Hearts on Fire: The Struggle for Justice in New Orleans
Hearts on Fire: The Struggle for Justice in New Orleans
From the forthcoming Catalyst Project book "Towards Collective Liberation"
"The people of
(People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition)
I hope that this article speaks to people who have gone to the
This reflection was written over the past year upon my return from
One year after the storm the African-American population of
People can't come back because they can't afford to come back. There is little housing or employment for people to return to. Some people had gotten FEMA trailers, but at nowhere near the rate of the housing needed. There is no rent control, so landlords have doubled and tripled the rents.[vi]
National, state and local governments have not acted adequately to meet the housing needs of displaced New Orleanians. In the name of "environmentalism," parts of
As of May of 2007, nearly two years later, about 75 percent of public housing ---most of which had no major structural damage from the storm--- is still closed and despite protest from residents of public housing and legislation in congress to halt these plans, most of the public housing in
Katrina Was No Natural Disaster
Hurricane Katrina was less then a category 3 storm when it hit
The Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the upkeep of the levees, and it is they, along with state and federal government who are responsible for the devastation that occurred in
The Federal Government has allocated 110 billion dollars to Gulf Coast Reconstruction, a trillion dollar disaster. Of that $110 billion,
Many people I have talked to from the Lower Ninth believe the government left them to die and does not want them to return and rebuild. Many people believe that the government bombed the levee to protect other areas of the city. It is believed by many that the government bombed the canal levee back in 1965 during Hurricane Betsy, and it is a historical fact that the Mississippi River levee was bombed in 1927 when the river was swollen from a year of nearly incessant rains; a breach was created below the city of New Orleans, wiping out the neighboring parishes, and setting a precedent for refusing to reimburse people for what was lost due to governmental neglect, racism, and incompetence. Therefore, it is not out of the question that they would do it again. Regardless if there was a bomb, the gutting of social services, military spending, and the government's disregard for the value of Black and working class peoples' lives left the levees crumbling.
It is clear from the lack of government action and the tourist-focused reconstruction that there is no priority on rebuilding the Black neighborhoods. If there is to be any justice, compensation for loss, or the assistance people need to get home and repair their houses, there needs to be a conscious and explicit adjustment to the racist institutions that are in charge and supposed to be stepping in. And for this disaster of racism to not occur again, reform is not enough. Grassroots organizing is crucial to building movements that create new libratory systems and ways of supporting each other.
The strongest response after Katrina has come from the grassroots. During the storm many of the first responders were residents helping each other get to safety and sharing food and water. Family members, friends and strangers took displaced people into their homes. Thousands and thousands of people went to the
Why I Went to
I originally went to
A call came out of
My first day there, one of the guys on the reconstruction work group of PHRF took me on a tour of
I had planned to stay for two weeks but soon realized how vital the struggle in
Nationally, so many of us felt the pain of what happened in
As a result of this ingrained racism (which I use here interchangeably with white supremacy), I saw the actions and attitudes of many white folks really hindering many of the efforts of local grassroots organizations that were already struggling under intense conditions.
Part of why I stayed was to work with other white folks to figure out how to best support the efforts of local Black-led grassroots organizations. I also stayed to support white volunteers in challenging our own racism, and recognizing how our own racism is counter to our motivations to come to
The Catalyst Project
In the San Francisco Bay Area, I work with an organization called Catalyst Project. Catalyst was formed from an understanding that as white people, racism will always significantly divide our movements until we dismantle white supremacy. We have also seen the power of white people challenging white supremacy and joining in genuine solidarity in multiracial struggle for collective liberation.
Ultimately Catalyst is attempting to help build a movement strong enough to make real, institutional, systemic change, and to move beyond the backward capitalist system we live under. We're not just interested in impacts, but also root causes. What is it about capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy that caused the dehumanization and murder of thousands of Black and working class people during and in the aftermath of Katrina? Why were people displaced all over the country? Why were acts of survival criminalized? How do we challenge the institutions that caused the deadly impacts of Katrina, and those government officials who are still running this country?
We're trying to be a part of catalyzing a movement that makes institutional change. The only way I see that happening is when the people who are the most targeted by the institutions I just mentioned stand up and change it. When society values the humanity of the people who have been historically the most screwed over, the rest of us will be closer to having our own humanity valued and our own needs met.
