Oxy in New Orleans
Solidarity, Not Charity


Over the past three weeks my awareness of systems, ingrained “isms”, and solidarity has grown magnificently and because of that, I got comfortable here. But yesterday I spent my morning fund-raising in the French Quarter ($$) and my afternoon canvassing in the polar opposite: the lower ninth ward.

Being in the two contrasting neighborhoods of the same city snapped me back to the reality that the issues here are not isolated, and that with my new knowledge, it is my duty to implement what I have learned at home.

Though the thoughts of how, where, and when I will be able to translate my new awareness into effective change is overwhelming, I have faith that this group will always inspire itself and others.

My mission is to take this trip and its lessons back home to Los Angeles and invest in my community.


With the trip coming close to an end, I can’t help but look back on my short time here in the lower ninth ward. It strikes me that while some may argue that rebuilding parts of the city that are under sea level is nonsense (go tell the Dutch that as well then), this disaster is not something that is unimaginable for other cities. Because of this, the ability for our nation to pull together and rebuild New Orleans, including the Lower Ninth Ward, is a necessity.

As an Angelino, I am well aware that should the famed “Big One” ever really strike, those people living in densely populated sections of downtown LA- including the homeless- would be at the same risk that many of the now scattered residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were and are. Like Louisiana, my state, and numerous others, have statistics that represent inmates highly skewed when it comes to race AND class. Like Louisiana, we also have the three strike law. And obviously we, in California and in the Los Angeles area, are effected by all of the -isms that effect New Orleans.

One speaker mentioned the difference between “effected,” as in “cause and effect”, and “affected,” referring more to emotions. One thing about this that struck me is that while we are ALL effected by some -ism, I wonder if we are affected by their existence. We should be affected if anyone is effected by any -ism. If this trip has shown me anything it is that when we become jaded to who is in jail, failing in school, or suffering for whatever reason then we leave room for injustice which is seen in New Orleans- but can be replicated anywhere in the country.

But what now? Once I return to Occidental College campus, how can I fight the -isms that are prevalent in New Orleans, Los Angeles, the nation, and on the campus? What does solidarity look like on a campus and for a student?

I will have to rethink these factors as I return to Occidental. However, what I do know is that the work for equality is not done- nor has it even begun. So long as justice is stalled by the color of skin, the gender, the sexuality, the age, the ability, or the amount of money an individual has.

I am so grateful for Mack and The Village for allowing our class to come and help out in his organization and community, even if we had to admit that our impact was not as large as we like to believe. The message and purpose of the Lower Ninth Ward Community Village here in the Lower Ninth Ward is a beacon. A heart that still works to pump blood despite the forces trying to stop it. I urge everyone to look into the Village and it’s work when asking themselves what work is going on in New Orleans.


Has the United States of America truly abolished slavery?

After what we witnessed today, our answer is No. Before passing through the gates of Angola, we walked into the museum and eerily saw an enormous wall paper of a black-and-white picture of mostly black prisoners working in the field. In front of this picture is an elderly Caucasian couple, welcoming us into the gift shop and encouraging us to “enjoy our tour.”

We were let into Camp F (dormitory housing approximately 84 inmates, with original space for only 60 people) and Camp J (23 hours, 7 days a week lock-down of nearly 400 inmates) and were able to interact with a few of the “offenders.” Many of us spoke with Brandon, one of the young men on 23/7 lock-down, and he was shocked when asked his name. It’s not strange that someone would react this way, certainly after being regarded as an “offender” or called by their “prison number.” Even after their death, obituaries label each deceased man “Black” or “White.” Identity is stripped from these men, along with their citizenship while becoming slaves in this country.

