Wednesday, December 5, 2007

survivors! warriors!

You know how something can bug you? And for long periods of time, it can just be a nagging sort of feeling in the back of your mind, because you've never really stopped to examine it - what it is, what bugs you about it? Well, I had that nagging sort of feeling over the last few months, didn't pay much attention to it, sort of forgot about it, but, then, I read something the other day that not only reminded me that something was bugging me, but named it, clarified it and solved the problem, all in one swell foop, to quote Roy Blount, Jr..

The thing that had been nagging me was people all the time referring to the folks we're working with in New Orleans as "victims." I never paid much attention to it, just sort of accepted the characterization and moved on, intent on helping folks and not worrying about labelling them one thing or another. But, then, just the other day, Barbara gave me a copy of a sermon by a minister named Davidson Loehr, pastor of the First U-U Church in Austin, TX (Barbara's a seminary student, so she can do things like say, "Here, you might find this sermon interesting.")

Although the sermon was about something else, though not entirely, he talks about how the liberal, progressive, socially-conscious person approaches the world often from the perspective of an outsider who is going to step in and help a "victim." Whether the person in need of help is "victim" of patriarchal oppression; or racial bigotry; or economic forces beyond his or her control; or sexual repression; or religious intolerance, whatever! The point is, many people, in order to feel they are doing something meaningful and socially positive in the world, have to put themselves into the role of the "saviour" (my word, not his).

But, if you think about it from the point of view of the so-called "victim," despite what may have befallen you in life, what you are, in fact, is a survivor! If you are a survivor, you have strength. You may need help to overcome certain obstacles that remain in your path, but you've already proven your ability to weather the storm, so to speak.

This idea immediately struck a chord with me, defined that nagging, bugging thing in the back of my mind, and served to reinforce the feeling that has been growing in me since I undertook this work over a year ago. I have never felt anything other than that I was working alongside equals (in many cases, betters) while we continue to tackle the work that needs to be done to rebuild the Lower Nine. I work alongside people who spent two, sometimes three days, on the roofs of their houses in the heat and without water before the powers that be felt it might be a good idea to bring them inside to something like shelter inthe aftermath of the storm. People who resisted the government's best efforts to get them on planes and ship them to the middle of nowhere, who are back in their native city, if not their homes in their neighborhoods, and who are working every day to return, rebuild and restore hope, where sometimes hope seems beyond the human heart's reach.

Reverend Loehr goes on to point out that, not only are these people survivors, many of them are, in fact, "warriors!" For what else can you call someone who survives something as devastating as Katrina/Rita/U.S. government incompetence and criminal neglect, and continues to fight for his or her home and neighborhood and city? And these warriors let me stand alongside them, every day, and allow me to bring whatever resources I can to the struggle!

So, thank you Davidson Loehr, for the words, and Barbara Prose for bringing them to my attention. But, most of all, thank you to Darren McKinney and Ward McClendon and a host of others whom I won't name here for fear of leaving someone out, but, thank you all for being warriors and for allowing me to fight the good fight with you.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

the latest trip (and a short rant)

Okay! Not sure if I’m coming or going dealing with this little project anymore, but things seem to keep moving ahead, so I guess I’m going...

Just came back from another ten-day sojourn in the City That Government Forgot, and things are definitely looking brighter, even if only in terms of the little things we are managing to accomplish. Our rebuilding program just got a whole lot bigger with the addition of the houses underway and the waiting list that we inherited from Emergency Communities last week.

For those of you who don’t know, Emergency Communities is a non-profit that has been working in South Louisiana since not long after the storm. Their mission was primarily the feeding of residents and providing them with community centers, which could then be used to distribute clothing and anything else that people needed in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. They opened their last center in the Lower Ninth Ward just about the time we got active in rebuilding in the neighborhood, and with help from us, they set up a program to help get folks back into their homes by providing volunteer labor for reconstruction. We’ve been working closely with them ever since – jointly working on projects, housing and feeding volunteers, providing tools and other support - but they made the decision a few weeks ago to cease their operations, mostly due to a lack of reliable funding sources, and Thanksgiving saw them serve their last meal to residents of the neighborhood.

