Making it Right with Brad Pitt in the Lower Nine

New Orleans     The Lower 9th Ward became iconic as part of the story of catastrophe, struggle, and recovery in New Orleans and around the world after Hurricane Katrina.  Now there are new candidates in more cities where climate and nature have combined to expose humanity at its rawest, weakest, and sometimes best.  Here, the L9 is in the news again, still in the shadows of Katrina, over issues with one of the most widely publicized of the rehabilitation projects, Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation.

Pitt and his wife at the time, Angelina Jolie, had stepped up in the wake of the storm to use their star power to raise money to build new houses there after the storm.  For a while they had a house in the French Quarter and were seen here and there.  Pitt, an architectural aficionado, had commissioned famous architects, here and abroad, to design the homes, and more than one-hundred have been built.  In my book, The Battle for the Ninth Ward:  ACORN, the Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, I have some issues with Make It Right based largely on planting high-priced, subsidized houses in the L9, designed more as showpieces than structures that fit in with the vernacular of the area or were sustainable.  Nonetheless, I never questioned Pitt’s sincerity and in fact when pushed by ACORN, including our organizer Tanya Harris and ACORN leaders to do the project in the real heart of the L9, rather than the rapidly gentrifying Holy Cross area near the Mississippi River, he quickly agreed and lived up to his word.  Harris in recent years has worked for the Make It Right Foundation, which also says good things about it.

In recent days some Foundation homeowners sued the operation because of shoddy construction, water leaks, system failures, black mold, and an array of issues.  One of the local papers, the New Orleans Advocate, did an editorial recently calling on Pitt to Make It Right.  Now the Make It Right Foundation has sued the architect, John C. Williams, for $20 million for design flaws that caused these problems, alleging that Williams and his firm have known about the problems and failed to correct them.  Maybe there will be a trial, but likely they’ll settle, which might work for the homeowners, but will leave the citizens less informed than they might need to be about John Williams and his practice.  Based on our experience with Williams, I’m siding with Pitt and the foundation on this one.

Williams in my book was the classic case of a believer in the mantra that a crisis is an opportunity, mainly for someone like him to cash in.  ACORN would run into him like a car passing a vulture on the highway at one hearing and meeting after another.  With some skullduggery he unraveled a contract won by ACORN and our associates to be the planner for the 9th Ward recovery with false allegations and charges of conflicts of interest, after we beat him in the competition, so that he could in fact be both planner and architect in a full-bore conflict of interest.  Maybe he did some good work, and maybe he did some bad work, but he was a corner cutter, back-room-whisperer motivated by total self-interest rather than commitment to the community.  Brad Pitt versus John C. Williams is a no brainer:  Pitt at least wants to “make it right,” while Williams often has no idea of “what is right.”

Vanessa Gueringer, long time ACORN leader in the L9, chaired an event a local church there to discuss my book when it came out several years after Katrina.  John Williams showed up for a hot minute.  Shook a few hands and bought a book to see if his name was in it.  He got his money worth.  He was mentioned in the book.  I doubt that he liked what was said about him there any more than he is going to like having to defend his work in the Lower 9th Ward now that the houses he built are already crumbling around him.


Techo, Tagging, and Finding Another Way

Dallas   Sometimes if you can’t be good at least hope you’re lucky.  Once we were on the ground in Paraguay, we were hustling to fill up the dance card of our agenda with meetings.  We had heard the name of a group that was called Techo that was involved in housing.  Ok, sounds good, and finally we were able to schedule them as our very last meeting before flying out of the country, but on our third day in the country, my excitement about the meeting changed dramatically.

We were in a cab going from the Fundacion Bertoni to our next meeting, and suddenly we had seen some young people “tagging!”  Darned, if they didn’t have on white-and-blue t-shirts that said “Techo” on them.  A young woman even put her head in the window with a clipboard, and we told her we were going to meet with Techo in a couple of days.  Andrew Marciniak, ACORN Toronto head organizer, and one of our intrepid team that made it through the Brazilian visa process to see the amazing Igazu Falls, reported to me that he had seen a bunch of Techo folks doing the same thing at the border.  I was excited now:  these were my kind of people!

If you are an organizer and you have never been part of a tagging operation, I’m not sure you’ve really lived.  Tagging is the epitome of street fundraising.  ACORN’s tagging operation, originally pioneered in Columbus, Ohio by Fred Brooks, and then picked up in a number of offices, most spectacularly in New Orleans by ACORN and Local 100 United Labor Unions, involved getting old tennis ball cans, putting an ACORN slogan on the outside, taping the can with a slot for money, and putting largely teens and sometimes staff and members on the busiest streets in the cities with the longest stoplights to go car to car to raise money for the organization.  Devised initially by firefighters hitting the streets asking for donations into their boots and then giving people a “tag” saying thanks, it was repurposed as a grassroots fundraiser.   Don’t scoff either.  New Orleans would regularly net more than $1000 on a Saturday in the 1980s.  When Cecile Richards, most recently head of Planned Parenthood of America, spoke at an ACORN Year End / Year Beginning Meeting she rightly bragged to the crowd about how great a tagger she was!

Meeting Bruno Lopez, the General Manager of Techo Paraguay, and his management team at their amazing headquarters in a donated, rambling house and property in the city, he told us that we had witnessed their annual fundraiser, and though they were still counting, they expected to raise $400,000 USD from their tagging operation, accounting for almost half of their budget.  Techo turned out to work in more than twenty Latin American countries and to have its roots in organizing largely young volunteers to build small scale emergency housing for lower income and displaced people after disasters.  The housing can last up to 10 years!

This is still a huge part of their program, but they have been reaching out and expanding their focus.  Sofia, their operations manager, described their emerging organizing “model,” which had many close parallels to the ACORN Organizing Model substituting volunteers for members, adding dues, and other items.  Bruno and his team were reflective.  They were thinking about making changes and pushing the envelope past the history of their organization and its operations, and were most curious about lessons we might have learned in doing so as well.

Luckily, we all felt as we walked away from our last meeting in Asuncion that we had some how saved the best for last!