LOS ANGELES - The U.S. Congress recently held a hearing titled "The Crisis in Haiti: Are We Moving Fast Enough?"
Those who visit the quake-devastated Caribbean nation have no trouble answering that question.
"No images I've seen on TV can compare to what I saw in Haiti," said UC Santa Barbara professor Claudine Michel, who visited her homeland in May. "In terms of daily life and daily survival, people are suffering. They're living in tents and not having much. Rebuilding is a monumental task."
Michel will return to Haiti this month with a group of students and faculty determined to put University of California expertise to work for the Haitian people. On Aug. 14, 21 representatives of the student-founded UC Haiti Initiative will travel to the island nation for a 10-day fact-finding visit. The group, which includes 13 students, will visit Port-au-Prince, Jacmel, Mirebalais and Leogane, the epicenter of the 7.0 temblor that struck on Jan. 12. They will meet with government officials, non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders and community members. Their goal is to find a Haitian community to work with on specific recovery projects that can be sustained by the people themselves.
Nicolas Pascal, the student executive director of the UC Haiti Initiative, visited the disaster-stricken nation with Michel in May. That visit further inspired his commitment to corralling UC expertise into aiding Haiti's recovery.
"I was witnessing unmitigated, severe trauma," Pascal said of the survival challenges Haitians still face seven months after the quake. "We're looking forward to finding a small community where we can most effectively pursue our goal of providing assistance on Haitian terms to our Haitian brothers and sisters."
Last April, Pascal helped organize the UC Haiti Spring Summit at UC San Francisco. More than 200 students, faculty and staff from all the UC campuses attended with a goal of moving beyond good intentions and the small campus fundraising events that followed the quake.
At the summit, participants created six focus areas: agriculture, engineering and technology, economics and law, arts and culture, education and psychological assistance and health care. Each group has been meeting to craft ways in which UC expertise in those disciplines can best be deployed on the ground in Haiti.
Leslie Voltaire, special envoy to the United Nations' Stabilization Mission in Haiti and head of the Haiti Reconstruction Commission's urban planning effort, delivered the keynote address at the summit.
"I was impressed by the students' determination," Voltaire said. "I think UC has a lot of brain power. They have no vested interest like the governments and big NGOs. They are committed to help. I'm very emotional from this. I've seen a lot of compassion. I'm very moved."
In July, the UC Haiti Initiative found a home at UC Santa Barbara's Center for Black Studies Research, where Michel is the director and editor of the Journal of Haitian Studies, the only academic, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to Haiti. UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara and UCLA have contributed to the initiative.
Pascal, a graduate student in global and international studies at UC Santa Barbara, sees potential for greater student involvement as chapters of UC Haiti Initiative become active at every campus.
"There's a social responsibility to help other people," Pascal said. "That's exactly why I got into my major, to think how I can engage and support communities around the world. We have a moral imperative."
The group is planning another summit like the kickoff event held in April.
"The real driving force is our students," said UC Davis pediatrician Douglas Gross. "They're utilizing the expertise of the faculty, but the energy of the students is driving it. I'm very encouraged."
Gross delivered emergency medical care in Haiti as part of a U.S. Disaster Medical Assistance Team in January. He co-directs the initiative's health care group.
The UC Haiti Initiative intends to apply for status as a UC multi-campus research unit, Gross said. There are relief organizations interested in partnering with the UC group, and he's hopeful the initiative will secure grant money.
UC has the expertise to help Haitians rebuild their health care system, Gross said, by training health care workers, using telemedicine and distance learning technology to increase access to medical knowledge.
UCLA physician Ami Ben-Artzi, who directs the health group with Gross, visited Haiti in May, paying visits to local hospitals, schools and universities and stopping people on the street to ask what kind of help they need.
"Not nearly enough has been done to help the people," he said. "People outside Port-au-Prince feel they've been on their own. The work of the NGOs is not sustainable. A lot would like to scale back their efforts in Haiti or to pull out."
People have gotten used to using the free health care system that Western medical personnel have been providing. Now that system of emergency care has replaced the Haitian system, Ben-Artzi said. He would like to help Haiti establish a system that could sustain itself after the NGOs leave.
Although many organizations are working in Haiti, Ben-Artzi said, UC's effort will be different because of its interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach. For example, the health care group might work with the agriculture group to encourage Haitians to plant crops with high nutritional value.
"We're really going to focus on redevelopment through research and education," Ben-Artzi said. "We would like to focus on solutions devised with Haitian partners and implemented by Haitians."
UC students and faculty stand to gain from the initiative's projects as well.
"I've taken students to Haiti before," said UC Santa Barbara's Michel. "They tell me they learn more in a week or two in Haiti than in a year or two of master's study. It's an extraordinary opportunity for them. I find this generation of students extremely responsible and socially conscious."
The International Medical Corps in Haiti is helping arrange transportation and lodging for the upcoming trip. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and other UCLA administrators were instrumental in the campus contributing $15,000 to fund the student expenses for the visit. (Faculty members are paying their own way.)
"Caring for those who are in need — whether the uninsured in Los Angeles, or Haitians devastated by the earthquake - is instinctive to our students at the David Geffen School of Medicine," said Eugene Washington, dean of the UCLA Medical School. "I am confident that these young women and men, drawing on their extensive knowledge, deep compassion and unbridled enthusiasm, will be able to make a positive difference in the lives of the Haitian people. And they will become better doctors and better citizens as a result of this experience."
UC Berkeley student Tu Tran, one of the initiative founders and organizer of the April summit, would like to see research opportunities and Haitian-related courses developed for students. He describes the upcoming visit to Haiti as a reality check.
"We have these ideas but who are we going to do them with and what will our funding be?" he asked. "I just hope we can walk away with specific ideas and projects and establish solid partnerships and get going."