At Catalyst Project, we see working with other white folks as an important strategy, especially white activists or organizers working toward social justice. We work with people to show how white supremacy and white privilege get in the way of the ultimate goal of social justice for all people. We also support people's development as skilled, confident, and humble organizers. White folks go down to New Orleans to do solidarity work, but we've been so brainwashed into white supremacy that in order to stay principled in our work with organizers of color, we need to constantly challenge our racist assumptions and behaviors. Whatever brought each of us into this struggle for social justice, the only way we are going to move toward that goal is by working together.
We are working for collective liberation, and white supremacy is a nail in our own coffin. It prevents us from building the movements we need to win actual change. So we work with other white people to challenge racism, to show that it's not in our self-interest—that fear and mistrusting our allies and neighbors is destroying our humanity.
For all of us at Catalyst, wherever we are, if we see an opportunity to build alliances, we want to work with people. When we see a situation where white supremacy and racism are getting in the way of white folks being able to be as principled in their work as they need to be, we especially want to work together to combat that. We see this as a strategic point of intervention into supporting people coming together and building bridges that can build stronger movements.
Soon after I arrived in
At the beginning of summer, we agreed that I would be on the ground in
Catalyst recognized that
Our goals for the summer of '06 program were to support movement building work in
Some of our other goals were to move and strengthen CG organizationally by shifting the culture and practices amongst white volunteers away from white supremacy, supporting CG's Anti-Racism Working Group to be effective, strategic and dynamic, and to work with others to develop and implement a kick-ass political education program to politicize and radicalize volunteers from around the country. Another priority for us was to build accountable relationships through which to receive feedback on our efforts from local Black and white anti-racist organizers in
People's Hurricane Relief Fund & Oversight Coalition (PHRF)
When I arrived in
I was really taken by the intention behind PHRF's work to support people to stand up and build their leadership. At that point in
To paraphrase Curtis Muhammad, one of the founders of PHRF: "If you're fighting a campaign and you don't include the people impacted, even if you win, it is charity work. Many victories can be overturned if you're not actually building the skills and capacity of those who are impacted by the struggle in that organizing effort to maintain that win; it will not bring about real lasting change."
This approach to organizing inspired me. I saw a lot of possibility and hope within the organizing that they were doing. I also saw how much more capacity was needed for the amount of work they were trying to take on. I learned a ton from it and I have taken many lessons and skills back with me to
Common Ground (CG) was started by Malik Rahim, a long time Black organizer from New Orleans, with Scott Crow, a white organizer from Texas who had come to New Orleans soon after the storm hit. They put a call out for volunteers to come to
CG provided tens of thousands of New Orleans residents with much needed services, with a goal of helping build a more just and equitable New Orleans. CG focused on gutting houses, providing free medical services, food and water distribution, tree cutting services, legal services, mold abatement, wet lands restoration, soil bioremediation, temporary housing and support for after school programs--all needs that people must have met in order to return home. In the summer of '06, CG worked to set up affordable alternative housing possibilities for returning residents, workers cooperatives and green building projects. They created a place for activists from out of town, predominately with social and or economic privilege, to contribute to the relief effort in
Racism within Relief Efforts
I became aware of how racism was taking place within the relief efforts in
The organizers of color with whom I worked were facing so much and working so hard it was rough for me to then see white folks like myself causing even more work for them. It was intense to see the same mistakes that a majority of us white folks had made within the global justice movement happening again in the middle of a majority Black city hit by incredible crisis. It was really hard for me to not want to separate myself from the other white folks, like "it's not me it's them." But I saw and was told that one way to support organizers of color was to work with other white folks to recognize our privilege and racism, and work to change how they impact our assumptions and behaviors.
Because racism is at the center of the real catastrophe in
Part of the work to do with white people in our movements is to build people's capacity to work together. Catalyst works with white people to build consciousness of internalized white supremacy and commitment to work against it, so that it doesn't interfere in multi-racial organizing that includes white folks. We focus on anti-racism as a key component of an overall struggle for justice. For us, this work isn't solely about challenging racism, but developing a pro-active anti-racist approach to social justice movement building. What would it mean to have thousands of white folks from all over the country come to
My first week in New Orleans, in the winter of 2006, I attended a three-day Undoing Racism Workshop for Common Ground, facilitated by the New Orleans-based People's Institute For Survival and Beyond (PISAB). PISAB is an international collective of anti-racist, multicultural community organizers and educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. They have been based in
Racism within Common Ground
CG has several Black organizers who have played important leadership roles in founding the organization, creating vision and direction for the organization as well as doing the day-to-day labor. For the last two years, CG has been a predominately white organization, in part because in the beginning the National Guard was only allowing white folks into the city. The initial calls from CG for solidarity went out nationally through the mostly white sector of the global justice, environmental and student movements. CG has not escaped the legacy of predominately white organizations playing a contradictory role of attempting to work for social justice while perpetuating racism and white privilege. It's the way the power system in this country is set up.
