I traded panels and presentations for seven days of my own alt+conference

Ashley Gordon on the “Lessons I learned in Haiti with Every Mother Counts”

Spring is conference season in the publishing industry, a series of trade shows where we learn of the latest innovations, lay the groundwork for partnerships that will contribute to strategic goals, rebuild our teams in an era of emails and Skype, and particularly for publishing explore ways to transform our organizations as our industry is being transformed. This season I opted for a different kind of communal experience: a personal alt+conference.

alt+conference Lesson One: Build a team

Ten women, all but one a complete stranger to me, gathered at the gate and began the awkward “getting to know you” process. We had been brought together by our commitment to global aid organization Every Mother Counts. Founded by Christy Turlington Burns in 2010, the organization seeks to ensure access to quality medical care for women around the world and save the 300,000 mothers that die preventable deaths every year. Most of the mothers die, not because the treatment doesn’t exist, but simply because quality medical care is too far for them to reach.

This group was disparate in profession — nurses, photographer, geologist, designer, guidance counselor, psychologist, magazine exec, model, and me — but united in purpose. I wondered if that would be enough to create the bonds required to make us a team and ensure success in spite of the emotional and physical challenges that lay ahead. I’d been to Haiti before, and it’s a place where poverty and tragedy rival resilience and hope in ways that leave you exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. It’s not for the faint of heart.

alt+conference Lesson Two: Understand your clients’ needs

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Trips like this one educate EMC’s board and supporters while expanding much needed awareness and raising funds. Fundraising is done primarily through sponsoring and participating in organized runs around the world; Team EMC will run the distance so the mothers won’t have to. In addition to our learning tour of EMC in-country partners, we would complete our week with a 20K along the coast. So the first morning after our arrival in Mirebalais, about an hour northwest of Port-au-Prince, we warmed up with a five mile trek along a dirt road to the Midwives for Haiti birthing center in Cabestor, a region with a maternal mortality rate three times the national average and where 18% of children do not survive past five.

Mothers in the surrounding villages are offered prenatal care and medically assisted births, with follow-up care from the doctors and midwives at the center or from the mobile medical unit that covers the area. Their babies are provided clothing and blankets contributed by individual donors. One of the many highlights of the week was being able to gift the donations from friends and supporters back home, making a difference in a small, personal way.

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On the day we visited, a U.S.-based volunteer medical team was on site at the birthing center and opened a temporary medical clinic, diagnostic center, and pharmacy. More than 300 patients had walked and waited hours to receive care. The work being done by Midwives for Haiti starts with the youngest child and extends to the entire community.

Two of the patients cared for that day were mothers who labored and gave birth after walking three hours to the clinic along the same road we had traveled. As Atticus explained to Scout, you can’t begin to understand a person until you walk around in their shoes, or follow the path they have trod.

alt+conference Lesson Three: Find solutions that scale

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There are 201 midwives serving 10 million people in Haiti. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Midwives for Haiti provides a tuition-free, year-long course for nurses to become certified skilled birth attendants and helps them find jobs with hospitals, NGOs, and clinics. Many graduates leave the school in Hinche to return to their home villages, spreading education and care throughout their country.

Music is an inherent part of Haiti’s culture. The midwives use song to teach their patients hygiene, safety, and how to recognize the signs that the pregnancy requires a trip to the birthing center.

The skilled birth attendants also coordinate with traditional birth attendants, known as matròns. This retains the knowledge gathered over generations, encourages trust among the villagers, and increases the number of care givers. Haitians helping Haitians, from one to many.

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After the midwife school we visited two orphanages. In many cases, the children are not orphaned because they have lost their parents, but rather their parents have brought them there voluntarily because they cannot care for them. The littlest ones often arrive suffering from malnutrition and simply want to be held.

alt+conference Lesson Four: (Re)craft your brand

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In an earnest attempt to convey the need in Haiti, visitors to the country may neglect to share the country’s incredible resourcefulness and creativity. There is no question Haiti must continue to receive support for improved medical care, education, housing, and employment. But Haitians are not waiting for that support. Four hours on a bus and over a mountain brought us to the coastal city of Jacmel, where artist co-operatives hold classes, provide work and gallery space, and provide commercial opportunities for local artists.

