Sunday, March 16, 2008

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.

No comments: