Sustainable Humanism

Sebastian Velez, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, is the founder and director of Children of the Border, a development project serving impoverished people in the southernmost border region between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Velez works with a Haitian and Dominican field staff and with Harvard student volunteers to alleviate widespread problems of unemployment, poverty, and limited access to education and healthcare. His group was also instrumental in providing aid relief after the devastating January 12 earthquake. Velez is the 2010 recipient of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Distinguished Service award.

A common misconception about humanists is that we’re like a debate club, always focused on the difference between a humanist and an atheist and an agnostic. We also talk a lot about how we can do good without God. The reality, however, is that there are few openly atheist or humanist charities. When my organization does charitable work in the Haiti-Dominican border region, people there so often respond, “We thank Jesus for bringing you. I went to church and gave him an offering.” And I say, “Well, Jesus didn’t call me. I’m an atheist.” And usually the response is, “Oh, well, never mind then. But thank you very much!”

Our employees and volunteers in Haiti and the Dominican Republic are people who used to go to church and take those offerings, but who now call themselves atheists or humanists. When we were loading one of the boats a person came to me and said, “Sebastian, I really like what you are doing and I’d like to become a humanist.” So I explained what humanism stood for, that it’s not a club or a cult or anything like that. After he left one of our workers came up and said, “You know Sebastian, I don’t think you should help that guy become a humanist because “humanist” is a very high standard, requiring very strong morals, and that guy—he’s really up to no good.” In their minds, to be a humanist you need to pass some threshold, you need to be a moral person.

And you teach that by doing. Our student volunteers from Harvard are tired of the arguments over whether God exists or whether one can do good without God. They know already. (They’re very educated, after all.) These are young people who need to do stuff. So we forget about the theoretical questions—we just go out and do it.

Earthquake relief efforts

When crises occur in Haiti, one of the biggest problems is the lack of good communication. When the earthquake hit we were right at the border with the Dominican Republic and received secondhand, conflicting reports: Either the country was in total chaos or things were in relative order, either the hospital had collapsed or it was operational, and so on regarding the status of food and medical supplies, water, and other needed items. After speaking with the UN and other NGOs based in the city of Jacmel on the southern coast of Haiti, we decided to make an initial trip with the basics. Once there we’d be able to identify the greatest need and return with those supplies. The American Humanist Association, through its Humanist Charities, wired donations while we recruited Dominican volunteers along with a group of Harvard students who were working on our regular projects. (One of the many advantages of having an organization in continuous operation is that you already have networks of volunteers set up, and can get the logistics organized in a short time.) Volunteers from our organization and from the Dominican Civil Defense bought all the hand digging equipment they could find, including picks, sledgehammers, and iron bars to help remove people from the rubble. We stenciled all the food, water, medicine, and tools with AHA logos to help with the chain of custody. We also wanted to make sure that all the supplies reached people in need. All the supplies were then stored in the Dominican Civil Defense warehouse while we arranged for trucks to bring it all to the Dominican Navy gunships.

Casa de Salud

Seven years ago Children of the Border was focused on human rights (funded by the Norwegian Humanist Association) and education (supported by a group of organizations, including the AHA). However, it quickly became apparent that we had larger issues to solve first: kids weren’t missing school because of its poor conditions, but because they were either sick, taking care of younger siblings at home while their parents worked, or were working themselves. We were also spending a lot of our energy and funds dealing with emergencies. The closest hospital is three hours walking distance and there are no cars or ambulances available in the forest. Women who went into labor in their sticks-and-mud huts gave birth there, and if they had complications, the woman, the baby, or both would die.

Even when the women managed to get to town, they had to wait, sometimes for days, outside the hospital without food or water, and if the hospital closed they might give birth right on the ground outside. It was in this context that we established, with the help of other humanists, Casa de Salud (“House of Health” in Spanish) in the city of Pedernales on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Here, any woman can come from the forest and stay in a clean, safe environment. We pay for their transportation to and from the house, and provide every guest with fresh, healthy food, clean sheets and towels, toiletries, and medical care. When women are ready to give birth, we transport them to the hospital, and after giving birth, we bring them back with their babies. Since we established Casa de Salud, we have not had a single mother or baby die in the forest as a consequence of complications during birth.

As we move past the emergency issues (women dying in childbirth, high birth rate, water issues with the well), we’re now trying to address the more long-term challenges: education and self-sustainability. The village of Fond-Jeannette has 300 children, teachers eager to teach, but a very unsafe structure that only holds twenty students. (The building has no rebar reinforcement and will easily collapse in the event of an earthquake whose epicenter is closer than the January 12 quake.) For years, the community has been asking us to help build a new school for their children. A Puerto Rican humanist donated the funds to pay for the blueprints by an engineer with experience in designs to resist earthquakes. All we need now are the funds to pay for the materials; the community will provide all the labor. On the sustainability side, we’re in the research phase of establishing a farmer’s cooperative, with the possible help of the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Our current projects

We have many concurrent projects as we try to solve myriad problems. Our only limits are funding and the amount of time of our staff and volunteers can commit. One of our largest initiatives is to provide birth control to anybody who wants it. With funding from Joe Gerstein (a humanist from Boston) and the Roxbury Foundation, and from AHA member David O’Brien, we are the largest distributors of contraceptives in the area, employing two full-time community health workers and one physician who manages our clinic in the forest two days a week. A chronic issue that probably causes the most suffering in these communities is the lack of access to clean water. In a small program started by Harvard undergraduates, we tested water and distributed free metered chlorine dispensers along with five-gallon jugs of water. We also recently installed a manual pump specially designed for deep wells. The pump was installed by a group of Harvard undergraduates with a grant from Projects for Peace.