Dehumanization is what the men at Angola experience every day they’re locked in a 6′ by 9′ cell in Camp J or in an overcrowded hall in Camp F. Some examples include the cages the men on lock-down are put in for for 1-hour-a-day, to breathe in fresh air while put in a fenced in cage with barely enough room to run or truly exercise. The men of Camp J are also given their meals in a loaf (the day’s food put in a blender and baked like a meatloaf). The inhumane treatment continues through the false sense of self-improvement, advancement, and reality of what it means to be human by the state sanctioned “correctional process” of having the men work 8-hour days for wages (ranging between 4 cents to 20 cents per hour) when they can’t even spend it in the first place! This only perpetuates the culture of dehumanization that embodies our country’s prison system. Additionally it cemented our notion that Angola operates a de facto system of slavery under the guise of law and order and “progress” that typifies modern American notions of law.


From the observations and experiences shared in this blog, it is obvious that New Orleans will struggle to rebuild for years to come. However, it is important to keep in mind that the issues we have seen are not new to the city. The racial and socioeconomic injustices ranging from imprisonment to employment to food availability to the neighborhoods that are being subjected to poor health due to nearby factories did not start after the effects of the storm. These issues have existed in New Orleans long before the effects of Hurricane Katrina damaged the city and took the lives of thousands. The aftermath of Katrina has had such a devastating effect on neighborhoods and individuals in the city largely due to these institutionalized injustices and lack of care for these populations by the government.

As we learn about the systems of power that are in place in New Orleans that control and impact the lives of low income minority populations, it is important to see how how these same systems affect populations in Los Angeles and our hometowns. New Orleans is not the only city in desperate need; populations in every city of our nation are struggling with these same issues due to racism and unequal distribution of resources. We must all do what we can to help our own communities, instead of just going to other communities to help. The cost of taking this group to New Orleans for 3 weeks is enormous. Our privilege allows us to come stay in a city where its own residents are not able to come back. If we truly cared about the work we are doing, we would not waste all this money to come to New Orleans when work needs to be done in the cities that we live in. Instead, we should work in solidarity with the communities facing injustices in our own city. I hope that all of the students on this trip will apply all that they have learned in New Orleans to the issues faced by communities in Los Angeles and stay dedicated to activism, as well inspire others to work in solidarity with the communities facing injustices in their hometowns.


We visited Malik Rahim in his Algiers home a few nights ago. Algiers, a New Orleans neighborhood that did not experience flooding from Katrina, is the neighborhood where 15 to 30 white vigilantes blockaded some streets after the Hurricane and shot at black residents. Malik was the first Algiers resident to tell the press about what happened, but few listened. A.C. Thompson brought attention to the killings years later, and to date, only one man — Roland Bourgeois — has been charged. According to one witness, Bourgeois pledged to shoot anybody with skin “darker than a brown paper bag,” and was in possession of a bloody baseball cap of a man he allegedly shot. The film “Welcome to New Orleans” includes interviews with other white residents who claim to have shot black people in the days following Katrina:

In addition to being a whistle-blower, Malik also co-founded Common Ground, a grassroots organization with the mission of providing “short term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the gulf coast region, and long term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area.” He shared stories of his struggles in building and maintaining Common Ground, and his vision for restoring all neighborhoods in the Crescent City. Malik’s resolve in the face of an overwhelming disaster bears testament to a long tradition of strong black activism in New Orleans prior to Katrina, a tradition that continues today.


In a bit of a departure from our time at the Lower Ninth Ward Community Village, a group of us were fortunate to travel to Scott, LA to visit Gotreaux Family Farms, along with students from New York 2 New Orleans currently housed at Our School at Blair Grocery (OSBG).

Situated on 28 acres 60 miles west of Baton Rouge, the operation contains an innovative set of hydroponic and aquaponic system the Gotreaux family uses to raise organic tilapia. What makes this system special is its process of cycling phyto plankton through above-ground tanks that provide the vast majority of the tilapias’ diet without necessitating any use of antibiotics or chemical inputs.

This “green water” (caused by the color of the phyto plankton) then flows from the recycling pump tanks to human-made ditches that draw the nutrient rich water to the crop rows and the compost pile outside the tents that house the tilapia. Instead of waste water flowing back into potable water sources like those used in many conventional fish farms, the adjacent vegetable crops and soil are nourished organically.

