Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Mosaic of Culture & History: Haiti Lab brings together various disciplines to solve a nation’s problems

Published in the Spring 2011 Gist From the Mill (Magazine for the Duke University Social Sciences Research Institute)

By Whitney L.J. Howell

Inside Bay 4 of the Smith Warehouse, a converted tobacco facility just beyond East Campus, sits a first for the Franklin Humanities Institute. The open-office design, warm-toned wood, and cascades of natural light create an enticing atmosphere, but the true beauty of the space is its purpose.

This is the location of the Haiti Lab—a humanities laboratory that combines research, education, innovative ideas, faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates to bolster the study of Haitian culture, as well as further the country’s recovery from the January 2010 earthquake.

“Haiti poses a difficult challenge,” said Laurent Dubois, one of Haiti Lab’s co-directors and a history and romance studies professor. “It’s important for different groups to teach each other about Haiti and how to contribute to the country’s situation. There are huge medical needs and even larger geopolitical issues.  The lab provides a place to discuss these issues and potential, multi-faceted approaches to the problems.”

First conceived in early 2010, the Haiti Lab is a three-year endeavor that includes faculty and students from Trinity College, the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), the Center for International Studies, and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. The Duke Endowment

Group discussion on how to lay out the photographs and images and choose what should go into the various blocks.

gives the lab additional support. At the end of three years, the group will disband, but Dubois anticipates the partnerships borne out of collaborations will continue.


Already, under Dubois’s leadership and that of French and romance studies professor Deborah Jenson, 27 undergraduates from various schools within the University participated in Haiti-focused artistic, governmental, and health projects last semester.

Although the lab’s activities vary widely, both Dubois and Jenson see it as a way to bring Haiti’s history and its complicated present to broader audience attention. The goal is to ignite an interest among undergraduates and motivate them to embark on their own investigations, Jenson said.

“The Haiti Lab gets students involved in making personal contributions to research projects between schools,” she said. “Instead of just teaching the students what we know, we want students to be driven to educate themselves and be engaged with a broader world.”

Dubois and Jenson are well positioned to spark student curiosity. Both professors have focused substantial portions of their careers on Haiti. As an anthropological historian, Dubois has a keen interest in the history of the African slave trade and revolution in the French-controlled areas of the Caribbean. Jenson’s connection to Haiti grew out of a single, previously untranslated Creole-language poem. As she translated the lines, she became fascinated with the language that sprang from the need for African slaves, traders, and colonists who spoke different tongues to communicate.

So far, the Haiti Lab has received national attention for a significant discovery made by Julia Gaffield, a Ph.D. candidate in history involved with the lab. While conducting research at the British National Archives for her dissertation on 19th-century Haiti and international politics, Gaffield discovered what is believed to be the only government-printed copy of the Haitian Declaration of Independence.

Two main projects, however, are where students work to fulfill the lab’s mission. Together with DGHI assistant professor and executive director of Family Health Ministries Kathy Walmer, Jenson leads a two-year study into how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) manifests itself in Haiti and how to best treat those symptoms. According to Jenson, Haiti’s culture, social structure, and religious practices—including voodoo—make the Western constructs used to address PTSD ineffective. This work is particularly vital as public concern for Haiti’s earthquake victims has waned over the past year, Walmer said.

“The PTSD research helps keep Haiti in the forefront of people’s thoughts, so the victims receive some benefit,” she said. “But students also gain because many have never before been exposed to such a different culture with such a high level of need.”

For senior Kendra Hinton, being the principal investigator of the PTSD project and surveying the victims about their experiences and needs was a natural extension of her French and psychology major.

“Working with this group in Haiti was a quite powerful experience,” she said, recounting the horror-filled expression on one woman’s face as she described living through the earthquake. “The conversations I had really opened my eyes about how the way we conduct research in the United States, and the criteria we use, may not function with other cultures.”


Jessye Mcdowe (UNC MFA student) pouring resin into one of the molds to make the blocks.

Students make positive contributions to Haiti by meeting some of the country’s health needs, but the lab also exposes them to Haiti’s culture and rich artistic history. Last fall, Miami-based Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, well known for mural art that combines influences from Haiti’s African heritage, classical mythology, and contemporary events, came to campus twice to guide students in producing a similar mosaic for public display in Bay 4.


Students and faculty individually designed 35 squares from poured resin that depict vignettes of Haiti’s history and lore, including representations of religious iconography, earthquake graffiti, or events during the slave trade era. Each five-layered square takes up to two weeks to complete, and once finished, the squares will be connected to form a back-lit mosaic that will hang in one of the lab’s lecture spaces.

Third-year doctoral student Christina Mobley sees the Haiti Lab as an extension of her undergraduate work at Mcgill University on Haitian slavery. Her past work parallels much of what Duval-Carrié depicts in his art, so she had great interest in the resin square project as an avenue to further her understanding of Haiti.

“I was fortunate to spend time with Edouard when he came to campus for long weekends,” Mobley said. “He would hole up with undergraduates, graduates, and professors and provide a lot of guidance and encouragement while working with us.”

The student work is impressive, Dubois said, but the lab will only be a true success if participants carry what they learn with them beyond their years at Duke.

“Our intent isn’t for the lab to replace what students can find in the classroom,” Dubois said. “Our hope is that we give them the tools to start thinking about what they can do beyond the University.”


March 25, 2011 Posted by | Education, Healthcare, Politics, Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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