MinnPost Asks: Ruth Anne Olson
Before she retired, Ruth Anne Olson had a long and distinguished career in education, toward the end of which she came to focus, particularly, on issues of diversity and racism in education. In the late ’80s, she was recruited by the St. Paul Foundation to refine their diversity education initiatives. “I spent a year going all over — talking with people, kids, school people, community leaders — just listening to their stories and struggles, trying to get my head around what was going on with what was then called the foundation’s ‘minority education’ program.”
“That experience — talking to the people actually affected by these programs and who were working in the trenches of educating kids — was deeply influential for me,” she says. “And it was out of that experience that I wrote ‘White Privilege in Schools.’ ” [PDF] Olson’s article, written in 1999, has had lasting influence; it’s been widely anthologized and included in instructional materials on diversity in education all over the country.
Even now, the same concerns that propelled her professional passions continue to drive her recent, albeit very different endeavors — a new photo and storytelling project that centers on the people and culture of Haiti.
MinnPost: With regard to the issues of white privilege in schools you raised in the 1999 article, do you think there’s been progress in the 11 years since you wrote that piece? What areas still need attention?
Ruth Anne Olson: You know, it’s deeply discouraging to me that the issues raised in that article are still even relevant now. Former Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser put together a “Committee on the Achievement Gap” to consider the persistent gap between white students and black students in public schools. I’ve been so discouraged to see that, even now, the role of racism and privilege in schools isn’t even brought to the table in these discussions. The focus is largely on testing and standards, but we’re still not having a frank discussion about what makes this gap among students so consistently fall along lines of race and nationality. That should be front and center.
MP: How did you come to your current project, “Images of Haiti, Stories of Strength”?
RAO: Several years ago, I read a review in the Star Tribune of Tracy Kidder’s nonfiction book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” about Paul Farmer’s work building hospitals in Haiti. I thought it sounded interesting, so I read the book. A short time later, I bought a piece from a silent auction, a wonderful sculpture, that happened to have been made by a Haitian artist. Soon after that, I was sitting in on a meeting at my church, about an ongoing partnership with an Episcopal church in Haiti; the people involved in the project were talking about what they’d been working on while they were there, when they planned to go next. Pretty soon, I just found myself thinking: “I’m going to Haiti.” It wasn’t long before I took my first trip over there, in November of 2007. And after that, I knew I wanted to return.
Several months later, out of the blue, I got an email about an organization that runs a program of “transformational travel” to Haiti; you go and live in a village for a week, not to work on any specific projects or to see sights, but just to get a sense for the rhythms of life. It was just fantastic. I was with a very skillful interpreter, so I felt like I could have fluid conversations with people there — teachers, parents, kids, artisans. On a subsequent trip, with the help of that same interpreter, I started recording some of the individual stories of people living in that village.
MP: What’s the most important kind of story that these Haitians feel isn’t being told?
RAO: Americans have very little opportunity to know how Haitians really live. From what we read and see in the news, we know about the country’s poverty, illiteracy, corruption, hunger. When I’ve come back home, I’ve been struck by how neighbors and friends approach me. With a long face, they’ll say, “We’re so glad you’re back. It must have been so hard. The poverty must be terrible to see. We’re so happy you’re home safe.” That perception stands in such stark contrast to what I’ve experienced among Haitians; each time I go, what I notice is the liveliness and vibrancy there, the laughter and joy and honest conversation.
I’m struck by their resourcefulness, ingenuity and pride; I’m impressed with the loyalty and commitment I’ve seen from people there. Listening to them, there’s a sense of, almost, defiance in how they tell their stories. They seem aware that people in the United States primarily see them as two-dimensional, faceless “poor people,” rather than as capable individuals, as unique and varied in their accomplishments as anyone else. I think they dislike that underestimation more than anything.
In fact, when I’d ask the Haitians what I could do to help them, no one asked me for money. Over and over again, instead, they’d say: “Please tell our story.”
MP: In your introduction to “Images from Haiti,” you suggest that misperceptions about Haitian culture and people might be undermining relief efforts in the wake of the recent earthquake. Would you elaborate on that?
RAO: The Star Tribune has done two recent articles that frustrated me immensely, and which I think are all too typical. One focused on a local physician who’s been helping out in the wake of the earthquake, and another one was about a Minnesota engineer who’d gone to Haiti in recent years, to work on improving access to clean water. In both cases, reading the articles, you come away with a strong sense of who these dedicated Minnesotans are; it makes sense, because the focus was entirely on them. Such American relief efforts are certainly worthy of acknowledgment, but these sorts of stories leave the impression that it’s the Americans, not Haitians, who are making the crucial difference over there. There must be 1,000 Haitians for every one American working on relief efforts, but they are virtually invisible in these accounts. The fact is the main recovery and rebuilding of their nation is, and will be, coming from Haitians themselves. As long as we pretend that they aren’t doing anything themselves, we’re undermining all the worthwhile relief efforts under way there.
MP: Do you plan to return to Haiti soon?
RAO: Before the earthquake hit, I’d planned to go back in May; the clear message I’m getting now is not to come. I’d just be a burden, not a help. But all the profits from this project will go directly back to these villages.
I’m adamant that people understand: this isn’t my story, it’s not my book. I’m a contributor, but I’m not the author. The people who shared their stories with me have the right to be heard, understood, and known in their own right; they’re also entitled to the dignity of compensation for their involvement with this project.
The consistent, clear message I’m hearing is simply this: “Know us. Know that this is happening to us. And pray for us.”
An exhibit of portraits and first-person narratives, “Images of Haiti, Stories of Strength,” will be on view in Kenwood Retirement Community’s Kramer Gallery through March. In April, the series will be on display in St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral gallery. You can order a series of 10 posters with these images and texts, or the book collecting them, through St. James Episcopal Church.
Susannah Schouweiler writes about visual arts. This interview has been condensed.