Volunteer labor in New Orleans is getting in the way of progress
We examine the ethics of solidarity in an episode of the UtneCast at utne.com/Solidarity
It’s not easy getting a cab to the Lower Ninth Ward. Even now, with most of the former population cleared out, some drivers still won’t cross the Claiborne Avenue Bridge unless it’s to take a carload of gawking tourists. So when the third cab driver stops, it’s with some impatience that I ask if he knows the way.
“Oh sure, sweetie,” he drawls. “Born and raised.”
Norman is a retired firefighter who drives a cab to supplement his pension. Five years ago, after Hurricane Katrina, he patrolled the flooded streets by boat and pulled survivors from rooftops and attic windows. When he learns that my companion and I have come to volunteer with Common Ground Relief, a grassroots rebuilding project, he gets quiet and turns off the meter. “I want to show you something,” he says.
He drives several blocks past our destination, the cab’s headlights occasionally framing the sagging ruin of a house or an exposed foundation, the structure either washed away or bulldozed by the city. Finally he stops at a cheery bungalow, porch light blazing, a tidy oasis of normalcy in the darkness.
“This is my home,” Norman says, voice choked. “Volunteers rebuilt it for me.”
He hopes his return will encourage his neighbors to come back, but with homes and jobs gone, what incentive does anyone have to return? And how much difference can groups of parachuted-in volunteers make when there is such substantial work to be done?
The jarring truth, we soon discover, is that volunteers like us are as much a part of the problem as they are a part of the solution. Real change in New Orleans—the kind that will give Norman’s community a reason to return—will require solidarity of a different kind. It’s not the “thousand points of light” feel-good charity work that George H.W. Bush championed. It’s the rebirth of a civil rights–era approach that will put thousands of activists in direct confrontation with the state.
Since 2005, much of New Orleans has been rebuilt, particularly in the wealthy Garden District and French Quarter. The Lower Ninth Ward, however, remains a wasteland. Of the 19,000 people who lived there when Katrina hit, only 3,600 have come back. Many former residents have been mired in red tape for so long that they can no longer afford the trip home. The city seems to actively discourage resettlement, levying fines against absent homeowners for infractions such as grass length, eventually demolishing offending homes.
The intentional displacement of low-income communities from this area is nothing new, says Jay Arena, a longtime public housing activist in New Orleans. “The city had wiped out half of the public housing even before the storm,” he says, from 14,000 to 7,000 units during the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2008, under the guidance of the George W. Bush administration, the Housing Authority of New Orleans destroyed another 5,000 low-income apartments. Charity Hospital, which provided care to tens of thousands of uninsured people, was also shut down.
“It’s about dismantling the public sector and letting charity groups address the ensuing social ills,” Arena says. With the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) poised to dismantle public housing (which it labels “concentrated poverty”) across the country, New Orleans has become the latest victim of a neoliberal offensive on the public sphere—and there’s reason to be critical of the role of nonprofits, foundations, and universities in underwriting that agenda.
As Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine, only days after the hurricane struck, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, released recommendations for rebuilding the city on a privatized model. Among 32 changes that were implemented by the Bush administration, the foundation urged disinvestment in the public school system. Vouchers for private schools are now issued by lottery to a limited number of low-income children, leaving other students languishing in underfunded public schools.
Meanwhile, thousands of families who used to live in public housing now live in private apartments, paying more than 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities that Section 8 vouchers don’t cover. “These were plans they had already drawn up,” says Jordan Flaherty, a former union organizer and editor of Left Turn magazine. “The storm was their opportunity.”
Despite the best of intentions, the thousands of student, faith-based, and other volunteers who flock to the city to rebuild houses are contributing to the dismantling of the public sphere. “We have Habitat for Humanity building a few private houses, while thousands of public homes are being destroyed,” Arena says. Similarly, Teach for America volunteers were brought in to replace unionized teachers who were fired, while volunteer clinics now care for patients abandoned by the closing of Charity Hospital.
Volunteerism like this is also a form of scabbing: These are jobs that Katrina survivors could perform and desperately need. Louisiana’s unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, is rising quickly, with thousands of people looking for work. Yet most new houses are prefabricated elsewhere and shipped in, using local labor for only a few days at a time.
Meanwhile, the 130,000 plus people displaced from New Orleans have sought work in other cities. Many abandoned skilled professions to work as cab drivers, as short-order cooks, and in other low-paid positions. The “right of return” movement championed by community groups like C3/Hands off Iberville advocates job creation and the repair and improvement of public infrastructure. The organization is demanding enforcement of Section 3 of the 1968 Housing Act, which stipulates that at least 30 percent of jobs on HUD-funded construction go to local workers.
The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, an advocacy group formed in the aftermath of Katrina, expresses concerns, which Arena shares, that companies locked black workers out of rebuilding while locking in immigrant workers with false promises of permanent status. The group is organizing across race and industry lines to build political power, encouraging the inclusion of laborers, guest workers, and homeless residents in campaigns against human labor trafficking and for workers’ rights.
Movement-based volunteerism, rooted in the civil rights tradition, could be key to New Orleans’ future. “In the midst of this whole assault, we’ve had more than a million [volunteers] come to the city,” Arena says. “We would have preferred to see people come down and support the struggles for public housing and public services.”
Make no mistake: Volunteers are needed in New Orleans. Its poorest residents have been abandoned by a city deliberately being rebuilt without them. Misguided efforts to help, however, only mask the source of their suffering. With “solidarity, not charity” as a mantra, there is an opportunity for visitors to lend their time and skills in support of groups that are taking a stand against a system of exploitation.
Excerpted from Briarpatch (Nov.-Dec. 2009), a fiercely independent Canadian bimonthly that covers current events from a radical, grassroots perspective, hoping to challenge, inspire, and empower its readers. www.briarpatchmagazine.com