I wrote the statement below about two and half years ago after volunteering in post-Katrina & Rita New Orleans.  Since then, I’ve graduated college and now work at the Progressive Jewish Alliance from its SF Bay Area office.  This passed summer I returned to NOLA with a Jewish folks from the Bay Area through Jewish FundS for Justice. 

I post this now in as Hurricane Ike finally slows, Hurricane Gustav has passed and in the wake Hurricanes Katrina & Rita’s third anniversary.  The recent evacuations due to Ike & Gustav can only remind us all that there’s more to be done.  Gustav wasn’t Katrina, but the crisis continues.

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It’s US and THEM: the strange, the odd, the eccentric world out there well beyond my well padded suburbs.  Spring Break 2006, my senior year of college, spent in the 9th ward of New Orleans.  A forgotten place by many ‘til the “Girls Gone Wild” blew its top off.  Katrina and Rita highlight a world we own, a world we don’t have to know.  But now we get to watch, like some type of twisted reality television show.  “We” – me, an upper middle class white Jew from Chicago’s southern suburbs.  A student at an elite private Liberal Arts college, Wesleyan University, with resources, possibilities, access.  The privilege to choose my passions, what I see and what I ignore.

Common Ground, the once-Anarchist NGO taking volunteers for an experience of a lifetime.  “It’s worse than Iraq” an ex-military man gasps during our tour, as we drive along Clayborn, where the levees broke.  And everyone’s taking their picture, the click of a fabulous picture — whoa!  Did you see that car!  That house?!

Yesterday two more bodies were found.  Bodies.  THEM. 

I know the military man’s feelings, I’ve traveled a bit in the West Bank myself.  The 9th Ward is pretty bleak.  Right here in the U. S. of A.  It turns out, WE still are racist.  The structures, MY structures of power grant me the privilege to show up, to take a break, to drink my bottled water and use any toilet as I damn well please.  And to choose when to get involved and when to sit this one out.

Take a story, any story.  “My family got out the day before it hit.  We thought that it was goin’ to be any old storm, happens all of the time, you see.  I return, finally two, three months later.  Water came up over my attic, though it settled a mere nine feet above the ground.  Volunteers carry out my beds, my chairs, my brother’s death certificate.  Garbage.  Now, my kid travels four hours everyday to get to school.  I get no social services, my schools are closed.  My grandchildren are spread out all over the USA.”

Tragedy through the eye of privilege: I marvel at the faith of humankind.  The touchy-feely loses its nausea when extreme loss greets hope, reclaims power. 

“I Will Rebuild!”

And I know that the tragedy here, emblazoned by the levee’s failure, was underscored, underwritten by racism.  We said “not here.”  We, the white, upper middle class with the capacity to accept 9th ward refugees, but not the desire.  Too many black folks for us, we say.  But for those of us entirely unaffected by the storm, we can offer our sympathy.  White folks struggling across the river?  They mostly see savages—thieves, liabilities, THEM.

Travel: a time for self reflection.  See the anomalous and recall: I grew up in Flossmoor, fifteen minutes from Ford Heights.  Average annual income 20,000 dollars per family.  One hundred percent African American (according to the stats).  A Katrina of my very own.  And that time I was not a volunteer.  Instead, I was an AP high school student.  Instead I took AP Economics and family vacations.  I was told “stay away from there,” let it remain hidden, dangerous, invisible.  Let them be them, let us be us.

My travels force me to confront this impulse.  The lines aren’t so distinct, the troubles aren’t so distant.  Racism, sexism, corruption, bigotry, harsh divisions and dehumanization.  I travel to notice the Them in the Us and the Us in the Them.  I travel to acknowledge my privilege, to utilize it for some good.  To tell stories mysteriously absent from the Dailys, to hear the voices rarely sought.  To discover my place in their stories, and their place in my own.  I return with them, to share with my community.

Afterward:

Today, in 2008, the lower ninth ward now has one open school, Martin Luther King Elementary.  Business booms in the economic districts and the blue tarps that covered every building for miles are now re-tiled roofs. 

But many of the “X”s spray painted on houses searched for survivors and bodies remain.  Families that once lived in the same neighborhood are spread across the United States.  The pain and loss of loved ones lingers.  And the government continues to privatize everything in sight.  There are no public hospitals in NOLA, an entire system of charter schools has replaced the previous system (including the hiring of mostly white school teachers to replace the largely still unemployed black teachers already fired) and the government recently leveled two, largely undamaged, low-income apartment buildings. 

Nearly all of the restoration work has been done by private contractors or volunteers. The federal government gave emergency shelter (including formaldehyde-filled trailers known to occasionally spontaneously combust), and Road Home Grants, which distribute money based on affluence—the more you have the more you get.

The most disturbing aspect of visiting NOLA these days is the dueling narratives surrounding the city’s future.  Talk with most white people there and you’ll hear hope in their voices, the overcoming of hardship and the opportunity to build something better.  Talk to most people of color and you’ll hear something completely different.  Stories of loss, desperation, mistrust and misery. 

NOLA’s black population, according the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, dropped 15 percent since the storm while the city’s median income increased by nearly 10,000 dollars.  This is a product, at least in part, of the decision by our government not to investment in rebuilding poor, majority African-American parts of New Orleans.  Rebuilding, and even the re-opening of MLK Elementary School, were all done by volunteers and donations.  The government has largely given up on these communities which remain the most exposed. 

I leave you with a few guiding questions: How would a major natural disaster effect your community?  Who might be hit hardest and, most importantly, why?  And what can you do about it today?  What does it mean, individually, to invest in one’s community?

Get Involved:

Volunteer with the Common Ground Collective in NOLA:

http://www.commongroundrelief.org/ 

Donate to NOLA Gustav support fund through Jewish FundS for Justice: https://secure.ga6.org/08/hurricane_gustav

Donate books, money and/or time through INCITE!:

http://incite-national.org/index.php?s=51

Work for a more just SF Bay Area through the Jewish community:

www.pjalliance.org