Monday, March 24, 2008

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Memoirs of a Scraper

An oral piece by Manisha, as transcribed by Heather.

The scraper life came to me by mistake. The fates have it that our group, selected by random number generation, were doomed from the beginning with fake projects and fictitious characters. Group #2 faced an uphill battle of adversity and no-sayers. We were not to be deterred, however. Short of scrapers, and no house in sight to display our honed skills, we wandered around the desolate 9th ward. There was a train blocking our way so we had to detour via another route. Again, we were not letting this get in the way. Our rescue van stumbles upon an abandoned nursing home, and eager group #2 frolics out of the ran screaming, “scrapers to the rescue.” It was here, at this nursing home, that I first utilized this newfound tool.

It turns out that I am obsessed with OCDness. Some volunteers were flippant and disconnected with the project at hand, but not me. I was born to be a scraper. Every detail, every chip of paint, every fallen beam was mine to conquer. It turns out that my focus went entirely on a fence. At first glance, it is hard to justify spending an entire week on a fence. It called into question how the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, the group who organized this labor, organized their labor.

What is a fence? The painted fence is a symbolic figure in American culture. It separates your land, your safe place, from the rest of the world. A fence perhaps would be the last thing someone would fix, but it can provide so much more comfort and stability to those that live within its limits. It can be a step back towards normalcy. The repairs can get rid of the physical reminder of Katrina.

So I took my task seriously. My paint was to be perfect. By Wednesday, I was one with the fence; no one was going to come near this fence. My life and soul were being poured into a fence. The fence provided a means of solidarity: volunteer groups came together across the nation in solidarity, not to mention in beer and dancing. More importantly, the fence was a barter system for us. As the days went by, we were able to hear more stories from the family about their experiences with Katrina, and the struggles they have faced. The more stories I heard, the harder I scraped. The more I put into scraping, the more I came to understand how this was so much more than just a fence. This is the path to recovery.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Challenges of Community Service

Having now returned from New Orleans and spent some time reflecting on the past week, I've decided to post my own thoughts onto this public forum.

I once read: "Community service is very much a two-way street. It is about giving and receiving, and the receiving can be nourishing for the heart and mind. The very act of serving taps into a wellspring of empathy and generosity that is both personally gratifying and energizing." It cannot be denied that in serving others, we ultimately serve ourselves.

From our high school days, we grapple with how to apply for college and scholarships or find jobs. We've been taught that fame and recognition are the important things in this life and as a result, many of us decide that meager efforts to help the elderly across the street a few times, singing at a retirement home once, or baby sitting the retarded child down the street makes us deserving of rewards for "making a difference" in our community. My point is not to be cynical nor to bolster myself (well, maybe to take a crack at some of the students I met). On the one hand, it is human nature to seek appreciation and distinction for our efforts. But just as importantly, if not more, society could not function without community service. It teaches that values and communities are not innate, but created through action. It allows for an understanding about each other and builds a sense of human compassion. On an individual level, it provides real-life experience that helps to develop leadership skills, self-esteem, and other personal characteristics. It is little wonder that both our Congress and leadership abroad have flirted with the idea of requiring students to fulfill a number of service hours as a graduation requirement.

I spent much of my week working on a "menial" task - scraping paint and rust off an iron fence. It was a far cry from what I hoped, or perhaps expected, my week to involve. I did very much envy those in my group that got to tear down walls or paint a house. When asked about my trip since I have returned, it has been hard to explain or even justify the work I did. During the first half of the week, we worked for a gentleman who had purchased the plot next to his home and was seeking to use it as a rental property. Bluntly speaking, we worked on property that was going to be used for profit. I saw houses that had remained untouched since Katrina. Attempting to find the "good" in such work was...hard to come by. But I also refused to stop what I was asked to do. As a result, I spent my week quite isolated and alone with my thoughts. It was my mistake, perhaps, in not allowing myself to join my classmates and work with the group. But within my thoughts, I ultimately found myself coming to one overreaching conclusion - what if this was my house? Could I walk away knowing I could have done it better? Wouldn't I want the person helping me to feel the same way? Perhaps this is the perfectionist in me speaking and ultimately I recognize the vice it can be.

On a tour of the 9th ward we were shown a "green house" that would serve as a home and was built of eco-friendly products that sought to reduce the carbon footprint it created. Two and a half years post-Katrina, the house was not yet complete. I found myself thinking - how much do these residents care that their house is "eco-friendly," they don't have a roof over their heads. However, given that we have the chance to rebuild, does it not make sense to do it right?

