by Naomi Ishisaka
“Time can heal and cloud a memory, but it’s your responsibility to remember what happened in New Orleans and make it a part of who you are. Katrina might be the most dramatic test you take but it won’t be the last.”
– Sen. Barack Obama
If Katrina, as Sen. Barack Obama says, is a test of history, how should we be graded? Years from now, will history look back on our generation and say we made it a turning point for a new set of priorities in the U.S. or did it become just another example of the persistent inequalities of race and class in our country? Would they say we turned our backs on our fellow citizens or that we stretched out our arms to help?
Why should we care about the Gulf Coast? Why should we care about New Orleans? Because the Gulf Coast is a metaphor, a mirror, a reflection of the gap between who we say we are and who we really are. The current slow-moving disaster of delays in aid, the remaining diaspora of 200,000 mostly black evacuees spread out across the nation who have little chance of returning home, the reinforcement of disparity between the powerful and the powerless are all compelling reasons to care.
For these reasons and more, photographer Inye Wokoma and I returned to the Gulf Coast in late August to bear witness and to give voice to the people of color who have been hit hardest. We found government ineptitude and persistent inequality. Like many who travel to the region, we caught the Katrina bug during our trip in September 2005. We knew we had to go back and make sure the stories were still being told and our new friends were not being forgotten.
To travel to New Orleans, in particular, is truly to see a tale of two cities. One could easily visit the city and go to affluent, white areas like the Garden District and Uptown or take a trip to the French Quarter and see a city on the mend. A few nicks and scrapes here and there, but basically alive and functioning. A recent Los Angeles Times analysis of address changes confirmed what is obvious on the ground – white people with resources have largely been able to return and begin to rebuild. Here, optimistic blue flags reading “Recover, Rebuild, Rebirth” fly in front of most homes.
But if you were to venture off the tourist track and into the Ninth Ward and even more dramatically the Lower Ninth Ward, you would see a completely different city. This city is deserted, desolate and still in a state of destruction. There are no places to buy groceries, there are no services. There are precious few signs of rebuilding. The people in these areas have been scattered to the wind. How will they return?
For evacuees living around the Puget Sound area, a chance to revisit their homes and communities was provided by the Social Change Caravan, a group of volunteers – mostly from Shoreline Community College – who spent the spring gutting houses in the Gulf Coast and wanted to find a way to help local evacuees. The idea of a caravan was born and the group drove down with 25 evacuees in time for the first-anniversary commemorations of the hurricane.
This type of do-it-yourself volunteerism and activism sometimes seems to be the only work getting done in lower-income neighborhoods in the Gulf Coast. As one volunteer and blogger wrote about the grass-roots group Common Ground, “For miles, the only people to be seen doing actual work are a bunch of kids, none of whom appear to have reached their 30s. They have traveled from all over the world and used their own money to get here. None of them are being paid for their efforts, unless you count the plates of mush they’re fed at the end of the day, for which they are clearly very appreciative. They spend their days wading through diseased garbage, and their nights sleeping on the side of the road. They have no electricity and no running water. But don’t call them heroes, or you’ll quickly be told it’s not heroic to just do the right thing.”
These kids, I would add, are almost entirely white. Hands-On New Orleans volunteers, for example, are reportedly about 90 percent white. Volunteers at Common Ground are also almost entirely white. So where are the volunteers of color when those most impacted by the storm are non-white? We found a number of people of color, including those with the Social Change Caravan, volunteers at Hands-On, Seattle activist Truc Nguyen and those among the leadership of Common Ground who were the exceptions to the rule. But many, many more are needed.
What can you do? If you have special language skills, you could help translate for non-English speakers. If you are physically able, you could help gut houses and put up sheetrock. If you are limited physically, you could staff a volunteer center. If you have the will, there is a use for you. Why should you? Because this is a test, and our humanity and history rest on how we answer it.