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!