Sarah Lawrence Goes to the Gulf Coast
"Five months after Hurricane Katrina, the crisis in New Orleans is still happening," says faculty member Dean Hubbard, holder of the Joanne Woodward chair in public policy at Sarah Lawrence College.
Hubbard, along with 12 Sarah Lawrence students, staff and alumnae/i, experienced the crisis firsthand over winter break, when they traveled to New Orleans to assist with reconstruction and community-organizing efforts.
"When a disaster happens, there are always people who want to make a difference," said Daphne Dumas, associate dean for multicultural affairs and international students and project participant. "At some point, we just had to go."
A student-faculty coalition organized the trip. It was funded through the College’s Office of Community Partnerships, which received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to build student leadership for social justice, as well as by contributions from members of the SLC community.
To prepare for the trip, the group connected with ACORN, a community organization of low- and moderate-income families, which hosted the College group. Sarah Lawrence faculty from a range of disciplines provided training on community organizing, oral history, race and development, and mental health.
The group also met with hurricane survivors staying in a Queens, New York, hotel, offering their assistance and discussing redevelopment.
On January 5, the Sarah Lawrence group arrived in New Orleans. Once settled at the Biscuit Palace, a recently repaired hotel in the French Quarter, they discovered that "imagining the destruction and seeing it for yourself are two disparate things," said Dumas.
"The Ninth Ward looked like it had been bombed. There were cars on top of houses. The sidewalks were covered with garbage."
Though the extent of the devastation was overwhelming, the Sarah Lawrence group broke into teams and quickly got to work. One team went to work with ACORN, salvaging houses in the Ninth Ward. Bedecked in Tyvex suits and respirators to ward off prolific mold, the group removed ruined possessions from the houses, then ripped out carpeting and drywall.Once gutted, the houses were ready to be refurbished by their owners.
"Countless people told me that they had to come back; that neighborhood was their home, their neighbors were their family," senior PernaLyn Baier, one of the trip’s student organizers, wrote in the group’s blog.
Gutting the houses is an important step towards return. It’s important politically, too, says Hubbard: "Activists believe that low-lying neighborhoods -- which are also low-income and black neighborhoods -- will be condemned and sold to real estate developers, who will build parks, golf courses and McMansions and call it 'sustainable redevelopment'."
By salvaging houses in these communities, ACORN and other grassroots organizations are creating "an on-the-ground reality of restored neighborhoods," he says. "Politically, it's a lot harder to bulldoze someone’s house if they’re living in it."
ACORN cleaned its 200th house during the Sarah Lawrence trip, and plans to have 1,000 done by March.
The other Sarah Lawrence team focused on community organizing, going door-to-door in Center City, a low-income neighborhood west of downtown, to assess people’s needs. Did their electricity work? Did they need medical care? Were they registered to vote?
The group offered referrals to community agencies and, sometimes, their own labor. For one 83-year-old woman, the biggest help they could provide was washing the laundry, which had been an impossible task for her since the hurricane.
Most often, though, a sympathetic ear was the thing people needed the most. "People were so traumatized and frustrated, they just needed to talk," said Hubbard.
Dumas concurred. "Listening is the most profound way of connecting to people, and the students were excellent at it—so eager and supportive," she said.
The group recorded some of the stories they heard, and may publish the resulting oral histories to help their fundraising efforts. They have purchased health and safety equipment for construction groups, and donated funds to New Orleans artists and writers affiliated with the Black Arts Movement.
Though many policy battles remain to be fought, Sarah Lawrence organizers helped score a small victory on January 7, when a local hotel evicted about 35 Katrina evacuees, even though there was no place for them to go.
As attorneys and volunteer law students fought for an emergency injunction to allow the residents to return, the SLC students and other volunteers demonstrated in front of the hotel, joined by the displaced residents, who had lugged their remaining possessions onto the sidewalk.
By the end of the day, the injunction had been obtained, and evacuees were allowed to return to their temporary homes in the hotel.
"There are times when people stand up and fight, and win. It was great for the students to see that," said Hubbard.
The group returned to Sarah Lawrence on January 12, but they didn’t leave their cause behind. In addition to ongoing fundraising, members of the group are developing a network of regional college students and faculty with expertise in areas of need, such as engineering and architecture, to assist in redevelopment. Hubbard and history faculty member Komozi Woodard might teach a class about Katrina next fall, and there’s talk of a return trip.
But after organizing on the ground in a wrecked city, doing it at school should be relatively easy. "The students were really strong," says Dumas. "The trip was a profound experience for them, learning how to organize in such desperate circumstances. It was unforgettable."
-- Suzanne E.W. Gray