Solidarity, Not Charity for New Orleans

Volunteer labor in New Orleans is getting in the way of progress

| March-April 2010

We examine the ethics of solidarity in an episode of the UtneCast at  

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.”

Harold Stansfield
7/11/2010 9:46:09 AM

As someone who has worked as a volunteer in the Gulf states since Katrina, there is a piece of the economic reality of the region that the writer is choosing to ignore. Most of the volunteer services groups that have been working in the region have one simple requirement for those who receive assistance: The recipients are required to provide the building materials for rebuilding. Many of those who would rebuild lack even the ability to do that much. Using the presently unemployed as labor for rebuilding is an excellent idea, with one problem: Who is going to pay them? The ruined homeowners who lost everything and received little or no insurance settlement? The city, which has lost a significant portion of the tax base, and is broke? The state(s) of Louisiana and Mississippi? One more thought: calling volunteers who are donating their time and effort doing what is very much a thankless activity don't deserve to be called scab labor. This is the kind of writing that creates more problems than it solves.