Common Ground Clinic in New Orleans: An Example for the Left

Two members of the original group, Noah and Scott, still remain in New Orleans today, months after Katrina’s initial landfall. Noah almost laughs when asked about how his plans have changed since arriving in New Orleans last year, "we just wanted to provide a service to help people who wanted to stay, or people who wanted to return. We wanted to help them fill some of those missing parts of the puzzle that would help them to stay, that piece being the healthcare piece. We thought we were starting a first aid station when we came down here, and its snow-balled into something much larger than a first aid station."

For those not familiar with New Orleans, the clinic was initially founded, and still remains, in the neighborhood known as Algiers. This neighborhood is south of the Ninth Ward on the other side of the river. There was much less damage in this area, and because of that many of Algiers’ residents were able to return before those in the Ninth Ward, most of whom are still living outside New Orleans.

Wendy, an herbalist working at the clinic explained her first impressions of the neighborhood where the clinic is located. "Even in Algiers when I got here, there weren’t too many people back in the neighborhood I was staying in. It was really quiet, but later there were many more people back, it changes all the time. Not everyone knows why there are white people living in their neighborhood, and a lot are angry about it, rightfully so."

An important distinction must be made between the Common Ground Clinic and the Common Ground Collective. Although both were founded initially under the motivation of Malik Rahim, a New Orleans local and former member of the Black Panthers, the clinic now operates virtually independent of the Collective, which is located in the Upper Ninth Ward. The two organizations are certainly connected organically, and Malik Rahim sits on the board of the clinic, however the work being done by each group is fulfilling very specific and very different roles in providing aid and services to New Orleans’ underserved communities.

Although the clinic was initially founded by an ad hoc collective of self-motivated activists, some not even formally trained in medical care, the clinic has successfully grown since then into a full service, free care provider. The Common Ground Clinic now provides not only general practitioner services, with at least one doctor or nurse practitioner on site at all times, but also provides access to alternative medicine such as herbal remedies and acupuncture. Patients are even able to go through an entire session with an herbalist. These sessions with the clinic’s herbalists are conducted in much the same way as those with a general practitioner or pediatrician. Unlike general practice, herbalists attempt a holistic approach to care. By interviewing the patient about all the symptoms they may be experiencing, as opposed to a specific, current ailment, herbalists believe they are best able to treat the whole body.

While in New Orleans I arranged for an appointment with one of the herbalists. Wendy was on staff that day and she took me through the holistic exam process. Within probably twenty minutes we discussed both my recent health experiences and what long-term or chronic issues I might be dealing with. After the examination Wendy was able to create a few herbal tincture remedies from the clinic’s stock, as well as making some other recommendations.

"I’ve rarely experienced the level of willingness to be open to alternative styles and secondly, to take all the herbs we recommend and come back for more. The acceptance rate has been really inspiring," explained Wendy about the impact of herbal medicine on the community.

By providing access to so-called alternative medicine therapies, Common Ground is demonstrating not only a dedication to free healthcare, but viable access to a wide variety of healthcare alternatives. Unlike many activist projects, the Common Ground clinic appears to have successfully transitioned from its initial phase of frenetic activity targeting a specific need, into a long-term vision. Common Ground is now a recognized non-profit organization with a board and director. More importantly, the clinic has transitioned from a reactive policy to one of proactive interpretation of need.

During my time in New Orleans I also attended a workshop on diabetes care. Diabetes is a problem that has particularly affected black communities in the southeast, and low-income communities generally around the United States. By providing a workshop on diabetes care, one of the clinic’s visiting doctors helped increase knowledge and awareness about diabetes within the clinic’s volunteers as a whole.

The impact of race is an issue that has been raised repeatedly around the clinic, as well as the over all efforts of the Common Ground Collective. The overwhelming majority of volunteers and activists who have traveled to New Orleans post-Katrina have been white. The "punk rock" style of many of the activists who have traveled to New Orleans initially alienated residents in the city. Many felt the slovenliness or apparent lack of cleanliness of activists to be disrespectful to the community at large.

As the clinic evolved, its volunteers realized this was an issue of cultural understanding which needed to be confronted and resolved. Many of the volunteers come out of a contemporary tradition of anarchism and anti-consumerism. However, there was a realization among them that it was more important to connect on the local level than to defend personal political choices.

Barbara, a volunteer with Common Ground Collective, who is familiar with the clinic’s work, said, "To be able to talk about racism in New Orleans there are a lot of pieces to consider, a lot of that has to with being able to just sit down and listen to people, and hear their stories. Right when the storm happened, a lot of folks were really willing to tell their stories, about hiding in their attic, and one story a man told me was about a guy who was hiding in his attic, and he looked out the window, and saw a police officer handcuff a young man and throw him into the raging water. For me that’s really important, just to sit with this man and hear him telling his story."

This level of conversation and understanding has been highlighted repeatedly by activists working in New Orleans as one of the most important elements of their work. The fruits of these efforts to gain a cultural awareness about the city of New Orleans are already showing. Today many volunteers in the clinic can be seen in the blue scrubs reminiscent of American hospitals, but everyone makes an attempt at semi-professional dress. A short trip through the clinic might leave a difficult task for anyone attempting to distinguish which volunteers hail from this "punk rock" spectrum outside of their clinic work.

The efforts of the clinic to respect even this, perhaps superficial, cultural standard in New Orleans may provide a strong role model to grassroots activist movements and projects around the United States. The failure of the often insular anarchist community in the US to become educated about the varying perspective, interests, and cultural norms of the United States’ low-income communities and communities of color is perhaps the single most limiting factor on its growth.

The Black Panthers, Young Lords, and other organizations such as the American Indian Movement are essentially non-existent players in the current social justice movements of the United States. If the new social justice movements of the twenty-first century are going to solidify into unified struggles across lines of class, race, and politics, new examples of developing solidarity need to be found.

The Common Ground Clinic appears to provide such an example. Although the creation of the nonprofit organization has not been without issues, the volunteers involved in the clinic are working hard to ensure the clinic keeps to its values. This process is especially difficult as they also attempt to develop a space that can keep pace with the changing needs of the underserved communities in New Orleans. With hurricane season just 3 months away, it is anyone’s guess how the clinic will fare even into the near future. No matter what happens, it has already provided an important example to a Left which is just finding its footing in the twenty-first century.