By Wendy Chapell-Dick
Andy and Wendy Chappell-Dick and Jonah Agner travelled to New Orleans in early December to do some volunteer re-building. These are their observations on the situation in New Orleans:
The poorest people living in New Orleans don't need volunteers. They need money. Not that highly skilled folks or willing college students aren't nice to have around, but there is such a thing as the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. The fed, state, local, celebrity, and charity programs are still not reaching the majority of people who need it most: renters, former public housing residents, and families who have owned homes for generations but do not have the legal red-tape paper trail to prove it.
When neighbors or observers asked what we were doing there and we told them we were working on re-building a community center, the first thing people said was, "got jobs?" New Orleans has the biggest construction project you can imagine and thousands of willing workers in the destroyed neighborhoods that have no jobs. Big company contractors who have cozy relationships with HUD get the contracts.
Poor people have no capital. No money to pay for supplies or hire their friends and neighbors to help with labor. Thanks to the generousity of many people from Bluffton, donations paid for our work crew's food, gas, and the building supplies needed to re-build the outside wall of the Fight Back Center, repair the broken and missing windows, buy and install a working, secure front door, and clean and paint one room in the gutted building that will become Endesha's until the center is ready to re-open. In short, it saved the building from becoming condemned.
Perhaps more important than our small three days of labor, we left over $1,000 in the bank. The Fight Back Center can use this money to hire someone to fix the roof, haul away the wreckage piles around the building, and do plumbing and electrical to get a working bathroom. All of this doesn't just fix up a community center. It allows neighbor to help neighbor, seeding a new local economy of mutual aid and small scale business.
Along with Endesha, we met two other men who are each part of local housing initiatives in their various neighborhoods: Sam (part of our work crew) and Mack (who provided a lot of helpful equipment). They work together in a large network of activists and leaders who come from the areas that are destroyed. They're funded by almost no outside grants or programs. How can we get money directly to people like them?
Our path to them was through connections with Pam Nath (formerly from Bluffton). When Mennonite Central Committee was preparing to start a relief/development project in New Orleans they realized the many pitfalls that other groups were falling into, alienating the very communities they were there to help. They hired Pam, an anti-racism trainer, to live in New Orleans and to listen. She is there to meet people, to learn from them, and to help them in their struggle without taking it over.
After years of this, Pam works and lives in the African American community, still listening, mindful of temptations for white privilege thoughtlessness to take power-over. She is not there to start or take over a project; she is there to guard against MCC falling into that oh-so-familiar pattern. Pam knows people and people who know people. I trust her connections and activist network . When I come back to New Orleans, I'll come to eat, celebrate, visit friends, and maybe have a good day on the worksite. But meanwhile, to really make a difference, I hope to try to find money to send to Pam's friends and political community. They'll know what to do with it.
As for Pam's friend Endesha, he plans to move in next week, even without running water or electricity. He will finally be back in his neighborhood, a few blocks from the elementary school he went to 50 years ago and across from the razed public housing complex where his mother brought him up along with seven siblings. He'll keep working to pave the way for others to come home, and "fighting back" in the hope they'll have a place to come back to.
The people with power in New Orleans have no intention of making it possible for the city's poor to come home. Recently four of the city's largest public housing complexes were torn down even though they had no structural damage from the storm. Why should they help people without jobs come home?
Endesha says it best, "Lately, the politicians and the media have been discussing who should and shouldn't be allowed to come home. Those without jobs are deemed undesirable. It appears that some people have given up on ridding New Orleans of poverty; now they just want to declare war on poor people. But every citizen has an absolute right to return to his neighborhood unconditionally -- job or no job."
There is no intention to "fix" the levee protecting the poorest area of town. Why would they want a working levee to protect those neighborhoods? If that levee had not broken, the financial district and French Quarter would have been destroyed. We heard from people who swore the levee was blown up the night of the storm, eyewitness accounts of hearing the blasts. Purposeful or negligent, there is good reason for the city to sacrifice people in the slums. It will happen again (and it happens everywhere).
Think words like ethnic cleansing and apply them to economic and racial injustice.
I've never seen a city like New Orleans. Unique, disarming architecture that gave me an amazingly consistent sense of place (except for the new building developments which look like all the rest of urban sprawl across America, and the Brad Pitt houses which look like modern art spaceship mansions). According to Big Mike the limo driver who ended up giving me a free ride, each neighborhood in New Orleans used to have its own special style of cooking, its own scene, soul and spirit. "They say the spirit of New Orleans is back, but it's not back. It's not coming back. The soul was in the neighborhoods, and those people are scattered. They're gone and they're not coming home."
But I can sure see why they want to.
Endesha points out that the poor of New Orleans are used to fighting on their own. "The people were left to their own devices to survive the crisis. We will come back using our own devices."