08/15/2011 11:31 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2011

Who's a Hero? Haitians Can Help Themselves, Too

In June 2011, I went back to Haiti for the first time in 10 years. To say I was anxious was an understatement. In the years since my last visit, I'd wanted to visit my parents' birth country and see my relatives, to feel the Caribbean sun on my face and to connect with my roots. The legacy of the first black republic was calling me back, inexplicably filling me with a deep love, even though I wasn't born there.

Being in Haiti over a year and a half after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake proved to be bittersweet. There is still devastation. The National Palace is still a hunkered piece of white concrete, its majestic presence shattered forever. Near the palace, there are tent cities everywhere. My aunt owned a storefront where she sold shoes, clothes and various sundries. It was destroyed in the earthquake, so she can no longer conduct business. Another aunt is a principal at an all-girls Catholic school. It was also destroyed, and classes are now being held in makeshift wooden sheds.

But that is the key. Classes are being held. As I walked around that school, I saw little girls running around playing games, older girls pacing the temporary courtyard reviewing their lessons for an upcoming exam, and still others lined up at the supply closet getting chalk for their classroom from a nun. Outside the school, a similar routine life was bustling. On the sides of roads, markets were crammed with people selling their wares: vegetables, hair accessories, grilled corn. Women were walking up and down the streets with baskets on their heads. The tap taps were transporting people up and down crowded avenues. In some places, it seemed like nothing had happened.

But things have happened. One of the most devastating earthquakes in history has ushered in a new type of colonialism: the NGO-industrial complex. Haiti's government has not been able to regulate the influx of NGOs in Haiti. Admittedly, there was much to be done in the wake of this disaster. People needed immediate medical care and food. Rubble had to be removed. The Haitian government was not prepared to coordinate these efforts. Over a year and a half later, Haiti has yet to see most of the billions of dollars raised.

One of the most talked-about is Sean Penn's organization, J/P Haiti Relief Organization. Many are grateful for the relief he provided after the earthquake. Days after the devastation, he rushed to Haiti with money from private donors on a mission to help. He built a huge tent city in Pétion-Ville, one of the largest, with 50,000 people. It now boasts a hospital with emergency care and free water for residents, and it even has a movie theater. While these are admirable efforts and great accomplishments on the surface, dig a little deeper and you begin to see the flaws.

What Sean Penn has really created is a micro-city dependent on aid. While he's not the only one who has contributed to this situation, he's been one of the most vocal and one of the most listened to. The problem with this is that it makes it more difficult for the Haitian people to exercise their own agency in the rebuilding process. Everyone marvels at how Penn and others are heroes. While I do not want to diminish his work, there is a lot wrong with painting individuals, especially celebrities, as heroes. So many of Sean Penn's comments about his work in Haiti are always about him, what he is doing and how he is going to rebuild. There is little talk about how the Haitian people are involved in this, or about how racial politics play into this. Helping, rather than allowing folks to empower themselves, sets up an environment of dependency. It also gives people like Sean Penn the liberty to comment on Haitian politics with perceived authority. For instance, last year he felt at liberty to condemn Wyclef Jean's decision to run for president. Regardless of what Haitians thought about this, and what was actually regulated by the Haitian constitution, Penn felt that he could insert himself into this process as if he were Haitian himself.

Sean Penn is claiming that he is now committed to Haiti for the rest of his life. What the media will not shed light on is that there are so many Haitians, either by birth or heritage, who have devoted their lives to Haiti. A close friend of mine, Haitian-born Rachel Pratt, was also on a plane to Haiti the day after the earthquake. After volunteering for a couple of weeks, she got a job with telecommunication company Voilà and moved from New York to Haiti. She manages their mobile money project, an initiative that allows people to use their cell phones as a method of payment for groceries, gas and a host of other things. This type of program is restoring the economy and aiding in security, and it encourages collaboration among businesses. Karl Thelemaque, an artist and activist who also lived in New York, was in Haiti when the earthquake hit and never left. He stayed to help in the recovery efforts, then the election, and he is now working to rebuild his birth home in various ways. A college friend, Slajanna Richie, also Haitian, went to Haiti and set up a foundation that worked with locals on various projects. Finally, a new friend I met while I was in Haiti, Gil Chrisphonte, just opened a bookstore and café in Port-au-Prince. After having lived his whole life in upstate New York, he wanted to be part of the energy and change that was happening in Haiti. With every turn, I met people who had uprooted their lives in the states and made a permanent move to Haiti to do work with people in Haiti to make change. It's an exciting time, and you can feel it all over the country.

As someone with a voice -- a loud voice -- and someone whom the media listens to, Penn would do well to remember that even though he has adopted Haiti, Haiti may not want to adopt him. We were never asked. The rebuilding process needs to be a two-way street. If Sean Penn really wants to make a difference in Haiti, he can use his celebrity to influence his contemporaries to properly support the Haitian people in their own recovery. He can make sure that Haitians who are already doing this work are supported. And, above all, he should realize that "help" is not always the best road to recovery and sustainability.