I don't want to make Black folks and other people of color's work within CG invisible. At the same time, it is important for me to talk about how white volunteers' racism was playing out and hindering the work, so we can learn from it and more effectively counter it in order to strengthen our overall organizing efforts.
I also want to be clear why I am talking about CG instead of many of the other predominantly white relief organizations and projects in
I saw racism playing out in several ways within CG. For example the fact that white folks neglected to educate ourselves about long-standing local Black organizations working in
Another way I saw racism playing out was in white volunteers not respecting local organizations of color's work, even going so far as to publicly discredit Black-led organizing efforts in New Orleans with little understanding of what those groups are doing or the organizing obstacles local folks face after their whole lives had been turned upside down by flooding, displacement, and other disasters. I also saw racism playing out through a failure to share resources and or support other local organizations that didn't have access to the kind of resources CG did, largely due to its mostly white, middle-class volunteer base.
Another example of racism was found in the attitude that relief work is superior to long-term organizing. Many volunteers were dismissive of long-term organizing efforts, while some white people who saw the importance of organizing acted competitively toward Black organizers and attempted redundant organizing efforts in the same communities. Many white middle class folks started projects without establishing any system of accountability to the people the projects impacted and or sought to serve. They failed to build solid relationships in which feedback and direction comes from those who are most impacted and then incorporated into the work. Not prioritizing accountability leads to unspoken assumption that white people know what is best for the community, and cuts off processes for honest feedback. Also many of these project started by folks from out of town lasted for very short periods of time and when they left town, they often took with them the resources they had originally brought in and or gained while they were there.
When white people got feedback that they were acting in racist and disrespectful ways, they most often got defensive and dismissed those claims. Unfortunately for the Left, this is not an isolated incident. The same story happens almost every time organizations - large or small - comprised primarily of white folks, do not take the time to be self-reflective, build accountable relationships both internally and with people of color most impacted, and do not seriously prioritize anti-racism throughout all aspects of their work.
A big challenge for most everybody who was down there doing any type of organizing or volunteer work, was having to operate in a crisis mode - working 14 hours a day with total urgency. There are constant deadlines to react to. For example, everyone worked hard to prepare for evictions out of FEMA-vouchered hotels. Then at the last minute there were some extensions and then there would be a new deadline. Deadlines for joining class action lawsuits or deadlines for filing insurance claims followed by them saying you have to have your house gutted by a certain deadline or the city can put a lien against it and basically take it. Constantly working against deadlines means that it's hard for people to prioritize political education and reflection even if that would mean doing the work more strategically and better. Everything is an emergency, even 2 years later.
Another challenge is the way working in crisis impacts the way we treat each other within organizations in terms of respect and patience with each other. When people are working long hours, aren't eating enough, or having any time alone or personal space, things that may not set us off under other circumstances can be very intense, so organizing within that space is really difficult. We do not want to go to the extreme of not doing the work, and only being inwardly focused, but we want to be sure that how we do the work is not counterproductive to our ultimate goals.
Even beyond New Orleans, many white social justice activists constantly operate in a crisis mode in which there is no time to think about how we do the work—we think we just have to get it done.
