Father Joseph, Revisited

The process of getting to know an organization and its people deeply, after years of off and on contact, inevitably includes revising prior opinions and judgments.  This has been the case for me with regard to Fonkoze’s founder, Father Joseph Philippe.  Previously, my contact with him had mostly at been at Fonkoze USA Board meetings, where he would lead the group in prayer, offer opinions that sometimes had a bit of a random quality (particularly in terms of relevance to the topic being discussed), and attempt to drum up support for his latest initiative involving the University of Fondwa, Fonkoze or the Association of Peasants of Fondwa (APF).  He always spoke in what I assume is his third language, English.  Anne Hastings, the director of Fonkoze and now SFF (Fonkoze’s commercial arm), generally communicated more effectively in these settings to American audiences.  On a few occasions I called Anne the “co-founder” of Fonkoze, once even after she had corrected me by saying that Father Joseph started it before she ever got involved.  I will not make that mistake again, especially after what I have learned this week. 

Father Joseph’s passions and accomplishments extend far beyond Fonkoze.  APF has been involved in upliftment of the poor of his native region of  Fondwa since 1988; in recent years, for example, its members have been planting 50,000 trees per year — meeting a big need in a country with massive deforestation.  After observing that many children in the area got no schooling whatsoever, and that the few who did needed to leave the community to pursue higher education, he created a primary school, a high school and his crowning achievement, a university.  Today he is in the process of energetically rebuilding those institutions since they were leveled by the earthquake.  All the while, he hosts hundreds of foreign visitors each year who are interested in working in solidarity with Haiti.  Several dozen international guests were intermingling happily with the 60 orphans who live in Father Joseph’s compound on the day we visited and interviewed him. 

One of the things that came through loud and clear in our interview is that Father Joseph founded Fonkoze using the oldest strategies in the book – painstaking research and hard work.  His early efforts with APF led him to believe that economics was critical, and through his study and thinking of that subject, concluded that the poor, once organized, needed a bank to call their own.  So he travelled to France, Israel and beyond in 1991-2 to explore different models for creating such a bank.  Early on, a credit union seemed like the logical institutional form.  He had dialogues with Haitian activists and economists, and people from abroad.  After a time, he saw problems with the idea of forming a credit union and discarded it.

In this video, he describes an international conference in Miami held in 1996, about two years after Fonkoze’s establishment in April 1994.  He had just recruited Anne to get involved and the lending operation was quite small.  Anne contacted a bunch of people Father Joseph had suggested.  You can see how he was trying to distill lessons from many countries (as diverse as the U.S., Mexico and Nicaragua) to find out what was right for Haiti, and also to identify potential pools of resources – such as the investment funds of Catholic Women’s Religious Orders – that could inject the capital needed.  (All videos are two minutes or less.)

Another aspect of Father Joseph is his boldness and the joy he takes in making seemingly outrageous requests of people to do their personal best for the rural poor of Haiti.  Here he tells the story of recruiting Anne Hastings in two parts.  First, how he got her resume and left her a message saying she was hired! 

Next, he talks about how he articulated to her the framework of Fonkoze, which in many ways anticipated what became “best practice” in the microfinance field 15 years later (!), about her working conditions (he could not give her any money or a place to stay), and about a specific challenge – to work with him to write some letters to raise the money needed for her to move to Haiti and get started.  Note the joy he takes in later involving Anne’s son in his work!

Dave Ellis, a great thinker, writer and friend, has developed a kind of spiritual discipline that I admire.  One of its principles is, “Figure out what you want, get proud of it, and then ask for it.”  I find much wisdom in its simplicity and integrity.  In the social change arena, people often ask for what they want with apology or with anger.  Dave invites us to do it with pride and clarity.  Some of us working for social change have difficulty figuring out what we really want – despite endless “strategic planning sessions” (!) – and our message is muddled as a result. 

I have been trying to integrate Dave’s principle into my life and work for years.  Among his many other attributes, I think Father Joseph has internalized this principle more than anyone else I have ever met.  What he “wants” does not relate to himself or his comforts – seeing his tiny home/office (pictured below) attests to that!  What he wants is always related to meeting the needs of the rural poor of Haiti and its grassroots organizations.

Here you see Father Joseph's bedroom, living room, dining room, etc. -- all of about 100 square feet. His "office", separated from his room by a curtain, is about the same size.

While he rarely if ever emphasizes this point, especially in a way that diminishes anyone else’s accomplishments or potential, it is clear that everyone involved in Fonkoze is playing on Father Joseph’s team, and fulfilling his vision – a team cobbled together, and a vision clarified, through a formidable mixture of diligence, optimism and faith.

Trying to make this unique individual come alive for readers in the U.S. and Europe is one of the many exciting challenges I’ll have to confront as I begin to work on the manuscript.  Ideas welcome!

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