I write you today from Haiti, where I am working with the Maine-based organization Konbit Santé: Cap-Haitien Health Partnership. As many are aware, Jan. 10 marked the eighth anniversary of the devastating earthquake of 2010 in Haiti: the day when Haiti not only remembers, reflects on and honors the dead and injured from that disaster, but also celebrates the way that the community came together to rescue and take care of one other well before external aid arrived. This practice of taking care of one another in very bad times is a particular hallmark of people from the poorest communities here, as the “bad times” are a chronic state for too many. It is a character and practice that we could all learn from.

Sadly, instead of the focus being on that resilience and unity on that day, the attention was on the ignorant and racist comments about the people of Haiti, and peoples from other predominantly non-white countries, ascribed to our president. My inbox was filled with denunciations and outrage, and it is hard to know what I can add to that other than our voices of agreement, and commitment to working toward a different vision.

A Haitian friend and colleague told me that he didn’t really care about the comment; that his dignity and value are not defined by Donald Trump. And, indeed they are not. But, speaking as an American, I feel that the comments do reflect on us, and left unchallenged, define us to the world.

They lay bare in the starkest terms the choices before us as to who we want to be as a nation. Are we going to be frightened of differences, or embrace the strength that comes with the diversity of peoples, thoughts and perspectives? Are we going to be about building walls between people, or bridges? Are we going to acquiesce to a worldview in which people are judged and disparaged because of where they were born, or embrace Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision that one day each person be judged by the strength of their character?

Last Friday, I had the privilege of meeting with 10 new Konbit Santé volunteers; all of them are bright, enthusiastic, idealistic young local Haitians eager to have an impact on their community. They have skills that they are committing to use to help their understaffed public hospital organize and manage their supplies. They want to help ensure that their neighbors will have a better chance of having the things that they will need, when they need it, for their care.

Today, I sat with a local doctor who has organized and inspired a group of like-minded health care providers to set up health services in a very poor section of Cap-Haitien that lacked any regular care. He and his colleagues have struggled to provide holistic and appropriate care on an almost volunteer basis for the past seven years. Because of their passion to serve their community, they have done amazing work with very little.

On these days when the value of entire groups of people is being questioned simply because of where they are from, it is clear to me that that these young people and these health workers from one of those disparaged places would be a huge asset wherever they decided to go in their lives — and in no small part because of, not in spite of, where they are from.

Of course I worry about Haiti, and particularly for the average Haitian person here. They face great challenges, and we at Konbit Santé redouble our commitment to stand behind and support those many people who are dedicating themselves to improving the lot of their neighbors.

These days, though, I am almost more worried for the soul of America. To that end, we want our work to be the counternarrative to the one that is currently dominating the news cycle, and invite you to join us in that in whatever way you can. If there is any good that can come out of this, it will be if it forces our own reckoning about who we are and who we aspire to be as a people.

Nathan Nickerson, executive director of Konbit Santé, is a Portland resident who has a doctorate in public health and lives half-time in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.

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