This dynamic was easy for me to recognize, since I had acted from inside this crisis mentality within global justice organizing. I was part of the Direct Action Network and helped organize a mass direct action against the World Trade Organization in
When I came to a town, I didn't take time to build relationships with local organizations and communities of color most impacted by the institutions and policies we were fighting against. I didn't think about how we were organizing and with whom; instead I was trying to turn as many people out as possible in a short period of time. As a result of our organizing style, we relied on people with privilege to respond to our short term organizing efforts. Eventually, organizations using that approach dissolve because they have not been operating with a long term vision that values leadership development, relationship building, attention to process, and space for working class people, people with families, and people with full-time or over-full time jobs to play leadership roles. Especially after my time in
Anti-Racist Organizing Within Common Ground
My commitment was to support movement building in
One of Catalyst's goals in
That PISAB and several other local Black organizers prioritized working with Common Ground was critical. Their example grounded me in figuring out how to do this work in a principled way. I would ask, "What would you like to see happen with Common Ground?" to figure out how to prioritize our work within Common Ground. This was important in helping me recognize Common Ground's positive contributions, and the things that needed to change for it to be a more principled and effective organization. I also had a lot of help from folks in Catalyst, European Dissent; a nearly 20-year-old collective of white anti-racist organizers based in
My goal became to support white volunteers from out of town in recognizing how their white privilege and internalized white supremacy undermine their desire to help build a strong movement in
Common Ground's Anti-Racism Work Group (ARWG)
During my first month working with Common Ground a number of us focused on supporting the development of an Anti-Racism Work Group (ARWG). The group was made up of folks working within Common Ground who wanted to take what they had learned from the PISAB Undoing Racism Workshop, and the critiques of racism that CG volunteers as well as organizers from outside CG had been communicating. We placed priority on listening to and understanding these concerns and critiques, and strategizing about how to shift the culture and practice of the organization. Our ultimate goal was strengthening the work and effectiveness of CG and its contribution to the larger movement in
Many people put a lot of work into creating the context in which the Anti-Racism Work Group (ARWG) was able to develop. Organizers with PISAB met with CG volunteers who saw how racism within CG was playing out, and that wanted to figure out how to get others in the organization to prioritize reflecting on and challenging racism. Trainers with PISAB also facilitated pieces of their Undoing Racism Workshops with short-term volunteers working with CG. The CG Clinic took the lead in January 2006 organizing and raising resources for a PISAB full-length, two-and-a-half day Undoing Racism Workshop for CG volunteers and residents working with both CG Clinic and Relief. The workshop gave many leaders in CG a chance to stop for a couple days and really reflect on what racism is, where it came from, its legacy in the
ARWG was developed after the PISAB workshop to create a space for people to prioritize conversations about racism within CG, get support, reflect, and strategize about how to move anti-racist work forward in the organization. This work is complicated and hard and even white people who are working for social justice are often very resistant to it. Looking internally at how those of us who are white perpetuate racism can be painful; so many white folks resist it, ignore it, or seek quick fixes to it so that we can "move on."
The goals of the ARWG were: to build relationships and accountability with racial justice organizations in New Orleans, to support and help implement more comprehensive anti-racist political education for CG volunteers, to support existing white leadership to do anti-racist work and build leadership from within the ARWG. We also wanted to support more people, at all levels of CG involvement, in becoming more active in anti-racist work and to support each other to approach this work with commitment, humility, and openness to learning and growth.
The ARWG had a lot of crucial support throughout its development from organizers with the PISAB as well as European Dissent. PISAB and European Dissent organizers gave us critical feedback, challenging questions, emotional support, and a more historical perspective on the work we were trying to do. Also, as residents of
Common Ground's Spring Break 2006
During Spring Break 2006, tens of thousands of mostly white students and thousands of Black students came through
A lot of these students were coming into this situation and having very intense experiences. Probably a lot of white people were recognizing racism for the first time - it was so blatant and in-your-face that you couldn't help but see it for what it was. At CG we wanted to set up political education that would help the volunteers contextualize their experience institutionally and historically and help them make the connections between what they were seeing in
We wanted to support students in realizing that those of us from the outside are there to do whatever we can in this moment of crisis to support the capacity of residents to come home and self-organize, whether that be by helping them gut out their homes or volunteering at the distribution centers offering food and water, or volunteering with a local organization that is working to support residents building their own organizing skills. We need to give whatever we have to offer to support what builds residents' own capacity to struggle.
With the support and leadership of PISAB organizers and trainers, we arranged for two 8-hour "Undoing Racism Workshops" a week; a two hour anti-racism orientation at the beginning of each week for all volunteers coming to work with Common Ground facilitated by PISAB, and anti-racism caucuses for people of color, bi-racial people and white folks that took place twice a week with facilitation from members of the ARWG, European Dissent and other allies. Also, we created a series of presentations called "Community Voices," in which local organizers of color talked about their experience of Katrina and their organizing work before and after the storm.
Spring 2006 with PHRF/OC Reconstruction Work Group
The first three months I was in
After that project was done, we worked on fixing up the new PHRF office space and supporting the organizational side of the Survivors' Councils Reconstruction Work Group. This involved making follow-up calls for the work group meetings, building relationships with residents, and starting to prepare for the spring break house-gutting project with the students. The New Orleans Survivors' Council is made up of people from the poor and working black community of
In my third month, the Reconstruction Work Group did logistics and supported the coordination of groups of 40 to 80 spring break students gutting houses the Lower Ninth Ward. In March, nearly 1,000 Black students came to work with PHRF through the organizing efforts of Katrina on the Ground, a national organization of Black university and college students. Lower Ninth Ward residents worked as crew leaders and van drivers. Many of the students also did outreach and organizing support work with a number of PHRF coalition members, such as INCITE! New Orleans Women of Color against Violence, Critical Resistance, Safe Streets Strong Communities, and PISAB, among others.