Discarded paper becomes vibrant masks that adorn the street lights; tires that would be trash are redesigned into colorful birds suspended from trees in local parks. And Jacmel has been brought alive by the Art Creation Foundation for Children, a local organization that works with children and their families to decorate the city with elaborate glass mosaics. Through their own industry and artistry, the Haitians are transforming their country.

alt+conference Lesson Five: Find new partnership opportunities

Near Jacmel, we visited the Ciné Institute and the affiliated Audio Institute. They partner with international artists and local professionals to offer tuition-free training for Haitian youth in film and audio-visual production. The students write, film, direct, act, record, and play the music themselves. We were granted a special screening of a recent marque project, the single and video of Michael Brun’s collaboration with the institute, “Wherever I Go,” the students’ love letter to Haiti and an instant favorite on our run playlists.

Graduates of the Institute average an annual income of $6000 compared to the GDP per capita income of $733. With the guidance and support of visiting faculty from around the world, Haitians make their living telling their own stories.

alt+conference Lsson Six: Set your goals

All the participants of this trip with Every Mother Counts were required to raise $5000 to support the work in Haiti and to participate in RunHaiti’s Jacmel Riverbank 20K, a run through the city and nearby countryside. RunHaiti works with local health organizations to provide medical care and encourage healthy lifestyles through nutrition and exercise.

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photo: Roselaure Charles

When I received the invitation to be part of Team EMC’s Haiti trip, I had never run a race in my life. I had two months to raise the $5000 and train for a half marathon over what its own organizers admit is “challenging terrain.” With many generous contributions from family, friends, and colleagues, I hit my fundraising goal on race day. That left only the race itself to overcome.

The 12.4 miles of the Jacmel run traversed a mountain (1200 feet of elevation over seven miles), a few rivers, massive mud puddles, and no shortage of livestock. “Challenging” doesn’t cover it for this novice.

There were many moments when I thought I couldn’t take another step. After a rough hill that required toeholds to climb, these three smalls came out to take my hands and lift me back up. And when the incline was so steep it was more likely I would tumble down than run, this precious girl remained with me all the way. Just when the goal seemed most impossible, there was always a reminder of why I was there and what really mattered.

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I came in dead last but I finished (even turning down a kindly offer of a truck ride from the organizers). And I was greeted by my EMC teammates with cheers, and hugs, and complete belief that I wouldn’t give up. When people are counting on you — the donors back home who were with me in spirit, my fellow runners who told me all week I could do it, and the people of Haiti who had reached out their hands to help me when I was supposed to be there to help them — there is no question of finishing the race.

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alt+conference Lesson Seven: Define success

After the earthquake of 2010, the devastation of what was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere was almost beyond comprehension. When I first visited Haiti in 2013, I worked in a school near a tent city and like all who saw it I was heartbroken by the suffering so near our land of abundance. But on this trip three years later, the shared mission of Team EMC was more than enough to successfully meet the challenges we faced and to better understand our role in working alongside our Haitian partners to support their success. We do not go to save them. We go to lend a hand, and receive a hand in return.

alt+conference Outcome: Transformation

Ultimately, ten women came together as strangers and became Team Haiti EMC. We strengthened our combined commitment to ensure women in Haiti receive the critical care they need. We were inspired by all women’s resilience, and the country’s remarkable capacity to rise from the rubble, creating beauty out of the dust. And we experienced a transformation, as when the giver receives a profound gift.

If the objectives of a conference are to strengthen, inspire and transform an industry and its professionals, a personal alt+conference, then, offers the opportunity to be strengthened in your commitment to do work that makes a difference where a difference matters, to be inspired by a culture determined to prevail against tremendous odds, and to arrive with the intent to transform and instead find yourself forever transformed.

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