Why you should care
Because it’s not every day that you hear “kingdom of God” and “do-it-yourself kit” in the same breath.
Pooja Bhatia is an OZY editor and writer. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Economist, and was once the mango-eating champion of Port-au-Prince.
You know him best as Dwight Schrute, a tall, loud, awkward beet farmer prone to displays of gallantry, chauvinism, paranoia and one-upmanship, and who is often the butt of office jokes. But yo! Rainn Wilson has a secret identity: a do-gooder in Haiti.
After the earthquake of January 2010, celebs from Kim Kardashian to Beyoncé traveled to Haiti to “raise awareness,” while others, like Sean Penn and Olivia Wilde, have built longer-standing relationships. But it’s safe to say that Wilson is among the lowest-key celebrity philanthropists on the island of Hispaniola. He and his wife, Holiday Reinhorn, first traveled there in 2009, and ended up starting a nonprofit called Lide — the name means both “idea” and “leader” in Creole — devoted to the arts education of girls in Haiti’s rural areas. OZY caught up with Wilson last month. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
OZY: So, how did you end up working in Haiti?
Rainn Wilson: When I started getting well-known as an actor, I got inundated with requests to be involved in charitable efforts — from political organizations, or environmental movements, or fundraising, or just lending my name in some capacity. I was overwhelmed, and I needed to do some serious thinking. There was a nonprofit called the Mona Foundation that does education around the world. My dad knew the founder. They took my wife and me on a trip to Haiti, and we visited a whole bunch of schools.
OZY: And why, ultimately, did you settle on arts education for girls?
R.W.: I was skeptical. I really was, like, why are we going to Haiti to teach photography and drawing and creative writing? These girls might be hungry. They need rice and beans and shoes, scholarships, jobs, stuff like that. But it was really miraculous to see the transformation of girls over that two-week span [of the program]. They came in very shy, with low self-esteem, but by the end they had this swagger, they were just glowing with possibility. We were stunned. So my wife and I started talking about getting more involved.
OZY: And ended up with a program way out in the boonies. Haiti is challenging, but the places you operate in — Gonaïves, and the Artibonite — are even more challenging. Why there?
R.W.: We don’t want to be in Port-au-Prince. It’s where everything already goes — the money, the foreign workers, the schools and universities — draining the countryside. We wanted to work in the countryside and work in partnership, with a Haitian church, or school, or community center.
OZY: Why didn’t you attach yourself with one of the big agencies or nongovernmental organizations?
R.W.: I looked into that, and I did do some fundraising for big organizations. The world of the nonprofits and the NGOs is a fascinating one — and it’s a really broken system that’s really corrupt. I’m not going to say that every larger organization is corrupt, but the system is broken. Billions of dollars have been funneled to eradicate poverty and to increase education, and by and large you can’t see any result.
A lot of them do grant chasing. Essentially, they don’t really have a mission, but they hear, oh, the king of Saudi Arabia or whomever wants to put a $100 million toward, say, food distribution in Honduras or whatever. So the whole organization tries to get the grant. They don’t necessarily work in Honduras or do distributions, but they shift things around and it keeps them going. They have big offices in Midtown, and fancy fundraisers, and very high overhead and salary costs, lots of corporate retreats at fancy beach clubs. That’s the world of the NGO.
OZY: And what is the world of Lide?
R.W.: Our program right now is extremely cheap: We’re able to reach 500 girls, for about $150,000 a year. There’s also Haitian staff — five full time, about 14 teachers, 20 teaching assistants. It’s very cost-effective to help in Haiti. The average salary is $2 or $3 a day, and though we pay good deal more than that, it’s still a lot less than in the U.S. And we don’t have an office. We teach under a tree or in a community center or a classroom or a church.
OZY: How does your faith intersect with your work?
R.W.: I’m a member of the Baha’i faith, and education is a very important aspect of it. And as Baha’is, we have a twofold moral purpose: to make ourselves better human beings, and to work for social justice and make the world a better place. A lot of Christians might talk about the kingdom of God ascending from the heavens; I would say the Baha’is believe the kingdom of God is a do-it-yourself kit. So we need to make the world a better place.
OZY: What should the U.S. be doing to help Haiti?
R.W.: Things have gotten better over the past 20 years — I see the increased commitment, which is only right given that we’ve done so much harm over the past 100 years. Bill Clinton and his Clinton Global Initiative do a lot of great work there. One of the things that’s really important is developing a long-term strategy, not just a piecemeal one.
OZY: Which of the characters on The Office would be most likely to donate to Lide?
R.W.: Phyllis. Definitely Phyllis.