Many of the Lower Ninth Ward residents working on this project took on increasing amounts of leadership throughout the month and got more involved in the Reconstruction Work Group. The residents' fire and commitment to rebuilding their communities against tremendous odds continually inspired me. Working with people under such intense situations deepened relationships with people that I am so grateful for.
The Lower Ninth Ward
When I first arrived in
The first time I went through the Lower Ninth Ward was in January 2006, and it didn't look that different when I left nine months later. It looked like a bomb had gone off, with the houses just rubble, the cars turned upside down and underneath houses, all people's personal possessions, pictures and furniture on the streets. It was a ghost town. It's hard to be down there and see what happened, to know that a lot of people were there when the levee breached. The force of the levee breach and the flooding was the cause of most of the damage. I heard many people's stories of what happened during Katrina and that a lot of people didn't have a way out, didn't have cars or the money to leave, or didn't have relatives in the close by areas. It all could have been prevented....
After a year, only a handful of people were living in this area; those who returned were living in gutted-out homes and the few trailers that had started popping up. Now two years later the area is still only sparsely populated despite strong commitment of many residents to return. The majority of residents remain displaced all over the country, lacking the resources to return and rebuild without the support of others.
Organizing in the Lower Ninth Ward: Winter and Spring 2006
That winter and spring of 2006, PHRF was attempting to organize with survivors from all areas of the city to save the Lower Ninth, knowing that this was the first area the government wanted to take out of the hands of Black residents and put into the hands of wealthy developers. PHRF worked from the idea that all residents should be in solidarity with the Lower Ninth because if they take that land, they will continue grabbing land from African American people as long as they can get away with it, and that unity is needed to stop this.
For PHRF, it wasn't as much about immediate relief at that time, but about bringing working class Black residents together and developing their skills as organizers. Whether they create the institutions themselves, demand them from the government, or a combination of the two, PHRF did whatever it could to strengthen people's capacity to build the power of the local residents to get what they need, and ultimately to create a more just New Orleans than existed before the storm.
The Survivors' Council that PHRF worked with in the winter and spring of 2005/2006 was mostly made up of Lower Ninth Ward residents and had meetings every Saturday. 60 200 residents attended the meetings. Everyone attending the Survivors' Council meetings was encouraged to join work groups. There were work groups for Organizing, Basic Needs and Legislative, Finance, Media, and Reconstruction that met every week and brought proposals to the weekly Saturday meetings for approval from the larger body. Also, residents throughout the city were coming together and self-organizing in their neighborhoods and cultural communities.
Organizing in the Lower Ninth Ward Summer 2006
When I returned to
I struggled with how to avoid contributing to the divisions between organizers and organizations. I heard clearly from some of the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward that I had worked with that the last thing anyone on the ground needed was people from the outside taking sides.
With the support and feedback from Lower Ninth Ward residents, organizers in
In the summer of '06 POC continued to work with the Survivor's Council in the Lower Ninth. I wanted to continue supporting the Reconstruction Work Group, which was made up of many of the same people I'd worked with when I first came to
We were able to bring in 30 volunteers from Common Ground to gut houses with the residents, as well as tools, safety equipment, and food. Also volunteers from PHRF and a few other organizations came out and helped gut. A DJ contributed his time and sound equipment, and we got space on a radio show to advertise the event. Organizers from PHRF, PISAB, and The Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association (NENA) came out to show their support. NENA is a resident-organized and resident-controlled community assembly. NENA exists to empower residents of the Lower Ninth Ward to play a vital role in their neighborhood's redevelopment post Katrina. The Reconstruction Work Group decided to do a house gutting block party every other Saturday, so there were a total of three while I was there. I continued to help with outreach, getting volunteers and residents out.
In the late summer of '06 I had the opportunity to help pull together an initial meeting between PHRF, CG's Lower Ninth Ward project, and NENA. The meeting was called to build a collaborative effort to potentially start a Lower Ninth Ward workers' cooperative. PHRF and the Survivors' Council's Reconstruction Work Group had been talking about this since at least January of 2006, but there hadn't been the capacity to move forward on it. I was really excited by this collaboration because of its potential to build the capacity of Lower Ninth residents to have jobs that bring sustainable resources back into their neighborhoods. It also excited me because I had been building relationships and/or working with all of these organizations all summer and was hopeful that their efforts were going to be strengthened by working together. When I left in the fall of '06, the groups were all continuing to discuss a collaborative rebuilding and job creation project through NENA's weekly meetings that sought to bring all grassroots organizations working in the Lower Ninth Ward together.
