A Haitian woman washing clothes in front of her home secured by a metal door. 
 

redesigning for sustainability

Haiti was a place that intrigued me. It was one of the few communities in the world where a large concentration of deaf individuals lived together, and it was a place full of extremes. Extreme poverty, hunger, thirst, illiteracy, unemployment, prejudice, and violence. I was drawn by the challenge of solving a complex problem under these conditions. This was a project that I initiated and envisioned myself to gain additional experience in implementing human centered design methods and to help a struggling population.

Role: Project Lead (research, design, funding, implementation, and nonprofit formation).
Outcome: Project Secure (a metal door fabrication project) underway & micro enterprise training under development; fully funded.

Situation: A group of 300 deaf individuals were relocated to a remote town following the 2010 earthquakes in Port Au Prince, Haiti. I arrived to find a community that was struggling in almost every way imaginable. Women spent four hours a day to prepare meals for their families and hid water when guests were over because safe drinking water is scarce. The lack of electricity made it difficult for the deaf to communicate after dark, to charge a phone if they were lucky enough to have one, and it made them easy targets for theft at night. Many had little to no job skills because school was not widely available for the deaf. For those who did, there were few job opportunities, making most dependent on aid.

Project Challenges:

  • No budget (during research and initial design phase)
  • Only one month to assess the situation, learn their culture and learn Haitian Sign Language
  • No team members (outside of the community) to benefit from for outside perspectives  
  • The immense number of problems made it difficult initially to know where to focus the project
  • The solution had to be able to be implemented mostly from a remote location

Research Methods: I began by immersing myself in the community, slowly gaining their trust and an understanding of their culture and language. Each day, I followed members around, observing their daily lives and spent the night recording and reviewing everything from that day under the light of a headlamp. I worked on overcoming the communication barriers by giving them cameras to take pictures of challenges, frustrations, as well as positive objects and experiences. I focused more on having them show, rather than tell. I also conducted formal interviews with community members and recorded them so that I could replay the interviews to ensure that I understood what was communicated. Through these methods, I slowly developed a deep understanding of their situation and began to see patterns emerge.

Inspiration: I spent a lot of time thinking about a playground set that was placed on the top of a hill in the center of the community. It had been shipped to the community without much thought about the consequences of building a playground with American made materials and without much knowledge of the situation. Two years later, parts were falling over, the rubber seats of the swings were stolen (because people were so desperate for materials) and there were hardly any children using it. On top of this, the organization had spent lots of money shipping the materials and laborers to Haiti which could have instead been sourced in country to help stimulate the economy. I didn’t want to repeat these mistakes.

Problem Framing: My goal was to create a thriving and sustainable community but I had to first determine where to start. I began documenting problems, existing resources, and missing resources or possible solutions. Next, I identified ten core problem areas. I used an ERAF diagram to better understand the relationships between these problem areas and how they contribute to each other. I took the ERAF system one step further by assigning numbers to each core area that corresponds with where they are on the Hierarchy of Needs table. The diagram demonstrated that job creation would have the biggest impact on reducing most of the core problem areas. Thus, my next question became what type of jobs should we create? The ERAF diagram gave us another valuable insight into this. The second biggest impact area was security. And jobs and security both heavily impacted the other. The next question became, could we somehow combine the two?

Solution: I formed a small team back in the U.S., and through various idea jams we developed a solution: a metal door fabrication enterprise. This would allow us to secure the community through job creation. The project trains deaf workers in metal working techniques, enabling them to fabricate metal doors that protect the community. To launch the initial program, we rely on "door donations" to finance the cost of each door. Rather than this money going to a prefabricated door and not generating any employment, it instead helps train the deaf metal workers, funds their salary, and covers the material cost of fabricating the doors.

We built two additional components into the program to ensure its success. We provide members of the community with training in business skills and created a community corporation to which all micro enterprises must belong. The community corporation is run by a community elected steering committee and all businesses must give a small portion of their earnings back to the community corporation. This fund will be used to make community improvements. It also creates a system of checks and balances that ensures that all members of the community are invested in seeing each micro enterprise succeed.  

 
 

An ERAF diagram examining the relationships between different problem areas that existed in the community. As you can see, the clusters are around jobs and security.

 The rubber from this swing set was stolen because people were so desperate. This foreshadowed a much more severe incident months after I left where people stole the nuts and bolts from a bridge, leading to its collapse and the death of three community members.

The rubber from this swing set was stolen because people were so desperate. This foreshadowed a much more severe incident months after I left where people stole the nuts and bolts from a bridge, leading to its collapse and the death of three community members.

 Introducing an idea jam for key members of the community.

Introducing an idea jam for key members of the community.

 Contextual interview: A woman shows me some of her craft work.

Contextual interview: A woman shows me some of her craft work.

 A newly fabricated metal door.

A newly fabricated metal door.