I've been home from New Orleans for a couple of days now, and have had some time to process what I saw there. I went for a Women Donors Network conference called Revitalizing Democracy: What We Can Learn from Katrina. Part of turning forty and thinking about what I want to spend my energy on in the coming decade(s) is to be an advocate for organizations and ideas that I believe in and to stand up and speak out more. So I'm doing that now.
I learned an incredible amount just by going and seeing for myself. I had been partially informed before; but had no real idea of the magnitude of the destruction, and more importantly, how very little has been accomplished 15 months after Katrina.
The first afternoon of the conference we took a bus tour of the still-devasted areas of the city. I saw a public school that was still completely boarded up, without any remediation or renovation at all. I saw a public library that still has books in the ceiling tile supports and such a strong smell of mold and decay that I could only stay inside for a few minutes. We went to the locations of 3 levee breaches and I saw neighborhoods trying to come back to life, but with a long way to go.
The initial tour was pretty overwhelming. I felt sad and bewildered and frustrated. I kept, and keep, thinking that if a massive earthquake hit San Francisco all of the public schools and libraries would damn well be functioning a year after.
Friday morning was a panel discussion moderated by Linda Usdin with Angela Glover Blackwell, Cecilia Muñoz, Barbara Major, and Beverly Wright, all of whom spoke with such intelligence and a fierce commitment and dedication to rebuilding the city that you can't help but be energized by their voices.
Friday afternoon I took another tour with a Housing focus guided by some local grassroots non-profit people, one of whom turned out to be Amy Brown, who has been working with my friends and architects Coleman Coker and Jonathan Tate to build affordable housing in the Treme district. Amy is an incredible woman, full of passion for her work and her home. It's easy for me to connect with other Amy's, especially left-handed ones -- and I feel completely galvanized to support her in the serious work that she's doing. Thanks to Coleman and Jonathan for connecting us.
Before I went I had some concerns about being some kind of disaster voyeur, so I didn't bring a camera, which I now regret. One of the women at the conference said we were there to witness and bring back stories to our own communities. After I read Stranger in a Strange Land in high school I wanted to be a Fair Witness, which is maybe part of why I'm a writer. And why I'm going to keep going back to keep seeing for myself.
And what can you do?
One of the local housing activists recommended that we contact our members of Congress and ask whether they've been to the Gulf Coast. If not, why not? If they have, what have they done?
I'm going to read the local paper, the Times-Picayune (and what's a picayune, you might ask?) via RSS and keep learning about the complex political and economic realities and just continue to pay attention to what's going on there.
And I'm going to work with Amy and Coleman and Jonathan to build more houses in the Treme, and ask people to join me. There's so much work to be done that it can feel overwhelming. The way through that is to connect with people and take care of just a small part of the world. Building houses is a tangible, literally concrete way of making a difference to people in New Orleans.