Which means, we now have taken over responsibility for seeing their projects through to completion, and we are folding their list of qualified residents into ours, so we have approaching fifty families depending upon us to help them return home, as of yesterday. We all will be sad to see E.C. go, but, in the last few weeks, another organization has stepped onto the stage and is attempting to fill the hole that the absence of E.C. will open in the community. Spearheaded by a Lower Nine resident, Ward McClendon, a group calling itself The Lower Ninth Ward Village, has taken over an old machine shop on Alabo Street, and is attempting to create a community center which will address the needs of the area’s youth and older residents. We at have been giving them every bit of help we can spare in the last few weeks to try and see that dream become a reality for the people in our adopted neighborhood and, if spirit and determination and will have anything to do with it, “Mack” is the guy to get it done!
So, stay tuned for developments there.

We had, at one point, 28 volunteers helping us this last week, and we got stuff done all over the neighborhood, from helping clean out junk and build walls at the Village, to knocking down a dangerously decrepit shed at Mr Howard Foster’s house. Our volunteers sheetrocked, painted, did light carpentry, hauled debris, cleaned up a playground, installed toilets and generally made themselves as useful as can be, which is what volunteers always do when they know they’ve only got a certain amount of time to spend in the city and they see the enormity of the work that still remains to be done.

I’m wondering, though, if the rest of the country realizes how devastated South Louisiana still is, New Orleans in particular? I’m wondering why I don’t hear sound bites coming from the presidential debates about doing something about this mess (I don’t watch TV, so sound bites on NPR are as close as I get to what the politicians have to say)? I’m wondering what it means for us, as a nation, if life goes on for most folks, while tens of thousands of our fellow Americans will spend their third Christmas in a row far from the homes they love, and a few hundred thousand more will spend their third Christmas in a row surrounded by evidence of the greatest failure of government in their lifetimes?

By all means, let’s bring the troops home and let peace reign throughout the world! But let’s also remember that the most culturally important city in our country still lies in pieces, and until that horrible fact is addressed by the powers that be in some coherent way, there will be no peace for those of us who are up to our necks in it. Amen!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

start me up! (part 2)

Okay, I know the thing about blogs is you have to post something every day if you want to get folks to read the damned things, but life has been so full for the last month, it just didn't happen. So, if you're reading this, maybe check in every couple of weeks then i won't feel so bad.
Oh, and this won't even be part 2 of the previous post, because here's what's been happening:
I left Maine on the morning of October 14th, bound for Philly, towing an 18' utility trailer loaded with donated tools (trailer also donated!). Generous donors had agreed to give us a 33 foot RV to use as temporary office and living space until we get the new house up and running. The new house is also being donated, but more about that later.
Arrived in West Chester, PA in the evening, where said generous RV donors had paid for a motel room for yours truly, and they arrived shortly thereafter to take me out to dinner. The next day, we ran around getting paperwork transferred to, then we had to drive into the city to pick up the $3,000 worth of scaffolding which had been, you guessed it, offered to us by another generous donor.
It was after 4 p.m. by the time I got back on the road, headed to Cincinnati, where I was to pick up my friend Paul and his son, Kyle, who were making the trip down with me. The last time I'd driven a vehicle as big as the RV was maybe thirty years ago, and it didn't have a heavily-laden trailer behind it, so I gained a much greater respect for long-haul truckers on this trip.
I met Paul and Kyle at their house, took a shower and we hit the open road, in a pretty steady rain. We were headed first to Jackson, TN, where we were to take possession of a 1996 Ford 12-passenger van that I had bought on Ebay two weeks previously, with money from a generous donor. As it turns out, it's a good thing that all these donors were so generous, because we burned about $700 worth of gas between the two vehicles on the trip (so keep those checks coming!). The highlight of that leg of the trip was seeing the look on Paul's face when I told him we would be spending the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I had read somewhere that Wal-Mart actually encouraged this practice, but he thought I was pulling his leg. He sang another tune when we got to Wal-Mart and he saw that not only were we not the only RV in the parking lot, some people had satellite dishes set out and were having a pretty good time. Wal-Mart's open 24 hours, so we had a bathroom and could buy anything we needed right there. You gotta love this country!
The guy we bought the van from met us in the morning, and after handing over the papers, we headed out of Jackson, into Mississippi and on down to New Orleans (again, in a driving rain). We arrived around 8 p.m. and spent the night behind the Emergency Communities center in the Lower Nine, all safe and sound.
And now, we're here - in the most neglected and forgotten spot in the country. If you don't believe that, then I encourage you to email me and agree to volunteer with us for a week or so. You'll be totally amazed by the energy of the volunteers who are trying to put this neighborhood back together, but you'll also be shocked and appalled by the inaction of the so-called leaders of the greatest nation on earth.
Since arriving, joined by my friend Matt and my brother and sister-in-law, we've been finishing up a rebuild project we started in the spring; consulting on other projects and lining up future rebuilds; meeting, along with Bill Robertson who is on my board of directors, with directors of other community organizations to find out how we can all work together; and, learning a little about the ins and outs of dealing with Louisiana bureaucracy. Oh, and there's always the not insignificant problem of trying to get my wife to understand why this is so important to me at this late stage of my life.
So, keep those cards and letters (with checks enclosed) coming, and I wasn't kidding about volunteering so you can come down and help us do this job - it'll change your life...

