Day 17 – November 19
“Imagine losing everything you own, getting taken to an airport, not knowing where you are going until you are in the air, being de-fogged upon arrival, therefore feeling ‘contaminated’, and not even knowing where you are going until you are in the air.” This was the image the 2009 Luce students awoke to on the morning of November 19th. Former Dickinson College graduate, Ann Yoachim was trying to convey the pain and suffering New Orleans residents endured during the August 2005 storm hurricane Katrina.
Ann graduated from Dickinson in 1999 and has a Masters of Public Health with a focus on International Development from Tulane University. She is presently the Program Manager for the Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy, where she specializes in program management and research related to building resilient communities. She works closely with many neighborhood groups in New Orleans, as well as the United Houma Nation.
While describing her own work in New Orleans, Ann briefly discussed where New Orleans is today after the devastation of Katrina. Due to the immensity of the damages to certain parts of New Orleans, there was a question as to whether the city was safe to return to soon after the storm. Yet, how do you tell someone who has lost everything they own that they cannot return home — return to the only things they truly do have left, their property, their culture, their family and friends? These return decisions have had their ongoing consequences however. In order to combat these damages from ever happening again, Ann has been working with specific at-risk communities and working with them on community resilience and addressing issues of vulnerability.
While the damages to the city and its people, the disaster (whether it be natural of not) response time, and the stratification of classes in the city were some of the greatest tragedies this country has ever seen, there has certainly been much improvement due in part to people like Ann (you really can make a difference with a Dickinson education!). After Ann’s setting of the scene, we were off! Off to learn about what good others are making of the difficult situation in New Orleans and off to try to make a small contribution.
The Luce team split up into two different groups: half helping at The School at Blair Grocery in the Lower Ninth Ward, while the other half volunteered at the Hollygrove Market & Farm (HM&F). At HM&F we were greeted by Americorp VISTA employee, Bill Pastellak. After brief introductions, Bill promptly gave us a tour of his beloved facility, which grows multiple vegetables and raises hens for educational purposes. HM&F, he describes, is unlike any CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or Farmers Market you have ever seen. HM&F, through funds from the New Orleans Farm and Food Network, is able to give plots to local growers, allowing them to grow produce and eventually sell it back to the market. HM&F also purchases produce for sale every Saturday from growers within a 100-mile radius using best-management practices.
Most of the work that Luce students did today at this site was for Ronald Terry. Ronald was taking over a plot of land on the property from a previous gardener who had recently moved away. Ronald, a man of pure warmth and passion for gardening would frequently tell the students to “not stress themselves” and leave most of the hard work for him to do. A true showing of southern hospitality, Ronald was more than happy when the students helping him took an hour break to eat pizza!
After learning much from Bill and Ronald, it was time for the Dickinson students to share with HM&F on the goings-on at the Dickinson College farm, a perfect parallel to today’s experience. Students Evan Kendall and Anna Farb took the floor and gave a brilliant synopsis of the College farm and the cutting edge technologies utilized there; Jenn Halpin would be proud!
The other group went to an educational farm in the Lower Ninth Ward to share information about our College Farm but also to aid in their agricultural and community efforts. The school was called Our School at Blair Grocery (If you are into reading blogs, which you must be, as you are now, check out theirs! http://schoolatblairgrocery.blogspot.com/). The site, a former grocery store that was destroyed by Katrina, occupies a corner plot on Benton Street. The school was established by a spirited man named Nat Turner in an effort to blend community food production with education, ultimately culminating as a GED program that helps supply fresh produce to the Lower Ninth Ward. The Dickinson group helped them build a new compost pile with a truck load of coffee grounds, build new garden beds and tear up some pernicious weeds. While working, our group was led by the farm’s AmeriCorps volunteer, Brennan Dougherty. After helping with the labor for a few hours, Alex and Katelyn gave a short presentation about the Dickinson College Farm. This helped spark a lively discussion about the merits of urban gardening on urban renewal. Through this conversation they found that in many instances the resources and sustainable wisdom of Dickinson match the needs of Our School at Blair Grocery. Contact information was exchanged in an effort to maintain the sharing of experience between the Dickinson students and Our School at Blair Grocery.
After eating the spoils gleaned at Our School at Blair Grocery (multiple ripe pomegranates), the students were treated to an evening lecture from esteemed Dillard University Urban Planning professor and Dean, Dr. Bob Collins. Dr. Collins brought the day full circle by discussing the unique history and culture of New Orleans in terms of classism, racism, and discrimination, and how the proposed policy decisions after the Katrina devastation fit into this context. By learning the ins and outs of the different organizations proposing to rebuild New Orleans such as the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC) and the United New Orleans Plan (UNOP) and understanding the stakeholders behind these propositions we learned about how and why things happen the way they do in such a politically run city. Lastly, we discussed whether Brad Pitt, who is building green houses for residents of the Lower Ninth Ward who lost their homes, is truly “Making it Right”. Whereas many people complain that he is spending money on out-of-state labor, and affecting only a small section of the city by building houses that don’t truly follow the traditional architecture of the historic area, others point out that he has spent more on rebuilding of New Orleans than the federal government and is providing an important option to residents who choose to take it. Without NGOs, volunteers, and people like Brad Pitt, how many New Orleans residents would truly be able to come back?
Thank you all for teaching us so much today!
Thomas Robson (with the paragraph on Our School at Blair Grocery by Alex Smith)