What is your occupation and academic background and how did you come to work in this field?
I am currently a high school senior at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. I will be attending the University of Chicago next fall.
When I was in the 8th grade, Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, experienced a severe earthquake that was both devastating in its short-term repercussions for the physical capital of the nation, as well as in its long-term internal damage of the country’s healthcare infrastructure. Watching online news articles and media presentations of Haiti, I was just a 14-year old boy, who wanted to help. In the summer of 2010, my family and I traveled to Port-au-Prince, where we were fortunate enough to stay with a local minister in the village of Delmas. On our road trips to different villages in the region, I would always look outside to view beautiful artworks hung on the streets of the city, with art vendors and artists waiting desperately for a customer to come buy their work. One thing I can never forget about these moments was that I was always fond of the way these artists never gave in to their economic turmoil and pursued their passion for art. I came back from this trip, and eventually began to establish a nonprofit organization, Haiti Arts Relief Project (HARP), that aids Haitian amateur artists by selling their artworks outside the country and create opportunities for the youth of Haiti by building the HARP Art School in summer of 2011.
What is the biggest challenge of your work?
During my time working for HARP, I learned that not everyone shared my vision. Attempting to officially integrate HARP into my high school as a club, I faced constant faculty and administrative resistance: “Will HARP last after you’re gone, Won Woo?” “Your family just goes to Haiti and brings back artwork—isn’t this just a personal service project?” I was denied official school approval and my very motivations were questioned. I had a vision for HARP, but no one else could see it. So, I got to work. You couldn’t walk through Andover’s halls without seeing brightly colored t-shirts promoting our HARP conference on Haitian culture. I wore out my ‘@’ key recruiting guest speakers, and set up new HARP leadership committees, dividing marketing, sales, and art into autonomous departments with their own directors and goals. When 300 students and faculty attended the conference, featuring a lecture by Brown Professor Anthony Bogues on Haitian culture, art, and HARP’s place in that world, I knew we’d arrived.
But soon, even in the wake of our American victories, complications emerged in Haiti. The Minister of Youth Sports and Civic Action tried to merge HARP with a sports program—he saw us as a simple charity, indistinguishable in purpose and execution. Students began leaving HARP’s art school, not getting the training they’d come for. Even at Andover, as work on the project ran full throttle, I had to constantly remind committee members who’d never visited Haiti of our work’s value. I had made HARP “work,” but had lost sight in its purpose. Haiti wasn’t a place I pitied; it was a world whose creativity inspired me. However, I saw now how easily we could fall into the trap of “development”—creating generic systems focused on fundraising, carbon-copied from similar programs around the world. If I wanted to shine a light on what made Haiti distinctive and exciting, I had to both show it at its best and constantly focus on its unique features and resources, always trying to bring it closer to the artistic mecca whose potential I saw. We now restructured, getting back to our original, artistic vision. Emphasizing art training and the quality of our students’ work, we began pouring resources into the HARP-affiliated school in Haiti, hiring more teachers and building modern dormitory facilities to give students a new environment to just focus on art. As HARP nurtured artists, the quality of the work raised funds that further ensured the program’s sustainability. Armed with our new mission, I presented our model to the UN Protocols Committee in my summer internship, and then to the National Association of Haitian Professionals, where HARP was admitted as a member, working alongside established entrepreneurs from the American Haitian diaspora to implement programs for development in Haiti.
Identify one or two of your proudest achievements?
I am definitely proud that HARP Art School has become a self-sustaining educational institution devoted to creating a stress-free environment for its students, as well as a safe space where students can pursue their interests at a high level, with two admirable instructors, who were once street amateur artists, and have the knowledge, insight, and passion to deliver to their students every day.
I am also very proud of our achievements at the annual HARP art exhibitions held both in the United States and South Korea. For the last 5 years, we have been able to raise over $150,000 in monetary aids from art purchases, generous donations, and sponsorships for the House of Love Orphanage. These proceeds have been used to build and further develop the art school, as well as reach out to a wider community of amateur artists in Port-au-Prince region.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
To be honest, I consider myself too young to have figured out exactly what I will be doing in 10 years. But, I do know that I want to be continuing my work with HARP, increasing its publicity worldwide to a bigger audience, who needs to learn and understand the economic and social climate of Haiti, as well as the reason for emphasizing its artistic culture both to implement hope and vision, and to empower its people. I am planning on majoring in economics and sociology at the University of Chicago, where I hope to better equip myself with an interdisciplinary knowledge of economic and public policy, and conduct research on misappropriation of foreign medical aids and funding in developing countries.
What would be your advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have impact?
It’s never too late to make a change. I told this to myself five years ago, and I still give this advice to many students who want to create their own startups for social change. Regardless of what social issue you want to tackle, it is always best to begin- sit down and come up with a particular means of addressing that problem. Who would have ever thought that a middle school student from South Korea would travel all the way to Haiti right after the earthquake in 2010, then come back to start an organization dedicated to improving the lives of Haitian artists? Thinking back now, I am so glad to have decided to help the country of Haiti through emphasizing its art. Thinking ahead, I still have so much more to do and to work on, and I am so excited to embark on this journey with NAHP.