ARWG Summer 2006 Strategy Shift
In the beginning of the summer of 2006, the ARWG held a strategy retreat. The retreat moved the ARWG from an approach of putting a lot of energy into critiquing the leadership, toward one of getting more involved in project areas. This change came about as members realized that critique only gets us so far. We needed to step up, take on leadership and help implement anti-racism strategies into the work of Common Ground.
From this shift, we changed how the ARWG engaged with CG. Everyone had to become involved in a different project area of CG, and invest in supporting people in that project area to move away from modes of working that reinforced racism. We supported project areas to build alliances and accountability with local organizations of color through the work they were doing, and part of that was sharing resources that were useful to those local organizations. We also focused more on anti-racist political education within project areas and with longer-term volunteers.
For us at Catalyst, anti-racism is strongly connected to community organizing and building grassroots power. We see the need for white people to throw down, to build power and bring their full abilities as organizers into the mix. It's much more than standing back, doing logistical support and critiquing other people. These things have their times and places, but we believe more people need to step up in a way that is principled and supports others to step up.
Another priority was supporting the leadership and involvement of local Black residents all ready involved within the project areas and build relationships and alliances with local Black organizations that were doing related work, and share resources with those organizations. We also prioritized supporting CG volunteers of color from out of town through political education, caucusing and one-on-one support work. The ARWG also continued to put a lot of energy into providing anti-racist political education with short-term volunteers.
In most communities that do not proactively prioritize and create structures for education and accountability around consent and patriarchy, sexual violence occurs. CG was no different. Many of the ARWG members were also playing leadership roles in anti-sexism work and work around sexual assault within CG. Many ARWG members took on facilitating gender caucuses and working to support sexual assault survivors. They worked with others to put pro-active measures in place for addressing sexual violence within CG while also challenging tendencies among white volunteers to re-write history and react in racist ways.
Catalyst focused a lot of energy on supporting the development of the folks in the ARWG through many "one-on-ones" and at meetings. In the one-on-ones we listened to where people are at, what they were struggling with, and helped them think through what they are attempting to do, including what steps they could take toward overcoming obstacles and meeting their goals. When getting into the smaller intra-organizational struggles we tried to situate it in the big picture of what we are struggling for and why. We also used those one-on-ones for people to think about our accountability to the residents, their organizations, others within the organizations we work with, and ourselves. Additionally, a large part of doing one-on-ones was offering emotional support and building people's self-confidence as organizers.
By working with and supporting the work of New Orleans-based organizations, members of the ARWG were able to build stronger relationships and more trust with local organizers, which in turn allowed us to get critical feedback that strengthened our work. This was the basis for our accountability and it was also key to our strategy of building multiracial alliances. It was necessary, and also important to us, to give back to the organizations that were giving to us.
I really appreciate that I got to work with the folks in CG and the ARWG. Common Ground has been a big institution for the Left in
Common Ground's Lower Ninth Ward Project
During the summer of 2006 I worked with CG Lower Ninth Ward project. The Lower Ninth project area had a distribution center that had food, clothing, water, and a tool lending library. There was also a computer lab, temporary housing for around 10 to 20 people, a community kitchen, and a sign-up for house gutting and other services. I worked at the distribution center. This gave me the opportunity to build much more solid relationships with out-of-town and resident volunteers involved with this project area.
The relationships I built with resident volunteers helped ground me in my understanding of the work CG was doing in the Lower Ninth, as well as get a sense of what was most useful and what needed to change in order for the work to be more effective. I would not have been able to build those important relationships without putting in hours at the distribution center. It helped humble me in my approach to the work there, reinforcing that it is much easier to critique than to actually work with people toward the solutions. I learned very concretely that everything is much more complicated than it originally looks.
