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Sheila C. Johnson

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Finding Hope in Haiti

Posted: 01/18/12 06:40 PM ET

"Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one." Those words from Stella Adler crystallized my feelings as I toured Haiti last week with one of the greatest creative minds in the world -- my friend Donna Karan, whose Urban Zen Foundation is doing extraordinary work to help Haiti's people design their own future.

On the one hand, two years after the devastating earthquake, reminders of the tragedy are everywhere. More than half a million people still live in tents. Many Haitians lack clean running water and sanitation, which is part of the reason why Haiti has seen one of the worst cholera outbreaks in modern history -- more than 492,000 cases and 6,700 deaths since October 2010. Serious challenges to food security, education, and employment had afflicted Haiti even before the earthquake struck. And despite significant donor pledges to aid with reconstruction, less than half of the $4.6 billion has actually been disbursed.

Yet, as Donna likes to say, "Where there is creativity, there is hope," and as I toured artisan communities and worksites in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, I saw Haiti's talent, potential, and tremendous hope on vibrant display.

In one workshop, skilled craftsmen were using scrap metal to fashion lacy, detailed sculptures. In another, artisans wrapped tobacco leaves around sensuous vases. I watched jewelry makers recycling and refashioning strips of paper into bright, beaded necklaces. I saw craftspeople employing artistic traditions that reflect Haiti's history and heritage -- carving horn, stone, and wood into stunning bowls, bracelets, and art. Amidst Haiti's devastation, here is beauty, alive and well. In these artisan communities, I saw Haiti's soul -- and it lifted mine.

With some 40 percent of Haiti's population unemployed, economic insecurity remains a paramount concern. Donna has been tireless in helping these artisans bring their works to the global market, linking the power of art, entrepreneurship, and commerce to help Haiti not just build back but leap forward, with self-sustaining purpose.

I am trying to support these efforts too. I brought my colleague Joel Towers, Dean of the Parsons School of Design, to join us on the trip, so we could explore the possibility of starting a program for Parsons students to travel to Haiti and assist with vocational training. I also plan to sell the artisans' merchandise in my hotels and resorts.

And I'm doing my best to spread the word about the Haitian people's ongoing struggles and their incredible potential. Haitian Prime Minister Garry Conille says 2012 will be a year of construction. Let's make 2012 a year of compassion and connection as well.

(Want to know more? Visit the Urban Zen Foundation. Check out international humanitarian agency Oxfam's recent report, Haiti - The Slow Road to Reconstruction: Two years after the earthquake. And follow updates on U.S. government assistance from the U.S. State Department's Office of the Haiti Special Coordinator.)