PA: We work with this Buddhist school in the middle of one of the tent camps. They have these little temporary school classrooms and kids are learning and they have a garden there. They're growing kale and tomatoes and they have our [composting] toilet and the kids have hand washing stations. Then you walk 10 feet to the pit latrine next door and you see human excrement leaking into people’s tents and covering staircases and piled around. It’s like there’s no dignity or hope in poverty. And I don’t believe that that has to be the case. I think if you partner and you align and you empower people, together you can do incredible things.
More: Has your work in Haiti affected your life in Los Angeles?
PA: Absolutely. I think there’s a lot of pros and cons. [My nonprofit work] came at a moment in my life where I was going through my own crisis and I reached into myself, like, “Who am I really inside?” What’s important to me as a human being is human connection and love and support. But it’s also been very taxing because I devote hours and hours to it and there’s been times when it has brought conflict into my personal life. It’s a lot for my eight-year-old daughter to share her Mom so much—whether it be on the phone or [the fact that] I’m constantly going back and forth to Haiti.
More: Have you taken your daughter, Harlow, with you to Haiti?
PA: I haven’t because she needs a couple more shots. She says, “I want to come,” and I’m like, “Okay, let’s get your shots." [Then she says] “NO, I don’t want to go if I have to get shots!” But the other day she was looking at pictures because she’s very into me updating her on what we’re doing and supporting the kids and she said, “How long will it hurt if I get the shots?” So I think she’s getting ready to come with me. I think it will be incredible for her to see the little girls she’s helping that are her own age.
More: Since the earthquake, Sean Penn has emerged as a fix-it man in Port-au-Prince. Have you used him as a resource?
PA: Hell, yeah. I bugged Sean a lot of times. And he’s helped me a lot. I bug him all the time. [laughs] I’ll bug anybody, everybody. I’m shameless.
More: How hands-on are you?
PA: In Haiti, it’s like working through tar. I’ll be at the job site and they’ll say “We need 500 of these kinds of screws for the sheet metal and 500 wood screws.” So I’ll spend an hour and a half driving to a hardware store and they’ll have [only] one of them. And then I’ll drive another hour to another hardware store. When I was little, I lived in a hippie commune for a few years. We were incredibly poor. We didn’t have running water or bathrooms. I understand what it is to be really poor and still have the light and spirit and joy of childhood. I believe in the possibility of every one of those kids, their potential and their value. For me, it’s not a big deal to sleep in a tent. Last time I was there, we had so many volunteers that I slept on the couch. It’s not like I fly in with my hair stylist and makeup artist or say, “Send me first class!”
More: Your family members are all activists, right?
PA: Oh, yes. I was in my mom’s stomach when she was marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. His bus pulled over and they said, “You’re too pregnant. It’s too hot. Come on the bus.” My mother used to say to me, “Patricia. You rode in the bus with Martin Luther King when you were in my stomach.” [My family] went and camped out at El Diablo Canyon when they were going to build a nuclear power plant on the largest fault line in California.
More: You look lighter, happier, since your CBS series Medium ended. How much does that have to do with how draining it is to star on a hour-long TV series?