We put energy into supporting volunteers within the distribution project area who were trying to figure out how to do this work more effectively. With the support of other ARWG and Catalyst members, we had meetings over the summer of '06 dedicated to strengthening the efforts to practice anti-racist principles in the Lower Ninth. We encouraged each other to think about how decisions were made and to always seek feedback from Lower Ninth residents on the direction and priorities of the project. We supported the leadership of resident volunteers and always encouraged their feedback and participation. We promoted dialogue about movement building beyond just CG, and supporting local organizations like NENA and the Survivors' Council. We worked to build intentional relationships with resident volunteers in this project area, to inform them specifically about meetings and share information we were receiving about deadlines, government grants, as well as internal CG decisions and possible directions the organization was headed. We got their feedback on what was working and what was not. When trust was built they told us how racism and classism were being perpetuated by mostly white/middle class out-of-town volunteers toward Black resident volunteers and Black residents staying in temporary housing. This feedback was really important in figuring out how to shift the culture and work of the project.
Transition Back Home
I feel like
I struggled with burnout at times and became less useful to the people I worked with. I brought my stressed out energy into places I should not have. At times I lost patience with people I was struggling with and it impacted my ability to support them and work together, and also affected my ability to see what was going on clearly and keep the bigger picture in mind.
Each time I returned to
One of our elders said as organizers we need to be like rubber bands. We can't just be stretched all the time or we will break. We need to be elastic, to release from the overstretched mode and take care of ourselves so we'll be solid when we really do need to stretch. I try to keep that in mind. So much of organizing is supporting people in finding the hope to struggle. If I am having a hard time finding hope myself, I will not be a good organizer. I am learning the importance of being healthy and taking care of myself so I don't become burned out, impatient, or disrespectful of other people.
The San Francisco Bay Area has an activist/organizer culture of being stretched thin a lot of the time. I'm doing better at it. As I heal myself, I am able to love and respect myself more, and am more able to operate out of a place that isn't self-indulgent but paced for the long haul, because I am committed to this struggle and it is a long one. I ask myself, how can I be my strongest and most useful self? I'm more solid about that now. In the past I didn't have as much respect for myself so it was easier to become too stretched. It is still hard, though. I have a fire inside that drives me, and I want to see things move. At the same time I need to be healthy and live my life as fully as possible within the constraints of this society to be the strongest I can be. I struggle because I love and I love because of the struggle.
Organizing is all about building authentic relationships with people. Communication is everything. I learned the importance of intentionally building friendships and working relationships, because these are helpful in keeping people coming to meetings, social and political events or protests, and these things pull people together. I tried to always let people know what was going on by inviting them to meetings and events. When people are well informed, they can step up when they have time or feel ready. And more people stepping up is the goal. Good organizers know they need as many people as possible to be activated. We do not do this work for people but with people. We all need each other. So I learned to give people the opportunity to step up before I took something on myself. I learned to ask people to take on specific tasks that could build their confidence, sense of possibility and connection to organizations.
I also learned it is really important to not abandon people who are new to organizing, or leave them stranded. It is not enough to give most people a title or some money to work with; most people need personal support, mentorship, someone to answer questions, and an understanding the history of the organization and its struggles. This support shouldn't be given in a way that is controlling but, rather, supportive of their growth and confidence. Inviting people to step up and then leaving them on their own can set up most people to fail.
I learned to really make the time and space to listen to people. I learned a ton of patience. I learned about not getting impatient about wanting things to move forward quickly in meetings. I learned to talk to people outside of meetings and focused on doing what I could to support what folks were working on or working through. Most organizing happens outside the meeting. It happens at the bar, or the next day on the phone after you have hung out the evening before. It happens when you stop by and hang out at the house or the office, or even before or right after the meeting or event. It happens when you are working with people or helping out at their house, hanging out with their kids. It happens in the one-on-ones. That is where it is possible to build people's confidence, help people think strategically, and support people emotionally when times are rough. A truly important part of organizing is the building of relationships, and that happens by being real, believing in people and showing them love.
I worked my ass off. I made myself work my ass off. It was the culture I was in; all the organizers were working their asses off. But it is not just about working hard; it's also about the kind of work we are doing.
By the end of my first three months in
I learned to connect people to each other and share the relationships I had built. It is always important to connect people who are organizing so we can build stronger alliances and, hopefully, stronger movements. To do that, I needed self-confidence, and to check my ego so it did not get in the way. If you have confidence in yourself, it is more likely that others will have confidence in you, if it is deserved. Trusting relationships are based on organizers being responsible, doing what we say we will, and doing the work that needs to be done. I've learned to work hard because I believe in the work. In time, people recognize commitment and ask you to step up in ways that make sense to them.
I don't work with white folks purely out of a sense of responsibility, but also to build movements for the liberation of my own family, too. Learning to minimize white supremacy is not just so white folks don't hinder movements, but so we can contribute to them in the strongest possible way. If we can support the people who are the most oppressed in healing and in gaining equity, then my family, which is less targeted but still oppressed, is going to be closer to having equity too.
