Hope on a String: Breaking the development mold in Haiti
In 2007, the year he graduated, Rathbun had no idea what he was going to do with his life. He felt like a history major without a calling: he’d written a thesis, graduated cum lade, and found himself in New York City working in a financial consulting job on Wall Street. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t have a clear path set out for me,” he says. Rathbun was struggling largely because he felt an urge to do more with his life. “I don’t buy into the anti-Wall Street mentality, [but] I personally wasn’t feeling like I had found my calling,” he reflects. For three years, he looked for clues and opportunities everywhere he could.
Although he couldn’t have predicted it in 2007, today Rathbun is the co-founder and executive director of Hope on a String, a two years young music and community development non-profit in Corail, Haiti. Not only is his organization working to break the traditional development non-profit mold in Haiti, he’s inspiring at least one Amherst college student, Matt Van Pelt ’14, to consider following in a similar path. They both view their education at Amherst as a key part of their work.
A chance opportunity and a new partnership
Rathbun’s first clue that his life was about to change came in the form of a tragedy in the earliest days of 2010. He vividly remembers the January afternoon when news broke of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake striking just ten miles outside of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. “I remember sitting at my desk in a big office building in New York and reading a CNN headline about it and thinking, ‘It’s awful.’” Realizing he knew very little about a country so close to his own, Rathbun began to educate himself and follow news of the earthquake. In June of the same year, Rathbun received a chance invitation to travel to Haiti with a private foundation on a fact-finding mission. “I leapt at the opportunity,” he remembers. “I was trying to figure out where I was going to go next in my life. Haiti was a random chance opportunity that came up.”
Rathbun spent three weeks travelling throughout Haiti, visiting almost every part of the country. He witnessed not only the earthquake’s devastation, but also the deeper problems the country had faced long before January 2010. “The earthquake really served to exacerbate systemic issues that had [already] been in the country,” Rathbun explains. “Paul Farmer, one of my top three heroes, calls it ‘acute on chronic.’ From a lack of coherent state guiding and serving its people, to vastly insufficient access to health care, virtually no public infrastructure or services of any kind, an education system that only serves a small percentage of eligible school going age kids, ongoing food crises affected by the global market food prices—I could go on all day.”
Rathbun’s time in Haiti might have just been an eye-opening educational opportunity had it not been for a special connection with Pierre Imbert, the group’s guide. The two quickly discovered they were simpatico. “Despite a significant age difference, he and I formed a very, very close relationship,” Rathbun says. Imbert, who was born, raised, and educated in Haiti, offered context and analysis for everything Rathbun was witnessing, and it wasn’t long before the pair began to consider the problems in Haiti’s behemoth non-profit sector and what an alternative organization might look like. “We began talking about ways that we could collaborate on breaking the mold and taking a new approach to partnering with the Haitian people in building a brighter future,” Rathbun says. “[We were] coming at the issue of helping Haiti from a different perspective, rather than one of charity or aid and more one of partnership or collaboration.” Although they didn’t yet know the specifics, Rathbun and Imbert were sure they wanted to work together to build a grassroots organization that fostered sustainable community development. On the flight back to New York City, Imbert and Rathbun began to dream up what that organization might look like, and agreed to stay in touch. In just three short weeks, Rathbun had found what he’d spent three years looking for: a call to action.
Music as a tool for social change
The daily class schedule at Hope on a String.
Over the next six months, Rathbun and Imbert dove into the incubation phase of their non-profit, inviting friends and experts to help develop their idea. One of the biggest questions they faced was what their organization’s programming focus should be—they knew they wanted find something that would have a broad appeal and help to build community. After considering a number of options, including soccer, the pair landed on music. For Rathbun, who describes himself as a “failed musician several times over,” music was a natural choice both personally and for Haiti. “Music has been a drive to me. It’s my outlet and makes me happy in ways that other things in life don’t make me happy. In Haiti, music is everything. It is a cultural pillar. There is a rhythm to Haitian life that is musical. It’s in every facet of life. You can’t walk down the street without hearing radios, be it in cars or in people’s houses blasting. You can hear six different church services all at once.”
More than just a cultural tradition, Rathbun also views music as a key vehicle for social change in Haiti. “Music is a common touchstone,” Rathbun says. “The celebration of music is something that really creates a common experience, and usually a very positive and joyful one. We wanted to leverage that as a way of building strong communities into a larger pursuit of improvement.”
Imbert and Rathbun returned on a visit to Haiti in October of 2010 with a clear vision: to create a grassroots non-profit that teaches music as a way to foster a strong, vibrant community. They decided to place the new organization in Imbert’s home community of Corail, located in the municipality of Arcahaie, just 32 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince. Aside from the obvious benefits of locating the organization in Imbert’s hometown— a built-in network of people and community assets—the pair made an intentional decision to move away from the heavy saturation of non-profits in Port-au-Prince. “What Haiti needs to do to build a sustainable future is decentralize its national assets away from Port-au-Prince,” Rathbun argues. “Virtually everything has been central to Port-au-Prince: the government, all of the public infrastructure, all of the public services of any kind. I intentionally wanted to locate outside of Port-au-Prince and build up the capacity of an external area.” After consulting with members of the community, the pair finalized their organizational model, secured seed funding, and by the beginning of 2011, Rathbun was working full-time for the new non-profit.