Monday, September 24, 2007

start me up! (part 1)

This post may have to be done in a couple of installments, as I find myself torn in a dozen different directions these days, by the buzzards of economic neccessity, to name but one force competing for pieces of my flesh. (Now, there's a catchy opening line, if a bit, shall we say, overwrought).
The big thing I'm in the middle of, the reason for this blog, is setting up as a functioning entity to carry out the work we've begun in New Orleans. This requires patience, a little money and a bunch of people behind you who keep saying, "Yeah, this is a good thing to do, Rick, so keep up the good work." For those of you who might be considering doing something similar, I'll detail the steps we've taken so far, for what it's worth.

First of all, never mind the fact that a bunch of us have been working on this idea, committing our time and money to trips to the Lower Ninth Ward, for months. That was all unofficial, just a group of do-gooders doing good things, in a fairly organized, but unfocused way. To make things official, the first step you have to take is becoming a corporation recognized to do business by the state in which you incorporate. This is fairly easy, as it turns out, you file some paperwork with the state and they either accept or reject your application. But, be warned, the paperwork includes things like a mission statement, by-laws, names of directors, and a few other things they asked for along the way, which I forget now. So, get your directors on board before you try and incorporate, get the mission statement written and fantasize a budget, two years worth, even though you have not a nickel to your corporate (you hope) name.

For the next step, all I can say is, hire a lawyer, if you can afford it, because after incorporating you need to file your application with the IRS to get non-profit, tax-exempt status. This application is many, many pages long, and if all the little spaces aren't filled out to the IRS's satisfaction, you'll be supplying them with supplemental information until the cows come home. A lawyer who has experience filing these applications can save you time by letting you know up front just what kinds of additional documentation you should provide, and time in this case means money, because you can't start hitting people up for tax-exempt donations until you get your approval letter. Also, the IRS changes the rules every couple of years, and a good lawyer should know what the current requirements are.

While you're in that in-between stage - you have your incorporation, but not your 501(c)(3) - you should start talking up your newly-formed organization with everyone you know, in the hopes that you can raise enough scratch to start putting infrastructure in place to get the program off the ground, even if only in a modest way. Explain to potential donors that you don't have tax-exempt status yet (very important! if the IRS thinks you have misrepresented yourself to donors, you'll never get approved and may go to jail), but ask them if they're willing to make a small donation to help you get the thing going. If you're lucky, you'll know someone, or meet someone, who has enough money and doesn't need the tax write-off, who can make a substantial donation. But, at any rate, ask everyone you know for money, without exception. An interesting little-known fact about non-profit giving is this: 85% of all charitable donations come from households or individuals who make less than $50,000 per year. This percentage has remained constant (with the income level adjusted to reflect current wages/prices) as far back as figures on charitable giving have been tracked, which, I believe started in the 1930s. So, ask everybody!

