Interview with Kam Williams
Since Haiti’s no longer front-page news, it’s very easy to forget about the fact that there’s an ongoing crisis there in the wake of the devastating earthquake which hit the island on January 12th. Fortunately, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien stands out as a journalist who has remained very committed to keeping the story of the country’s recovery on the front burner.
She recently returned to the region to investigate the plight of the disaster’s most vulnerable victims – the kids. Interviewing locals, missionaries, aid workers, bureaucrats and children themselves, Soledad discovered not only that Haiti now has about 380,000 orphans, but that many have been sold into slavery. Their perilous predicament is the focus of “Rescued”, Soledad’s shocking special report which is set to premiere on CNN on Saturday May 8th at 8 PM.
[See article about CNN special here]
Here, she talks about the riveting documentary, which will be voiceovered by Wyclef Jean and Edwidge Danticat and told from the perspectives of 6 year-old orphan Candy Jeune and a freed slave named Marc Kenson Oliphi.
Kam Williams: Hi, Soledad, thanks again for the time.
Soledad O’Brien: You bet.
KW: How are the kids? Last time we spoke, they played such a big role, demanding your attention periodically during the interview.
SO: [Chuckles] They’re fine, thanks. When I go back to Haiti in June and Sofia’s out of school, I’ll take her with me, which will be an interesting trip. And, from there, we’ll go to New Orleans, because she’s getting old enough to start touring some of the places I’ve worked.
KW: What interested you in covering this story?
SO: I don’t think you can walk around reporting on Haiti and be on the ground there, and not feel compelled by the story of the orphaned and abandoned children. When I was there immediately after the earthquake, there was certainly nothing as heart-wrenching as seeing the condition of many of the kids, because it’s such a massive problem. So, I was eager to cover the story for CNN with a potential global audience of two billion people.
KW: Two things that shocked me watching an advanced copy of the special: the sheer number of Haitian children without parents, 380,000, and the fact that about 300,000 of them are enslaved.
SO: It’s incredible, isn’t it? And that estimate is conservative. Some people put the number at around 1.5 million on the high side. That’s what I heard yesterday, but it’s just an educated guess at this point.
KW: What is the Haitian government doing about the fact that they have a situation where people are being enslaved?
SO: It’s such a hard thing for those of us in this country to get our minds around, but it’s completely legal. I’m sure you saw in the piece how the boy named Matthinson’s father sold him for about $12 dollars to go and be a slave for a complete stranger. But it’s an indication of just how devastating the poverty is in Haiti that that’s a viable option. It’s pervasive throughout the country. And unfortunately, it’s perfectly legal.
KW: Another segment I found compelling was the one about the missionary work of Bill and Suzette Manazarro. Why did you decide to include them?
SO: It was such a great story in a lot of ways, starting with Suzette and Bill’s philosophy of taking in children not to send them overseas for adoption, but to raise them right there so they can grow up to become productive, standup citizens and help rescue Haiti. The “Rescue” in our title refers not only to the Manazarros’ work but also the hope that the children might, in turn, rescue their own nation. I thought that was a very interesting strategy for a nation that’s just been through a devastating earthquake. It also helped that we came across a young man who had been shooting at their orphanage for a few years. His videotape enabled us to tell their story from 2007 to the present.
KW: You also said that about three-quarters of Haiti’s schools are in ruins. So, are the children being educated?
SO: In some cases, yes. I’m not sure of the latest status on that, because the situation is changing very rapidly. But the official schools have been ruined. They collapsed in the earthquake. In fact, the entire infrastructure of the children’s lives have pretty much collapsed. So many people, like Bill and Suzette, have set up their own schools for the kids in their care.
KW: What does Haiti need right now?
SO: Well, Kam, how much time do you have?
KW: Then answer this, how can someone who wants to get involved help Haiti?
SO: There are so many churches that have missions in Haiti. I’d say reach out and find an organization whose work you like and get connected through them.
KW: Dr. Karanja Ajanaku asks: What outcomes do you hope to have as a result of this special?
SO: I think one goal is just to keep the story of Haiti in the news, to keep people exposed to what’s going on in order to help them recognize the depth of the problem for orphans in a really cohesive way.
KW: I understand, because I was torn between interviewing a movie star this week and this opportunity to talk to you about Haiti again. I’ll be honest, I seriously debated it.
SO: I won the toss-up, then. [Laughs] I love to be able to get out an important message so that another journalist asks himself, “Hmm? Should I interview a starlet with a new hit movie or do an interview about this important story that still needs to be told?” I love that you wrestled with that. And that I won. So, journalism lives! I’m excited about that.
KW: Dr. Ajanaku has a follow-up: Did your reporting detect a relationship between skin color and poverty? And if so, how does that factor into the situation/condition/plight of the orphans?
SO: No, not really. But I’m not sure if he’s talking about black versus white or nuances in skin color, so I can’t say I totally understand the question.
KW: Larry Greenberg says that you previously mentioned the need for “opportunity” and “real infrastructure” in Haiti. He says, “I know it has not been long and it may be just a few starfish back in the sea but have you seen any improvements?”
SO: Yes, I did see some minor improvements, but it’ll be more interesting to look at the answer to that question when I go back next month.
KW: Daryle Lockhart wants to know if you think that a new, stronger Haiti will be a valuable ally to the US military. He says that the island’s location would seem to make it incredibly important strategically.
SO: I think the answer is, yeah, probably, but that’s not the big problem right now. What Haiti needs is infrastructural repair, not a new military base or a great jumping-off point for U.S. Armed Forces. They need jobs for the people and care for the children, and a movement to address the child slavery issue. In my mind, all that stuff comes way before any questions about whether Haiti’s well-position to be a viable military base for the United States.
KW: Publisher Milton Allimadi says that he’s been inundated with calls and e-mails since they honored you at the Black Star News’ annual dinner last November. He says thanks again and he was wondering whether it might be possible for you to address his journalism class about Haiti.
SO: It’s always possible. Certainly, one of the things that’s the most fun for me, even though it takes up a lot of my time, is talking to aspiring journalists. Yeah, there’s certainly ways to arrange that.
KW: William Cooper and Troy Johnson both asked essentially the same question. What did you put down on her census form? William pointed out that Obama checked off “black” when he is just as black as white. How do you self-identify?
SO: I find the question really ridiculous. All the schooling I have to do on this topic is wearing me out. Obama is black. His mother was white. I am black. My father is white. I’m going to give everybody a History 101 lesson. Some black people have white blood in them. This has been going on for many generations, people. Look at any family of black people. They run a range of colors. This is why.
KW: You and all five of your siblings graduated from Harvard, so I have to ask you what you think about Stephanie Grace, the Harvard Law student who recently sent out an email stating that she believes black people are genetically inferior to white people. Were you shocked by her statement?
SO: My first reaction was, “Well, who’s the dumb one?” If you’re going to talk about innate intelligence, maybe sending out that email is not the smart thing to do. That would make me ask, who’s the stupid one in this equation? But am I shocked? Sadly, no. I’m not even surprised.
KW: Well, Soledad, thanks again for another fun interview.
SO: Thank you so much for doing this story. We’re hoping that lots of folks watch “Rescued”, because it’ll be an indication that people want continued coverage of Haiti.
KW: I’ll certainly do my best to spread the word.
SO: Thanks, Kam, bye.