by Sonny Singh
The dessert table at the Salk School of Science’s fifth annual Fundraiser for Haiti last week was controlled chaos. An enthusiastic, rotating group of four middle schoolers and I sold over $500 in cookies and cupcakes to other students, alumni, and their parents in just two hours. Meanwhile, a large group of tweens were screaming for their technology teacher’s classic rock cover band on the other side of the Manhattan public school’s courtyard. Other students silk screened t-shirts, made jewelry, and sold zines at booths set up along the periphery. I was proud to see my students’ posters highlighting key points in Haitian history on display along one wall. But nothing was quite as bustling and popular as the dessert table.
Salk students have organized this fundraiser, also referred to as the Imagine Campaign, every year since the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. This is HEART’s fifth consecutive year co-teaching the human rights-focused elective that accompanies the Imagine Campaign along with Salk teacher Ling Teo. Each year, over 20 sixth to eighth graders sign up for the class, which is where the majority of planning for the fundraiser happens. Last year, Salk raised over $11,000 for the Andrew Grene Foundation, an organization that supports Haitian community development through education and microfinance.
Students are serious about raising the money. On numerous occasions at the dessert table, students’ friends would practically beg to get a free sweet treat. Time and time again, my co-bake sale team without hesitation would say, “No! It’s for Haiti. We have to support them.”
And support them they did. At this year’s fundraiser, students raised $7,700, and hope to bring in a total of $10,000 by the end of the semester to continue to support the Andrew Grene Foundation’s work.
Not only has the Imagine Campaign been a way for students to learn about fundraising and support an important cause, it has also served as a place to learn about, discuss, and debate some of the most pressing human rights and social justice issues of our time. This year we began with studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the founding of the United Nations, and then discussed whether all those guaranteed rights are actually met—both globally and here in the United States.
The rest of the semester was spent digging into some of the specific gaps we too often see when it comes to human rights. From bullying in schools to post-9/11 racism to sweatshop labor to economic inequality, we provide opportunities for students not only to learn the often grim realities of injustice, but to be inspired by the stories of people fighting for justice.
Since students are fundraising for an organization in Haiti, we also spent time digging into understanding Haitian history as well as contemporary human rights issues. Students are often surprised to learn that Haiti used to be an extremely resource rich country before colonization, and that Haiti was forced to pay debt to France after the revolution that made it the first independent black republic in the world. Students are usually even more shocked to learn about the United States government’s support of the brutal Duvalier dictatorships of the 1950s to 1980s, and understandably have a hard time grasping the level of human rights atrocities committed because of economic and political interests—sometimes even by our own government.
By understanding Haiti’s past, students gain a better understanding of why things are the way the are now—and begin to see their responsibility to do something about it. Not just to “help” those in need out of pity, but perhaps because of something deeper—empathy and solidarity.