Organize the Evacuees

Community Organizing Personal Writings

Rochester – The City of New Orleans is now part of the great modern diaspora. The 9th Ward, the 7th Ward, all of the 504 Boyz, are still I the house, but the houses and cities are spread all over America. Evacuees have been bused or flown to cities all over America. They are there by the thousands. They are in Phoenix, DC, Denver, Atlanta — you name it. In even great numbers there are over 200,000 in Texas in public facilities in Houston of course, but also in San Antonio, Dallas, and elsewhere.

But even organizers get confused, as do others. “If this, then, that,” does not exist in any normal linear structure. So, there will be a response on 2 text messages out of 200 sent to cell phones, in searching for people, and it will seem like a win. I keep getting scores of well meaning and deeply felt messages from people who want to come to Louisiana to help. Some are friends. Others are strangers. Several say that they are experienced refugee and disaster workers. Most of them are confusing people with geography. The people of New Orleans are in your hearts, but physically they are all over America now, and that is where the work is to be done.

Survival needs are increasingly being met for individuals. The relief organizations are gradually getting their acts together. People are responding generously everywhere.

But, there are skills we have, and those are the skills we need to use now. We need to organize all of the New Orleans neighborhoods all over again. This time we need to organize them in new cities.

People have issues. They desperately need to organize, and that is a way that we make a difference. This is about each individually terrible story, but it is also about all of these stories welded together and gaining a voice that can not be ignored. That voice can only be heard as it emerges from organized evacuees.

At ACORN and Local 100, we will hear the individual story and try to respond whether it’s housing, reuniting families, or whatever, but our mission needs to be much, much different, and much more important. We need to start talking to people in the cities where they live now. Our New Orleans and Louisiana staff is fanning out around Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Lake Charles on this mission. I am telling ACORN and other offices else around the country — even when they do not want to hear this — that as we build energy and capacity in our offices all over we are telling people to take a deep breath, get a clear plan, and start organizing the evacuees.

We are an organization of people, and we need to organize people together so that they can begin to think about what they really are going to need, so that they can start making lists of demands, and figure out who should receive them, how to force the issue, and how at the end of the day to get the help that is needed.

I got a call yesterday about where this or that organization could effectively respond in New Orleans. Most of them have so little experience and capacity in the city that they wouldn’t know uptown from downtown or whether they were helping someone from the 9th Ward or the Garden District. For example there is no way not to feel cynical watching the Habitat ads on CNN, since Habitat’s normal production in New Orleans has for a long time 10 houses a year and perhaps only recently moved up to 40-50 a year. The process by which they choose people to get houses is closed and anything but transparent, and has long been controversial among neighborhood people and community organizations. There is no doubt Habitat will raise a barrel full of money, but mark my words, it is time now for evacuees to be organizing to make demands on them and other housing assistance folks, because they are way, way over their heads and, like so many, just trying to ride a flood wave into a city that might as well be anywhere in the world as in New Orleans.

People need to organize to force their way into the supply chain to get materials for homes and credit against settlements to rebuild. People are going to need assistance and training in “sweat equity” building methods on a mass scale, so that with their neighbors they can make basic repairs, since there will not be enough skilled trades people to help, and our people will not be able to compete for price.

People are going to need to organize around their jobs. They are going to have to organize to get unemployment. They are going to have to fight together for money to make it.

Certainly it feels better perhaps to be able to feel like you are doing something. People are people, so putting a human face on something matters. Giving a hug to someone in need or lending a hand and breaking a sweat to make something better.

But, just like doctors, nurses, and others, we need to act with our minds and use our skills, not just our hearts and passion. We need to think like organizers and get out there and start talking to our New Orleans people now living around the country and getting them to organize, mobilize, and make demands. We need to raise money to pay for this. We need to find and train more people to make this happen.

Take a deep breath and get to the work we know!

We’re not social workers. We’re organizers!

I leave tomorrow at 5 AM from Rochester, New York to Baton Rouge on the standard 6 _ hour Delta flight through Cincinnati, rent a car and then drive to Hattiesburg. The kennel holding our dog has managed to get through on my cell twice for less than 15 seconds each time before the cell dropped the call from Mississippi. Hopefully, they are trying to tell me everything is fine. But who knows what the message might be.

By nightfall I will be in Lafayette, though I am unclear where still. There is no housing in Baton Rouge. There is no gas. Somehow I have to calculate the miles well enough to be able to make the roundtrip from Baton Rouge to Hattiesburg to Lafayette without running out along the way. I guess that’s possible. I will have to calculate today. I hope the car we’re picking up has enough gas to get back as well.

Orell Fitzsimmons, Local 100’s Houston director, managed to lock down almost 3000 square feet of space in Houston for us on Saturday morning in a building across from our Houston offices near the Astrodome. He sent 10 cell phones from Houston to Baton Rouge for delivery on Tuesday so we will be able to more easily establish communications with a 713 area code, since 504, 225, and 985 are sketchy at best. Our staff trying to get up and running in Baton Rouge is in denial. Getting some calls, they do not seem to comprehend that they might be picking up one call for every 50 that is place to them.

Our Louisiana based staff is spread out everywhere across neighboring states and cities. Gradually we are finding more of them, but it’s crazy. People are disoriented since they have no clear grounding on which to build decisions. People want to be close to home, so that they are ready to return, even if that means weeks away, and a situation that logically, rationally, one knows is going to be even more miserable and depressing and dysfunctional. If it takes a month to pump out the water, and another several weeks after that to begin to restore electricity, running water, and other services, then how long will it be before we are able to both live and work in New Orleans. No one knows? It is hard for anyone close to the situation to comprehend and determine. Personally, I hope to greet 2006 in the City and at my home in some form or fashion, but that could be premature.