I will not deny that people are doing what they can when they can. So for those who live here, some construction is better than none, whatever form it takes. But when it's all destroyed, we’ve got a chance to make things right, not just to replace what was there. We're already spending a tremendous amount of money fixing things. But is fixing the old (and decidedly flawed) the right way to get a community back in shape?

How silly this must seem - all this attention for a fence. However, I walked away knowing I did the best I could. And that's enough for me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

back from NOLA

I am writing this the day after we arrive back in San Francisco, after I've had a little time to absorb what happened this past week.  New Orleans was everything I expected and so much more: it was beautiful and eclectic yet still reeling from the storm that hit more than two and a half years ago.  Since this was my first time in New Orleans, I knew little about what the city looked like before the storm, and the French Quarter was alive and buzzing with tourists as I had imagined it to be.  There was loud music on Bourbon Street, street performers, artists as Jackson Square, and the bars and tourist traps open for regular business.  However, the residential neighborhood of Bywater where we were staying felt much quieter and somewhat dilapidated, where I first saw the red X's on the front walls of the colorful houses.  Some had notices posted on the windows, one was being appropriated by the city.  One afternoon I spent walking around the neighborhood, and encountered few other people in the street except for a small group barbecuing in front of a church, preparing dinner for the volunteers they were housing that week.   Our first night in NOLA, we found a bar just down the block from our house on Mazant Street, which was empty save the bartender, his two companions, and a jukebox.  It was 2am on a Friday night, and we played old tunes on the jukebox until they "closed", which in this town was whenever the last clients decided to go home.

On Monday morning I started work at the City Attorney's office, where I would be volunteering for the entire week.  After a quick orientation and meeting our colleagues - fellow volunteers from the University of Indiana, Bloomington, and University of Mississippi - we were each assigned to a case.   Although at first most of the cases did not appear to be Katrina-related, we heard that the office faced severe cutbacks in staff since the storm (half had not returned) so they had a huge backlog of cases.  My supervisor Ed explained that mine was an environmental tort case filed against the city by local residents who discovered they were living on top of a landfill that was emitting toxic chemicals.  The city was implicated because it was part of the decision-making process that led to the development of the former Agriculture Street Landfill  to provide much-needed low income housing in the area.  The EPA did a major investigation and clean-up in the 1990s but the residents were not happy and wanted to relocate, alleging that the government had failed to warn them that they were living on top of an urban dump.   See for details.  I was researching the issue of discretionary function immunity, which is one of the legal theories underlying the city's defense.  The more I learned about the case, the more I thought about the environmental issues facing this country, and the inequality of environmental burdens borne by poor people.  The interesting connection my case had with Katrina is that the landfill re-opened after Hurricane Besty hit New Orleans in the 1960s, and the city burned debris for 9 straight months, which went into the landfill where the development area now stands.  What happened to all the waste from Katrina?  I do not know the answer, because most people do not ask, and do not want to know.  The waste must go somewhere, but usually we are dumping it far from where most people see it.  Even I don't like to spend my time thinking about what happens to my trash after it goes down the garbage chute of my apartment building in San Francisco.  But this week in New Orleans, I learned to really consider the effects of our modern lifestyles converged in the most unpleasant of all landscapes: the wastedump.  Katrina only shed light by magnifying a process that has been happening for many decades, and the people who have been unequally affected by it.  I also thought about government accountability.  Immunity is a huge shield that protects all levels of government including the engineers who built the faulty levees.  I myself felt responsible, because I contributed to this process that created this great environmental and human disaster.  We are each and all accountable.  This is the lesson that Katrina taught me, a big step for someone who really wasn't paying attention back in August 2005.  It took one week in New Orleans to learn this, and for that I am grateful to everyone who has supported me to get here.

Brick by Brick

Ms. Lorita Pellebon lives in the Lower Ninth Ward with her husband, children, and grandchildren. She is a tall woman, though slightly stooped, whose face lights up in surprise when we tell her we can start work on her home right away. She beams at us with the light of someone who has no shortage of hope and whose belief in the goodness of others is undiminished despite her circumstances.

