The Trouble with Outside Activists

It used to be that tourists headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras had fantasies of glittering beads, yards of sickeningly sweet frozen drinks, and public nudity. But many of those who headed down South last week were actually on a whole different flight of fancy.

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. Do-gooders flood down to New Orleans, their bags packed full of old T-shirts and their minds packed full of altruistic dreams. They want to build houses, watch them spring up from the dirt as they do on Extreme Makeover Home Edition. Indeed, they genuinely want to help people.

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. I recently headed down to the Lower 9th Ward myself on a reporting trip for the book I'm working on. It didn't take more than a quick stroll around before it became painfully obvious that the piecemeal, parachute-in method of rebuilding isn't serving the people. There are abandoned churches filled floor to ceiling with books that haven't been distributed, donated computers sitting in buildings that don't even have proper plumbing, and of course, Brad Pitt's "Make it Right" houses, perched upon their soaring stilts right next to a levee that's still not structurally sound.

Just ask Ronald Lewis, longtime Lower 9th Ward resident and self-declared "keeper of the culture." Lewis shows visitors into his backyard museum, the "House of Dance and Feathers," to see some of his favorite cultural artifacts -- from Mardi Gras costumes to mammy dolls, ready-to-eat meals to bongs. On a recent Wednesday morning he explained his frustrations to me and a group of New York City high school students: "This little city with a big ol' name still got lots of problems. Everyone comes in here and dangles a little hope in front of us, but there's still 100,000 folks from New Orleans spread across the country." (Lewis was also featured in Dan Baum's new book Nine Lives - read an excerpt here.)

Many Gulf Coast natives have not returned, in part, because so many tourists have -- and the spectacle of volunteer work has proved a distraction from the larger infrastructure and socioeconomic issues. Even if more Lower 9th Ward residents managed to return (most locals estimate that only about 200 families have), they might find a reconstructed home but no grocery store to frequent, no high school for their kids to attend, no hospital to rely on should they get sick, and no job to go to each day. Not much of a life.

Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo makes a similar argument about African aid, spearheaded by celebrities such as Bono, which she believes actually disempowers Africans to build their own infrastructure and strengthen their own market economy. That's not to say capitalism will save the 9th Ward, but I do think Moyo is on to something. Overzealous outside activists often displace a more inherently invested population from organizing for their own neighborhood, their own life, their own future. Self-interest will always be more sustainable than altruism.

Alan Gutierrez of the nonprofit group Think New Orleans summed up this dynamic on his blog in February of 2008:

We go to planning meetings because we are investing in a house who's value depends on the recovery of the neighborhood. We attend the school planning charade while [the] superintendent is bulldozing the schools under his control, because there is no other interface into a failing school system that graduates students into poverty and crime. We attend Housing Conservation District Review Committee meetings because the city has made clear its intention to demolish our homes without notifying us, compensating us, or giving us a process for appeal. To call a resident of New Orleans an ‘activist' is akin to calling a person in physical therapy to recover from a spinal injury a ‘health nut'.

Unfortunately, Gutierrez is no longer maintaining his blog, but his sentiment lives on. It's not that there aren't ways for outsiders to play crucial roles in the rebuilding of New Orleans -- as allies, funders, advisers, and, yes, temporary labor -- but it is ultimately the people of the city who have the power and motivation to re-imagine and remake their hometown in a sustainable and just image.

I understand that many people have an impulse to see the Gulf Coast devastation for themselves. Just as folks flocked down to ground zero in New York City with their camera and shed a few cathartic tears, the Lower 9th Ward has become an American pilgrimage. But it's important to remember that there were real people living in those gutted homes -- many of them the descendents of freed slaves who had built them with their own hands. Some of the residents died at Katrina's and the government's hands, but many are alive and well, still hoping to return to their lives as they knew them before the Lower Ninth became everyone else's pet project.

With those folks in mind, what is the best use of outside altruists' money, time, and energy? How can Americans put pressure on government and nongovernmental agencies working in New Orleans to coordinate their efforts and get back to basics -- structurally sound levees, food, shelter, transportation, and education? How can outsiders facilitate neighborhood folks to return and rise to leadership in the rebuilding effort, gain new professional skills, and leverage their innate investment in the good of the community?

I've got a whole lot of questions and few answers -- which is as it should be, because I, too, am an outsider. I'll give Lewis the last word: "They build databases. They get grants. When we ask where the money is, they say it went for administrative fees. I have a problem when others come into my city and tell me about me."