Identifying the connection between the former (those aforementioned sociopolitical views) and the latter (the volunteer work) turned out to be much harder than I expected. In fact, I remain doubtful that I’ve found an answer at all.
It is certainly not hard to come up with some reasons why anarchists would see New Orleans as a good gathering point right now-not only in terms of flocking to the city itself, but also by placing the issues raised by Katrina at the center of radical discussions. The failure at all levels of government to protect or even rescue the people of this city was near absolute, and surely prompted a crisis of conscience among many Americans who had previously assumed that their tax dollars guaranteed their safety in the event of such a catastrophe. As pointed out by a disturbingly enthusiastic forward sent around the Internet (by apparent "anarchists") in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, this presented a golden opportunity to call attention not just to the corruption and inefficiency of the current state, but to the failure of states in general as a model for organizing society.
If imminent rebellion and social upheaval were on the minds of most volunteers at Common Ground, though, it didn’t really show. There was plenty of discussion regarding the evils of racism, inequality, and hierarchy-with a strong consensus that all these things were bad, and that our presence in New Orleans was somehow combating them-I never heard anyone indicate that they expected a wave of revolutionary fury to spiral out from Louisiana and engulf the nation. More to the point, if anyone did believe that might happen, they never cited it as their reason for volunteering.
Instead, I found most people I talked to subscribed to either one or both of the following two statements:
1. I came to New Orleans because people here need help, and I can help them (or at least can try to help them).
2. I came to New Orleans to make myself a better person (or a better anarchist, activist, citizen, radical, American, etc.).
The second week I was staying at Common Ground, a representative from the New York-based People’s Institute, who had come to give an anti-racism workshop, opened her presentation by coming out squarely against statement number one. We the volunteers, she told us, would be "arrogant" to think we had come to New Orleans to "help" anyone. Instead, a better motivation-the only valid motivation under the circumstances, she implied-should be the hope of improving ourselves as individuals and as organizers. I nodded along at the time, but her statement-and those two concepts in particular, "arrogance" and "help"-stuck in my mind.
Since the woman from the People’s Institute didn’t elaborate on her point at the time, I can only guess at what she had in mind: that it’s arrogant to enter a situation with the attitude that we are in some kind of higher position than those we have come to "help," that only vanity could convince us that we are capable of something that the hurricane victims, in this case, are not. Another representative from the People’s Institute, speaking a week earlier, drove this point home hard: "You might be thinking that the people of this community need Common Ground. And you’re right, they do need you. But the question, could they have done it without you?" (That is, had the aid provided by Common Ground and other organizations created a dependency that hadn’t existed before, in a community that might have eventually organized these initiatives itself?)
There is undeniable validity to these questions, and it would comfort me to know that every volunteer coming to New Orleans were exposed to them-not just those at Common Ground, but also those working for more mainstream groups like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and such. It is crucially important for volunteers to question their motives, to entertain some doubts regarding the whole knights-in-shining-armor scenario (the Salvation Army, after all, is fairly open in entertaining such chivalric notions). However, an outright rejection of "wanting to help" as a valid reason for volunteering makes me deeply uncomfortable, for reasons I’ll try to explain blow.
The idea that I had come to New Orleans principally for the purpose of helping people didn’t even enter my mind until I was several days into my work there. (My own motives were never especially clear to me before and during my time there; they were sort of an amalgam of all the different potential motivations I’ve tried to put into this essay.) Specifically, the issue came up when I casually asked a carload of volunteers if they thought our satisfaction in our work (and that satisfaction was profound) had to do with our inheritance of the Protestant work ethic, in the sense that we all carried an unspoken conviction that we could redeem ourselves through hard work. There was some murmured agreement from most of the car, but then one volunteer burst out in frustration with something along these lines: "It’s not the Protestant work ethic, it’s Kant! It’s the moral imperative!"
(Don’t worry, I’ll translate in a second.)
What that volunteer meant was that she-and all of us, she assumed-had come not to better ourselves, but to help people in need, because we identified with them as fellow human beings and thus recognized that coming to their aid was the right thing to do. At the time, I resisted her argument, with a stubbornness that surprises me when I look back on it. Why? Based on what I was told growing up, helping people in need is a good thing-so why was I so reluctant to admit that helping people (statement one, for those keeping track) was a main factor in my motivation to volunteer?