Ms. Pellebon is keeping her family together. She is raising her small granddaughters, whose mother died of leukemia shortly after the storm. She is watchful of her older children, whose youth has been stripped from them and replaced by stolid preserverance. And she is subtly vigilant over her husband, who suffered a breakdown after seeing the home that his grandfather built destroyed. She does this with no self-pity, or even a sense that this is an extraordinary task, but with brisk and cheerful resolve. The only glimmer of regret I hear from her is when she mentions that she thought she would go to law school once; but she brushes this aside by laughing as though it were a joke and moving onto another topic. The laughter does not reach her eyes.

Mr. Pellebon is a quiet, meticulous man who has worked with his hands his whole life. He is rebuilding their home piece by piece and the work he has done is staggeringly precise. On breaks, he sits on the front porch smoking and staring out across the street. I think he sees the ghosts of his neighbors who died in the storm, and the black veil of that loss hovers over his sad eyes.

Elliott Pellebon, their son, approaches us shyly but soon begins to open up, quickly causing me to realize that he is the oldest 22 year old I have ever met. He recounts how his mother and sisters evacuated before the storm, but that his father refused to leave the home which has been in their family since the 1940s. The significance of an African-American family building and owning their own home in that era lingers compellingly beneath the surface of this story, but is unspoken.

Elliott chose to stay behind to help his father weather the storm. The water rose fast and they had to scramble to reach the second story of their home, which stood clear of the floodwater. As they were attempting to reach the high ground, Elliott heard a splash and looked back to see that his father had disappeared. Frantic, he searched the water until he was able to find his father and pull him to safety. There is no hint of self-promotion in his voice when he flatly explains that he would be without a father if he had not stayed behind that day. They waited seven days in the second story of their home before they were able to evacuate to Alabama.

As he concludes his story, Elliott explains that he is incredibly lucky and that people don't value their lives and opportunities as they should. He suggests that before the storm, he did not fully appreciate what he had, and that it took the loss of nearly everything for him to realize it. We all sit in silence for a moment, before his face cracks into a broad smile and he says "Well not to bring it all down! What about y'all? What you doing here?" as though his family's story was not exactly what we, and the American people, need to hear.

Before we left New Orleans, Ms. Pellebon thanked us and tried to give us money for our work. After we, of course, declined it, she called us "angels descended from heaven" and hugged everyone fiercely. I was embarrassed by this, truthfully. We were not angels. We were law students on spring break who were succeeding in life because of the advantages we've had, while here stood an amazing woman who was succeeding in spite of those she has not.

The week was a challenging one for us: we quickly came to realize the full extent of the institutional failure which pervades everything from the government to, yes, volunteer organizations and nonprofits. We were deeply frustrated at the sheer incompetence which made even the most well-meaning institutions almost counterproductive in the struggle to build New Orleans.

However, after meeting the Pellebons, I realized that, while these institutional failings are extremely demoralizing for people like us (ie law students who have time to rail about institutional reform and wax poetic about political theory), they are beside the point for the people who are quietly rebuilding their lives brick by brick. The Pellebons could undoubtedly use some competence in their government; but in the meantime, Ms. Pellebon will continue to ensure that her family survives the aftermath of the storm and Mr. Pellebon will continue to methodically build the structure which houses them all. Their sense of community remains solidly intact and they will spend their days ensuring that those left behind in the storm are not left behind now.

I am by no means suggesting that the efforts to effect large-scale change are meaningless; this is an important task and the profound flaws in the system must be resolved with immediacy. The Pellebons should not be surviving in spite of our government. I am merely submitting that, in our high-minded efforts to reform these institutions, we must not forget that there are houses to be gutted, fences to be painted, children to be taught, and deep wounds to be healed. And it is the residents themselves who are quietly and competently doing these things because they cannot afford to wait for us to roll up our sleeves and truly join them. They have waited long enough.

In order to really effect change and lift the residents of New Orleans out of these dire circumstances, I think it is imperative that everyone from the top down realizes that we are not doing any "lifting" at all, because the residents don't need that kind of aid. Building a truly inclusive society requires that, as Professor Quigley says, we see these individuals as our brothers and sisters, who are entitled to respect and dignity. They are unimpeachably hopeful, competent, and kind, and, moreover, they are Americans like us who deserve to be part of the conversation about our country, and not objects of it.

I encourage anyone considering involvement in this cause to keep in mind the big picture, to participate with an open heart, and to be willing to engage in the kind of brick by brick change that is necessary while the rest of the country quibbles.

