Outside Activism, Reconsidered

In her March column, "The Trouble with Outside Activists," Courtney Martin asked if the flood of outside activists in the wake of Katrina was hurting as much as it helped. "Like Juan Ponce DeLeon's mythological fountain of youth, the Lower 9th Ward has become upper-middle-class America's source of feel-good absolution," she wrote. "But the darker side of all of this well-intentioned activism is that it has created a revolving door of services and support in a parish that is in dire need of a strategic plan."

The American Prospect asked six individuals working on post-Katrina recovery to discuss how their organizations are balancing rebuilding, commitment to community, and local autonomy with the desire of outside volunteers to participate in the recovery.

How have you experienced the revolving door of volunteers?

Timolynn Sams, executive director of Neighborhoods Partnership Network (NPN), New Orleans native:

The revolving door can be a yin-and-yang situation. Do I think it's giving people an opportunity to see New Orleans beyond what the media portrays? Yes. I think many came here with a savior mentality, though, and what they found was that people here were not so misled but just that we needed a helping hand, not a handout.

Jainey Bavishi, director of the Equity and Inclusion campaign, a coalition of Gulf Coast nonprofits and advocacy groups, originally from Charlotte, North Carolina:

I agree that there are certain people who come and just dangle hope but with empty commitments. I also think there are those who have shown genuine commitment and have followed through by cleaning up a house or by committing to much larger pieces of work. Volunteers from the outside have played an incredible role in bringing people back home. I know the kind of people [Martin] talks about, but there is a larger group of people who have taken direction from local residents on what to do and where to put their time, talents, and resources to do good.

Simone Washington, staff attorney for the Mobile branch of the Alabama Fair Housing Center, resident of Mobile, Alabama, on the Gulf Coast:

It's admirable that people want to come down and help rebuild our communities. But when the media sees that and sends the message that everything is OK now -- that is inaccurate.

Shercole King, an independent consultant and volunteer for Unified Nonprofits, a coalition of 501(3)(c) status organizations along the Gulf Coast, native of New Orleans:

[Outside volunteers] have been helpful with the small things, like painting and gardening. But for major projects where volunteers work at nonprofits, people just keep coming in, and we have to teach and reteach them. We could be using a lot of our local individuals to work on these projects. I know locals who would like to volunteer, but they can't because we have to accommodate the outside volunteers who are coming in.

Kendrick Pullen, director of development for the Acadiana Outreach Center and former founder and program director for New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals (NOLA YURP), a network created to retain talent in the Gulf Coast for post-Katrina recovery. Pullen was born in Chicago but has lived in New Orleans and calls it home:

I do get a feeling that New Orleans has become a revolving door for activists and volunteers. Very few people are coming down to empower the natives to be the activists. I think the motives of many volunteers can be brought into question.

Has the flood of tourists and volunteers had any impact on why natives have not been able to return?

Washington:

No. [That has] more to do with housing. A lot of programs to put people back in their homes have failed. Money that was supposed to be used for housing is being used for other things like [rebuilding] the Port of Gulfport in Mississippi or the wastewater sewage plant in Mobile, Alabama. That's what's keeping people from coming home. I wouldn't blame that so much on tourists and volunteers so much as I would on the government.

King:

As far as population goes, between July and December of 2008 we reached 73.7 percent of our pre-Katrina population. So, it's not as bad as people might think. [One] of the reasons natives are not coming home is [the] lack of resources here. Many feel they can get a lot more stability in other cities. I don't think the tourists have had an impact on people returning home.

Sams:

A lot of New Orleans' population was rental, and mostly it's been rental properties that haven't returned. Also, many haven't returned because they haven't been asked to return. The last many of them heard was, we don't want poor people back here. So, now we don't have [Charity] hospital, and schools are closing. NPN has been getting neighborhoods to work collectively to address things like housing policy.

Nathan Rothstein, campaign director for mayoral candidate James Perry, co-founder and former director of NOLA YURP, and native of Boston:

There is no correlation between volunteerism and people not coming back to New Orleans. That has everything to do with a lack of public housing, the bad policies of the state's Road Home program and government failures. The city doesn't have anything to do with volunteerism. It gives a wink to it every now and then. But most of the work comes from nonprofits.

Has volunteerism in the Gulf Coast been a distraction from addressing the larger socioeconomic issues of Katrina?

Bavishi:

Overall, no. But every time volunteers come in, sure, it does take time away from whoever's hosting them to set them up, and that's time those organizers could have used to address issues head on. But, I think volunteerism has been essential for some of the grunt work that frankly is needed for recovery from a disaster. It was volunteers, though, who spearheaded the gutting-houses process, which is needed before rebuilding can take place. Many natives weren't there to do it themselves or couldn't do it themselves.

Washington:

You can't focus on volunteerism being a problem when the problems of the Gulf Coast are much larger than that. You do have people who say, "I'm going to come in and help build a house, then I'm going to feel good about myself and then leave." That doesn't help our overall recovery issues. But, if the government is not going to build houses, then we welcome college students to come in and build houses. The folks in Coden, Alabama, would love for somebody to come and build them a house right now, and they wouldn't care who built it, whether it was a volunteer or a person who lived there.

Rothstein:

The whole idea of NOLA YURP was to prevent volunteers from coming in and making New Orleans their Peace Corps, just doing some work and then leaving. It's about helping people from here to build connections, find jobs, and prevent some of the racially polarizing things going on in the city. You have cases of universities coming down to study a neighborhood and then leaving, and you never hear from them again. This creates resentment from locals. The universities see New Orleans as a guinea pig.

Sams:

We've become this laboratory, but we are not guinea pigs. We want to be part of the science, but as the scientists, not the experiment.

How effective have outsiders been in helping natives gain new professional skills and leverage their existing skills?

King:

I don't think they have been truly helpful. I think our city has helped them more in gaining professional skills because they are given opportunities to do things they probably couldn't do in their own cities. They are able to start a program or an organization here and things they couldn't do in other cities.

Pullen:

What should be happening is there should be coalition that serves as a receiver and feeder group for volunteers. It's almost like the carpetbagging after the Civil War, with people coming down here putting it under the guise of "we're helping people." I was one of those young people who kind of benefited from the whole Katrina situation, [I helped] start an organization that was working to energize the volunteer base. Looking back, I think personally it was probably more just an opportunity to make some personal business connections for myself. So now I ask myself whether I really was helping people or was I in the way?

Bavishi:

The learning curve has been really steep. For everyone involved. Most of us haven't done this before, so we have to leverage the best of all thinking -- whether from within or outside the region. [We have to think about] being a tool for local people to use to advance their own agendas.

Are rebuilding efforts including enough native New Orleanians?

Washington:

Across the board, no. The government has consistently brought in outsiders to do the recovery work. They could employ the local people here to do this work, but they haven't.

King:

A lot of natives are doing a lot of great things in the city, but you just don't hear about it. I wouldn't say all, but a good percentage of them are led by natives.

Bavishi:

With the Equity and Inclusion Campaign, yes. We facilitate conversations about policy across the region, and we also connect organizations with resources from outside the region. [But] we need outside activism to help us advocate for what we need. When people from Iowa are calling their senators and asking them to pay attention to Gulf Coast issues, that makes a difference. We need those outside activists advocating on our behalf.

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