I think one explanation is pure cynicism. Without any statistics on hand, I would feel confident saying that a majority of progressives in this country, anarchist and otherwise, are convinced that, in the long run, they won’t really make an impact on the world. This cynicism might not be constructive, but it’s certainly based in concrete experience. By now everyone is aware of the corruption that plagues disaster relief organizations; the recent scandals surrounding the Red Cross’s use of donor money were hardly shocking. None of us expects a twenty-dollar check (or a thousand-dollar check, for that matter) to save whales or to end genocide, and yet we give our money and our time to those causes anyway. None of us expects our vote to bring about genuine democracy, and yet we vote-or we abstain from voting, a choice that reflects the same desire to feel empowered while trapped inside a system so large and so entrenched that it doesn’t much care what we do.
It’s hard to reconcile that kind of cynicism with the hopeful attitudes of the volunteers at Common Ground, myself included. Even after learning about the political complexities of the situation, which at first made me feel robbed of my right to see New Orleans in clear-cut terms of right and wrong, I still held the conviction that I was part of something good. In a sense, that satisfaction was due to the fact that I could see the fruits of my labor at the end of the day: a well-swept community center, or a pile of moldy drywall heaved into the gutter and awaiting disposal. In another sense, though, the long-term results of the work I was doing were absolutely invisible to me, and may always be: many of the houses Common Ground is gutting will almost surely be bulldozed within a year or two, and their owners relocated to some other area.
To volunteer in New Orleans and leave mostly contented with one’s work, as I did (and as many of my companions did not, based on conversations during the long car ride home and since), one has to dig out a comfortable space between the rock of uncomplicated enthusiasm and the hard place of cynical pessimism. Anyone who feels unabashedly heroic and triumphant hasn’t been following news coverage of the reconstruction plan; anyone who feels like they accomplished nothing has probably learned the lesson of their own ineffectiveness a little too well.
For those navigating between these twin extremes, this might be where statement two, the idea that the only reasonable goal of volunteering is to better ourselves as individuals, starts to look attractive. Adherents to this philosophy might point to some of the following as the unimpeachably positive aspects of the volunteer experience: "I acted as witness in the aftermath of a disaster of epic proportions." "I met and networked with like-minded volunteers from all over the country, and we fostered and shared a collective energy that we’ll bring back to our respective work outside New Orleans." And the kicker: "I improved my understanding of why inequality is bad and I gained new skills for combating it when I get back home."
All these thoughts crossed my mind during my time at Common Ground, and they were usually comforting when they did. And I do believe that they’re valid; I’ll have to get far more cynical before I can sneer at sentiments as noble as these. But here’s the problem with every one of these thoughts as primary motivations for volunteering, in New Orleans or anywhere: they leave out the people who need help. They leave out New Orleans.
Talking with the owners of the homes we were gutting and other members of the city’s hardest-hit areas, one couldn’t help but be struck by the incredibly strong sense of attachment and pride they felt for their communities. Statements like these were common: "My family’s lived in this neighborhood for generations." "We owned all of our houses." "We owned the businesses that we bought from." "We survived Hurricane Betsy and we’ll survive this."
I don’t know if the Lower Ninth Ward and similar communities will survive; there’s a good chance they won’t. But the facts are these:
1. People-real people, not just hypothetical ones to be inserted into an abstract exercise in morality-are returning to the poorest parts of the city, bringing little with which to rebuild other than their own determination.
2. These people are coming to Common Ground and other organizations and asking for assistance in rebuilding their lives, which they see as inseparably connected to their houses.
3. The government may very well force these people out of their homes and out of the city, and they will have no chance of resisting if they can’t reoccupy their houses and organize their communities as a unified voice in the next few months.
4. Gutting houses and other such work greatly raises the chances that this community resistance will take place. Without this resistance, the spectacle of corporation-driven reconstruction will be truly appalling.
5. You can go through a process of critical self-analysis and self-betterment any time, anywhere; you can only help the people of New Orleans by going to New Orleans, and by going soon (or by organizing support for the city locally and channeling it along, as some very inspiring people in San Francisco and elsewhere are doing).
If you want to help the people of New Orleans, go down there and volunteer. Don’t just go to be a witness (although witnesses are needed there, as they are everywhere). Don’t just go to meet cute anarchists from around the country (although this is an obvious perk). And don’t just go to become a better person (although we all know we could use some self-improvement, and your house-gutting skills really will improve). Go for all these reasons, but above all, go to make a difference in the lives of a few proud, historic communities, while there’s still time.
Got to http://www.commongroundrelief.org/ for more information.
Owen Thomspon is a student at Bard College.