The people of New Orleans are down, but not out, and all they need is a bit of a hand.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Red Cross team here. I figured it was about time to check-in with all our fans out there in blog land. To cut to the chase, we decided to switch projects – for the final two days of the week, we worked with the Louisiana Justice Project (LJI) instead of the Red Cross. After three days with the Red Cross, we didn’t really jive with their model, and decided to pursue something more in line with our vision for the trip.

The Red Cross is one of the largest and best-known non-profit organizations in the world. Because of its reputation for effective disaster relief, the organization gained $2.1 billion after Katrina from the U.S. government as well as private donors. In three short days, this team observed the realities of such a surge in funding, primarily the inevitably inefficient mismanagement of resources. As volunteers, we were highly underutilized, and we felt we were doing nothing to rebuild New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina. When it comes down to it, the Red Cross is an organization that responds to disasters and provides immediate, short-term relief. It is also an organization with a big name that allures individuals and the federal government to give it money, entrusting the management to create a system to get money into the hands that need it. However, the Red Cross’ specialization is not long-term case management. Unfortunately, like the many no-bid contracts (and sub, sub-sub, and sub-sub-sub contracts) going to large corporations with close ties to the Bush administration, this money has been lost to a multi-layered bureaucracy and it does not seem to be directed effectively.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross lost two thirds of its volunteer base. For an organization whose workers are 97% volunteers, this was a huge blow. We were placed with the Red Cross’ volunteer services department, which is focusing on rebuilding the volunteer base. We felt fine about spending a week on volunteer recruitment, management of a volunteer database, and the like. But we quickly realized that “volunteer recruitment” meant sitting in cubicles and doing basically nothing. Our volunteer services coordinator was a kind woman with a huge heart, but the organization had not set up a support structure to effectively train and utilize her.

What we learned from the Red Cross is that it’s crucial to second-guess the immediate legitimacy we accord to organizations with big names. We have no doubt that the Red Cross does amazing work in response to disasters. However, no matter how benevolent the intentions of an organization, a sudden influx of money has the potential to be poorly spent.

On Wednesday, after Todd, Ryan and I felt like we had wasted far too many hours, we told our supervisor that we were leaving the project at the Red Cross. We had learned about LJI’s community mapping project and we were pretty much salivating at the opportunity to actually do something.

LJI has various project areas, all of which involve community organizing and/or legal advocacy for Louisiana’s poor and minority residents. We were working with the housing unit, conducting surveys of residents whose neighborhoods were in danger of being bulldozed by the city. Our community mapping project focused on the Hollygrove neighborhood. The purpose of our project was to collect data to demonstrate the enormous detrimental effect of any city-led demolition of the neighborhood, but also to gauge the residents’ interest in becoming involved in an organized neighborhood association so that the community’s voice may influence local government.

Hollygrove is a low- to moderate-income neighborhood, mostly inhabited by African-American homeowners. In two days we only canvassed about ten blocks, but we heard a myriad of powerful stories. We spoke to individuals who felt incredibly discouraged and utterly forgotten by the government. Some people described the process of rebuilding their homes completely independently from government help. Some described the resilience that Katrina had instilled in them, empowering them to fight to stay in the city they’ve loved their whole lives. Some talked candidly about the institutionalized racism that Katrina exposed; some were more reserved, possibly worried about offending three white kids from California; some made it clear they had no interest whatsoever in speaking to us. But overall, the residents of Hollygrove welcomed us into their community and expressed sincere appreciation for the work we were doing.

One woman told me about surviving Hurricane Betsy in 1965; she did not know how to swim and was certain she would drown, until a stranger rowed over to her and pulled her into his boat. One man described his frustration with FEMA, who provided him a trailer relatively quickly but did not give him keys to the trailer – despite his calling every single day – for six months. When he gave up on the FEMA trailer and applied for rental assistance, he was told he was ineligible because the data base indicated he had received a trailer. One woman, whose car had been broken into the night before, expressed anger about the post-Katrina increase of crime, yelling that maybe New Orleans should just bulldoze the entire neighborhood. Her next-door neighbor spoke of her renewed hope in her community members, who have come together to support each other through the devastation of the storm, the levees breaking, and the racist system that failed them.

After our two short days in Hollygrove, we’re headed back to San Francisco. I can unequivocally say that my experience in New Orleans has made me more excited about utilizing the law to fight for social justice than any other experience I’ve had in law school. I can’t thank the people of New Orleans enough!