In part two of this post (see, I told you I'd have to run off somewhere and do something) I'll talk more specifically about where is today in terms of what we've managed to raise so far, and how we're going to get it all to New Orleans, so stay tuned!

Monday, September 10, 2007

bitten by something...weird

I came back from my most recent trip to New Orleans last week, having suffered through the traffic tie-ups caused by the president's photo-op in the Lower Nine, surer than ever that the rest of the country doesn't know what's really going on in southeast Louisiana. Sure, it's great to get lots of politicians, from the president on down to the least-likely would-be presidential contender, in town for the big anniversary events, but when it all gets boiled down to sound bites, I wonder if people listen anymore. President Bush threw around a lot of talk about the billions that have been "spent" on the rebuilding effort, and people hear big numbers and either think "Well, that's a lot of money, surely things will get better soon." or "Look at that place! It's still a mess! You see, throwing money at a problem just doesn't work!" Less than half of the money set aside for rebuilding has even been released to the Gulf Coast states, due to their inability to meet the government's requirement that the states provide substantial matching funds to secure federal help. In Louisiana, the economy and tax-base have been so affected that coming up with matching funds is all but impossible, never mind the fact that the matching fund requirement has been waived in almost every other large-scale disaster that has occured in America in the last fifty years. No waivers for you poor folks in the Lower Nine, sorry, but let me have my picture taken standing outside the only school in the neighborhood that has re-opened two years after the levees broke...

But, that's not what I wanted to talk about, as is usually the case with me. If you just can't get to the thoughts you really want to share - and what man can - start with a political diatribe and see what happens.

Okay, my trip last week was designed to accomplish a few goals, and I think it went alright. As we are still in the start-up phase of getting off the ground as a free-standing entity, we're still beating the bushes for members of our board of directors, so I had arranged to meet an old school friend of my wife's who is a public interest attorney in the city. and, despite her busy schedule, she has agreed to join us in this great adventure! so, as it stand now, we have a retired business executive who is heavily involved in progressive causes; a non-profit consultant who has been involved in relief and recovery projects in New Orleans for the last year-and-a-half; an instructor in the business department at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, also a retired businessman; a Lower Ninth Ward resident who knows what we're involved in from the inside, as it were; a professor of social work; a professor of psychology and former state mental health director; and, now, a socially-conscious and well-connected attorney. Having been involved in non-profit boards and management for the past few years, I feel like this is the best group I've ever been associated with, I'm starting to think of them as a group of superheroes, each with his or her own special powers and abilities. Four of them are New Orleans residents, either by birth or by inclination, and I'm glad to have them backing me up.

One of the other major objectives of this trip was to begin negotiating for the purchase of a house in the Lower Nine which we can use for headquarters, because what's the use of having a group of superheroes if you don't have a secret lair from which to sally forth to join battle with the forces of darkness? That task was accomplished and it looks like we will take possession sometime in October, if all goes according to plan.

Every trip I make to this ravaged city reinforces the feeling that what we're undertaking here is not only good, but right, and the feeling grows stronger every day. It's a feeling I can't shake, a madness, almost, as if I've been bitten by something...

Weird. That was my first thought when I awakened sometime around 2 a.m., feeling like my right armpit was burning. I got up, looked at my armpit, didn't see anything obviously wrong, but felt like I needed to do something to alleviate the pain. I searched through my shaving kit and found nothing of a salve-like nature, but did come across a tube of Burt's Bees lip balm which I didn't know I had (not being much of a fan of bees or lip balm). So, I did what seemed right at the time, and covered my armpit with lip balm, which actually helped quite a bit, so somebody should notify the Burt's Bees people that maybe they could repackage the stuff in bigger tubes.

