiti was hit with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010, Burke did not merely see the devastation on the television, he felt it.
Burke said he and his girlfriend, graduate student Leisa Faulkner, watched broadcasts together as footage of the disaster began to flood news channels, which showed the ruins of neighborhoods they had previously worked to support.
“It was all in rubbles,” Burke said. “Leisa and I looked at each other and said, ‘We have to go.’ Within a couple hours we were putting the word out and checking for tickets.”
Burke’s own awareness of Haiti’s struggles came about when he was an undergraduate student at the University of San Diego. He said the school had a political film series that showed the film “Bitter Cane” one Friday night.
The film was a documentary filmed in the 1980s about Duvalier, a dictator in Haiti who was one of the worst Haiti had ever seen, he said.
“It completely blew me away.
I knew there were poor people in Haiti – What I didn’t know and what most Americans don’t know today is that Haiti is mostly poor because of decisions made by people in Washington, D.C.,” Burke said.
He said the film taught him how the United States government and various business corporations in the U.S. had sided against democracy and supported harsh dictatorships in Haiti, in order to maintain control and economically exploit the country.
Burke first started taking action by supporting Jesse Jackson in his 1988 presidential campaign.
Jackson’s campaign was based on the idea that the United States should support social justice at home and abroad, in places like Haiti.
Burke said that while teaching at Sac State in 2004, news came that Haiti’s dictatorship had been overthrown in a coup.
Burke immediately took action and created the Coalition for Democracy in Haiti. The group’s mission was to raise awareness of the country’s state of turmoil so a legitimate democracy was sure to be set up.
The collation dealt with adversity in pushing democracy in Haiti, Burke said, especially after the Bush administration sent in the Marines to occupy the territory in 2004.
“The Haitian presidential candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had won the popular vote, was pushed into exile. The rest of his political party were being murdered or pushed in exile also by death squads that had guns given to them by our government,” he said.
Burke said Faulkner, who was executive director of the collation at the time, offered herself as a human shield during a march for democracy.
“There was a mayor from a small town in Haiti, he was in the same political party as Aristide and he was planning a march but he couldn’t do it because the death squads would shoot him. So Leisa walked in front of him as a human shield.
The death squads wouldn’t shoot her with cameras watching; it would be an international incident for an American to be killed,” Burke said.
When the Haitian government finally gained stability and freedom, Burke turned his attention to humanitarian aid and in 2006 created A Child’s Hope Foundation, which provides funds for medical, school and athletic equipment.
Since the foundation was created, Faulkner and Burke have frequently visited Haiti to provide aid. The couple is now in Haiti on their third trip since the earthquake.
Burke uses his participation in the Sacramento Progressive Alliance to bolster his efforts.
The alliance is an organization that educates and pushes for worldwide peace and social justice, Burke said.
He said the alliance led to creation of smaller branches like Sac State’s Progressive Student Alliance, of which Burke is president.
“In our most recent trip we had an 11-person volunteer team. We had 22 duffel bags that were packed with 10,000 pounds of medical supplies that was roughly worth $30,000,” Burke said.
Cathlyn Daly, president of Capital Area Progressive, a organization that is dedicated to the development and promotion of progressive policies and legislation, was one of Burke’s fellow volunteers in Haiti during his first trip after the earthquake.
“It was a two-day trip to get there, and once you get to Haiti the devastation is immediately apparent.
There’s a lot of delays and setbacks we face, but Paul is always positive and makes light of every situation,” Daly said.
During Burke’s first trip to Haiti after the earthquake, he was shocked to see how catastrophic the damage had been.
“You see huts made of anything that could be found that people live in, and it went on for as far as you could see in every direction. It was like I was in the film ‘Independence Day,’ everything looked post-apocalyptic, like the world ended,” he said.
Toby Burke, Paul’s mother, said his activism has made his family more socially aware.
“Paul is knowledgeable; he has taught me a lot. He loves teaching others what is going on, especially young people like his students,” she said.
Burke said as far as his own inspirations go, the people of Haiti and his conscience are what push him to continue to help out in Haiti.
“The people there are inspiring, they have gone through so much, but they’re so tough and tenacious. You’ll never see a Haitian man cry, but as we walk around we all feel like breaking down at the tragedy,” Burke said.
Burke said one of the reasons why Haiti was ill-prepared to handle the earthquake was because of the Haitians’ long history of being exploited by countries like the United States.
The least Americans can do, is to try to give back now, he said.
Miriam Arghandiwal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org