Growing up with a white working class experience I recognize everything my family has gone through. Many of us have no sense of real community, We've been taught to fear our neighbors and people around the world, We have spent the majority of our lives working unhealthy or exploitative jobs to take care of our selves or our kids, We are locked in debt trying to live a lifestyle beyond our means, we struggle with depression, and we seek escape through hard drugs, alcohol and television. We struggle to hold on to a sense of self-worth, to the possibility for a better future and a vision for a different world.
Because of our white privilege, my family does have it better in terms of access than a lot of working class families of color. And at the end of the day, this work is about how we are going to build movements that can win concrete victories that will move us toward a more just and equitable society for all people. Most of us live at the intersections of privilege and oppression, and we have to deal with the reality of that. We have to struggle against the inequalities that shape our priorities and are present in every interaction within our organizations and movements.
When I first went to
Get Involved and Support the Struggle for Justice and Self Determination in
Step up. Don't ignore this struggle. Don't hold back out of fear of making mistakes. We need to be conscious of our assumptions and behaviors, but don't let fear stop you from acting, because that is ultimately more detrimental. We need as many people as possible getting activated and involved in our struggle for a just world.
Check out the websites or letters put out by grassroots organizations in the
Writing this article has been important for me to really reflect, draw out lessons, and then put it out into the world in written format. I deeply appreciate all the encouragement and editing support that so many of my friends and allies provided. This article would not have been possible with out that support. I hope this article encourages more of you to go through a process of reflection and writing so more of us can learn from your lessons.
Thank you to all the amazing people I have met and worked with in and from
Thank you to Molly McClure, Sharon Martinas, Chris Crass, Rachel Herzing, Rachel Luft, Curtis Muhammad, Andrea Del Moral, Scott Crow, Lisa Fithian, Nisha Anand, Julia Allen, Sasha Vodnik, Jenifer Whitney, Jordan Flaherty, Chela Delgado, Catherin Jones, Drew Christopher Joy, Linda John, Amie Fishman, Clare Bayard for reading drafts of this article and giving me strong political and editing support and to countless others for the encouragement along the way.
Ingrid Chapman - email@example.com
Catalyst Project - www.collectiveliberation.org
PHRF - www.peopleshurricane.org
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence - http://www.incite-national.org/
PISAB - http://www.pisab.org/
NENA - http://lower9thwardnena.com/
POC - www.peoplesorganizing.org
Common Ground - www.commonground.org
Critical Resistance - http://www.criticalresistance.org/katrina/
Safe Streets Strong Communities - www.safestreetsnola.org
Common Ground Health Clinic - www.cghc.org
New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice Coalition -www.neworleansworkerjustice.org
Mary Queen of
Survivors for Survivors in SF Bay Area - firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Bay Area Katrina Solidarity Network - firstname.lastname@example.org
For more reading check out:
A letter from New Orleans Organizers to their allies - http://leftturn.mayfirst.org/?q=node/573
"You Can't Kill the Spirit: a Forum with Three Women Organizers from
'A Katrina Reader:
Katrina's Legacy: White Racism and Black Reconstruction in
Left Turn NOLA articles www.leftturn.org
'White Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race and the State of the Nation' www.southendpress.org
San Francisco Bay View www.sfbayview.com/
 Molly McClure, Clare Bayard and I of the Catalyst Project, continued to work in
 The Builders' Solidarity Group was a majority queer, working class, multiracial group of activists and organizers working within different building trades.
 The Lower Ninth Ward workers cooperative through that specific collaborative as of August 2007 did not happen. Each of the organizations involved continued to develop and implement job creation project outside that specific collaborative.
[i] 2000 Census.
[ii] Micheal Eric Dyson, Come Hell or High Water, 2006.
[iii] 2000 Census.
[iv] World Watch Institute, "Post-Katrina Population Loss Greater Than Previously Estimated," October 7, 2006; Christian Science Monitor, "Post-Katrina,
[vii] See the "Bring
[viii] Public Housing sits empty and waiting May 22, 2007 nola.com by Gwen Filosa also see HR-1227 http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:HR01227:@@@D&summ2=m&
[x] Alan Berube, Brookings Institute, "Access to Cars in
[xii] Guardian Unlimited, "
[xiii] Urban Institute, "Rebuilding Affordable Housing in
[xiv] San Francisco Chronicle, "Casualty of War: The