Disaster is everywhere these days, but as a US citizen, where should I respond? I chose North Dakota, here’s why.
A couple weeks ago, I received an email, subject: “Status update and interest in Haiti response.” Since Hurricane Matthew ripped through Haiti, humanitarian organizations have been working around the clock – to find and treat the injured, to provide food, water and shelter for the displaced, to prevent and respond to cholera outbreaks, the list of needs goes on. With the holidays approaching, many groups are short on people willing to leave their families and continue the long, frustrating work of disaster recovery in a chronically damaged setting. This organization needed a field site manager for five weeks, longer if I could make it work.
About the same time, I got a different message. I had read about a group of veterans planning a mission to Standing Rock, and I had put my name on a roster to help (I’m not a veteran, but maybe they needed medics, or someone to track donations, give a ride etc.) The response I got was exciting – over 2000 veterans had signed up to support the First Nation water protectors in their peaceful effort to stop the North Dakota Access Pipeline from threatening their drinking water. Now this rag tag group of volunteers needed anyone who had some time and energy to help coordinate the deployment of literally thousands of veterans from across the country, all in a matter of days. Ride-shares and buses needed to be organized, communications plans needed to be put in place, and on-site logistics needed to be set up so people wouldn’t freeze in the North Dakota cold.
I was torn. For a variety of personal and professional reasons, I wanted to go to Haiti. Traveling to new country, adding a new line to the resume, getting paid… all quite appealing. But I would only be able to stay for five weeks – not really much time to leave any lasting positive impact. Through past missions, I’ve noticed it takes being on the ground at least a month just to figure out what the hell is going on, much less contribute.
There are a couple other reasons I thought I would be more useful joining the “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock” movement than responding to Haiti. First, it’s closer to home. While I’m not of First Nation descent, I have a better understanding of the forces at work in North Dakota (political, economic, cultural etc.) than in Haiti. The crude oil pumped from the Bakken passes through Minnesota, my home. My brother and I go hunting in North Dakota every fall, I have a connection to the land. In contrast, I’ve never been to Haiti. I don’t speak Creole. There’s no way I would have learned to navigate the mess of international organizations and community groups and government agencies providing immediate relief and planning long-term recovery.
Second, I think the grassroots group “Veterans Stand for Standing Rock” needs more help than an established relief organization (which has funding to hire paid international staff). I may be wrong – I’m not on the ground in Haiti – but I have a feeling they will be able to find a capable staff member willing to take a nice salary and per diem for a short-term deployment. Meanwhile, the ad hoc group of unpaid volunteers in North Dakota would greatly benefit from any help they can get, even if it’s just organizing donations or washing the dishes. Put another way, I believe my marginal return of positive impact is higher working to get veterans safely to and from Standing Rock.
I hope this doesn’t come off as just a do-gooder’s lament, another SJW (Social Justice Warrior, an internet label increasingly vilified since the election) displaying his piety by struggling to decide “whom to help next.” That’s not my intent. My intent is to call attention to the causalities playing out in real-time across our world. What happens at Standing Rock – whether the Dakota Access Pipeline is built, whether we continue “business as usual” or become a clean energy superpower – will matter for millions of people living in hurricane and flood prone areas. And we as Americans get to choose.
I believe stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline will “save” Haiti more than I ever could on the ground in five weeks. It’s impossible to quantify now, but I think in fifty years, historians and climate scientists alike will look back at these moments and wonder, what if?
Working in Haiti would have been interesting and important, no doubt, but for just five weeks, it would’ve been like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. In North Dakota, helping veterans stand with First Nation tribes to protect our Earth from those who profit from pollution, that’s stopping the bullet.