The next morning, in the humid light of day, I discovered a big group of bites on my right pectoral area. Another on the inside of my right bicep, and an even bigger bunch on the outside. Being a southerner and no stranger to poisonous insect bites, I figured I must have been attacked by some kind of spider whose toxin affected the lymph glands, as my armpit by then was not only sore, but swollen. I had been out the night before with my friend Bill Robertson, listening to brass band music and drinking, and I remembered that at some point after coming home, while sitting on the porch having the last beer of the evening, I had felt something inside my shirt. Nothing painful, it was small enough that I imagined I had a string dangling inside my sleeve, just a brush against the skin, nothing more.

And, I'm not sure what the moral of the story is, except that maybe it's smart to pay attention to the little things, even if they seem inconsequential at the time. Or something like that.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

testing the waters - and daring them to return

In November of 2006 I went to New Orleans for the first time post-Katrina, to volunteer for a week with a group of Unitarian-Universalists from Maine. I've been returning almost monthly since.
I realized practically in the first fifteen minutes after my arrival that the most pressing need in the city was for programs where unskilled volunteers (like most of our group) could learn to do basic house rebuilding. So, with that thought in mind, I returned and began rebuilding the house of a Lower Ninth Ward resident named Roy Bradley, whom I had met by chance and who offered to sit down and tell his story into the the business end of the large video camera I was lugging around at the time. I have been leading groups of volunteers of all ages down all year, and returning on my own when the stream of volunteers willing to subject themselves to the humid brutality of a southeast Louisiana summer dries up.
I am neither rich nor young. I have one child in college and another soon heading in that direction, and we find ourselves, my wife and I, borrowing money just to pay tuition at a state university. Although I am self-employed, which allows me to take the time to make these trips, my income has necessarily been affected, but that's a choice I've made.
My connection to the "City That Care Forgot" dates back to my early teen years. My best friend growing up in Alabama had an uncle who moved to the French Quarter around 1970, giving his parents an excuse to make the six-hour drive on a regular basis. We did everything together, Dwayne and I, so I was usually invited along on these weekend trips and, while the old folks drank, we wandered the Quarter and I fell in love with all things New Orleans. On the beat peregrinations of my early-twenties, New Orleans was always a favored layover, although there was always something calling to me from someplace else that made settling down seem a distant hope. But, I kept coming back, dragging my Ivy League-educated feminist wife down Bourbon Street much to her horror, and making sure my daughters got to spend time in the Crescent City, despite my wife's initial conflation of the whole city with alcoholic misogynistic debauchery. They all grew to love the place, and my dream was always to buy a run-down shotgun house in the Marigny someday and take life a little easier...
And, then, of course, that damned storm came along and screwed everything up, and I'm not even thinking about what it did to my retirement plans.
And, you see, the thing is, it didn't even really screw up the neighborhood I'd always fantasized about living in, but, my love for New Orleans had always been a holistic sort of thing. I always knew that the music that makes the city so culturally-unique didn't start in the French Quarter and the food that has influenced the tastes of the entire world didn't come out of the Garden District and the whole dripping wet, funkinyourface, laissez les bon temp rouler, whatyoulookin'at, baby attitude of the place sure as hell wasn't cooked up in some office in the Central Business District. New Orleans is its neighborhoods, and the neighborhood that I'm trying to straighten out is the Lower Nine, what's left of it, along with a whole bunch of other really hard-working people.
And, that's what this blog is going to be about, our efforts to help a community recover, in every way we can make it happen. Working with other dedicated volunteers we are in the process of making the program I initiated a fully-fledged non-profit, and are raising the funds to have a full-time presence in the Lower Nine. So, stay tuned, because it's going to be a "rough and rocky road," but we are definitley going to take time to dance a second line and shout the blues as the feeling comes on us.