Hope on a String today
Since its opening almost two years ago, Hope on a String has grown into a thriving community-based organization that focuses on music education, skill building, and community engagement. With an almost entirely local staff of 25, the organization has been able to offer five full sessions of courses, which last between eight and 12 weeks, and a few shorter sessions. Hope on a String provides classes in two distinct areas: music and dance and a more general skill-building program that includes the consistently popular English language classes. From modern dance to music theory to musical instruction in violin, keyboard, guitar, and more, the organization has been able to offer the community an impressive range of classes in a short period of time.
Notably, Hope on a String makes a point of being responsive to the needs, interests, and skills of the community. Rathbun cites the electrical wiring program as a perfect example of this. “One of the things that has been a direct result of community input is a small scale electric wiring class led by some local electricians who wanted to give back to the community and share the skills they have,” he explains. “It’s been a very popular workshop over the past year. With financial support from Hope on a String, they have put in a great energy system that has electrified our compound and they’re thinking about launching a business on the back of this experience.” Community members launching a business is exactly the kind of outcome Rathbun and Imbert are looking for. “Music is a spark that brings people in the door,” Rathbun says. “From there, we leverage that into skill building and capacity building in a variety of different ways.”
A summer internship
This past summer, Matt Van Pelt ’14 had the opportunity to experience the burgeoning community in Corail as one of Amherst College’s first interns with Hope on a String. A double major in music and economics, Van Pelt has been playing the viola since fourth grade and teaching it since high school. When Rathbun first met Van Pelt at Amherst, the timing was fortuitous: Hope on a String had just received a donation of 64 violins from the New York City charter schools, and Van Pelt was looking for tangible experience in a creative non-profit. “I love teaching kids music and getting them excited about playing music,” Van Pelt says. ”I’m also potentially interested in starting my own non-profit one day, so I thought it was a really cool way to link my two interests.”
Van Pelt split his internship between Haiti and Hope on a String’s New York City based office. In Haiti, he taught three sections of violin—one for adults and two for children—as well as two English classes. On his first day of violin class, Van Pelt was surprised to realize that no one had ever seen a violin. “They all thought we were learning to play tiny guitars the wrong way,” he says. “I discovered that there is a large lack of vocabulary when it comes to teaching violin, and so I ended up making up a lot of words and then just teaching them to remember those words.” Although he initially felt awkward in his beginner-level Creole, Van Pelt found his teaching experiences immensely rewarding. “When I would hear a student play the violin, I would be blown away. [I realized] that I was actually teaching and people were actually learning and things were actually happening because of my being there.”
Back in New York City, Van Pelt had the opportunity to cull Rathbun’s insights on starting a non-profit from the ground up. “[He shared] everything with me: the basics of the non-profit world, different ways to get funding, networking tips, and just how much creative and analytical work goes into running a non-profit.” Van Pelt is particularly interested in how to combine his interests of music and writing with his passion for economic justice worldwide. “There’s a lot of room for creativity in development,” he says. “The idea I could be creative while applying the concepts I’m learning in my economics classes is pretty exciting.”
Amherst as a ‘training ground’
Rathbun attributes a great deal of his success with Hope on a String to his time at Amherst. “My Amherst education prepared me for this better than anything I can think of,” he says. “So much of what I do is solving complex problems, and looking for solutions in creative ways. That is what the Amherst education is about. I don’t think enough people realize it’s possible to do these things in the world—starting an organization or working for an organization like this.” In a slightly different way, Van Pelt is taking his education one step further by actually leveraging his coursework at Amherst to fit his eventual goal of launching a non-profit. This semester, he’s enrolled in two economics courses—one on economic history, the other on development—and he’s also enrolled in a Black Studies course on the black diaspora, which includes a careful study of the Haitian Revolution. While Van Pelt wants experience working in other parts of the world, his time in Haiti left such an impression that he plans to go back soon. “I keep getting confronted with my experience,” he says.
Van Pelt’s immersion in both coursework and groundwork is exactly what Rathbun would recommend for any aspiring non-profit starter. He stresses spending a considerable amount of time in the community before making a single decision. “I was lucky to have spent the better part of a year getting to know and understand Haiti prior to launching our operation here on the ground, which was invaluable to me as a learning experience. It is so crucial to get out and meet people who are affected by the problems you want to solve, and understand how the culture of a place will impact the decisions you ultimately make.” While Rathbun cautions that starting a non-profit “takes a willingness to fly the airplane as you’re building it,” he also emphasizes that taking on this kind of work “is very possible.”
For Rathbun, the journey that began with a chance trip to Haiti two years ago has been profoundly revelatory. “This has been a real privilege for me in that I’ve had the opportunity to discover who I am in the process of making this happen,” he shares. “I’ve found who I am in this work.”
For more information about Hope on a String, visit their website. To read more about Van Pelt's time in Haiti, visit his internship blog. To view a slideshow of photos from Hope on a String, including Van Pelt's internship, click on the link at the bottom of the page.
Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the Center for Community Engagement. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.