It was hard to ignore the sound of hundreds of chickens roaming the acres of pasture across from the tilapia tanks and crop rows. Raised for nine and a half weeks, instead of the conventional four, the chickens are free to feed and stroll the 20 acres of pasture without restriction. For anyone who is familiar with Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm (profiled in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, “Food Inc.” and “Fresh”), Gotreaux Farms uses an “eggmobile” to strategically transport the chickens to fresh grass.

Outside of the operational details of the farm, there is an important human side to the Gotreaux story. Bill Gotreaux, who runs the farm with his wife and 10 children, provided his explanation for starting the farm by stating that is was for purely health reasons. A career in the mechanical field had apparently given him dangerously high levels of chemicals, including arsenic. In short, he decided to raise his own organic food to save his life. This lifestyle change eventually became the farm we visited, but according to Mr. Gotreaux it has not been easy to create a food community embracing organic, fully sustainable foods that have historically been absent from the meat-centric diet that makes up Cajun cuisine: “This is Cajun country – they don’t eat vegetables.”

On a final note, there is an important connection to be made between the work of Gotreaux Family Farms and Our School at Blair Grocery. In a sense they are both trying to address food justice and community needs. For Gotreaux it is a wider food community that currently does not have the proper access to ‘good’, sustainable food (The vast majority of tilapia sales are to New Orleans-based vendors). For Our School, it is addressing youth empowerment through food justice in the Lower Ninth Ward. In both cases I believe that the government has failed to support the work being done. Bill Gotreaux detailed how the recently passed FDA Food Safety Modernization Act could effectively close down his operation due to increased regulation of smaller farms (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alison-rose-levy/food-safety-why-food-safety-bi_b_795515.html). Government focus, however, has failed to address major food and education disparities in communities like the Lower Ninth. This is where Our School provides a unique space for a larger empowerment movement that has yet to be fully supported despite community involvement.

For more information:

Dwight Hobbs, Rachel Greenstein


Please vote to support a $250,000 Pepsi Refresh grant for the Lower Ninth Ward Village Community Center, and get your friends to vote!



As we reported in “Allstate Cares,” today the Lower Ninth Ward was graced by the generous Allstate Insurance Company.

We crunched the numbers and thought it might be wise to place their thoughtful gift of $10,000 in the context of their 2010 quarterly earnings.

First Quarter: $120,000,000
Second Quarter: $145,000,000
Third Quarter: $367,000,000
Fourth Quarter: $518,000,000

Allstate earns $3.15 million a day, $131,378.54 an hour, and $2,187.97 a minute. So, ultimately, it took the company under five minutes to earn this money–an amount of time far surpassed by the amount of time spent presenting it.

One can only speculate how much money was spent on the ceremony, but given the matching shirts, charter buses, “Fun Mobile” with loudspeakers, plane tickets, etc., it takes no leap of imagination to assume that Allstate was more interested in a “photo op” than in giving back to the community they had done little to support in the wake of Katrina. Now we know where Allstate stands: are you in good hands?


By the end of 2007 — two years after the levees breached — 1.1 million volunteers had come to New Orleans to work on rebuilding, performing 14 million hours of work (yes, that’s 14 hours each), for a total contribution of $263 million in labor costs. These volunteers likely left the city feeling pretty good about themselves, and many probably continued to contribute to rebuilding through fundraising and other efforts. So let’s do the math.

Let’s assume that by the end of 2010, 2 million volunteers had hopped on planes headed to New Orleans. The typical cost for flight, food, lodging, and transportation runs about $1,000 for a week-long visit. This means that it has cost approximately $2 billion for 2 million volunteers to come to New Orleans to work since 2005.

Of the 5,300 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward pre-Katrina, only 1,200 have been repaired or rebuilt. Given that the average listing price of a house in the L9 is $104,000, $2 billion translates into 19,230 homes. In other words, had volunteers simply stayed home and sent their $1,000 to any of dozens of organizations rebuilding homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, we could have rebuilt this part of the city nearly four times over.

Does volunteering in New Orleans really add up?


We have been working in New Orleans for one full week, and the experience has been eye-opening. Some students worked with Lower9.org to finish installing drywall in a home so the family could move back at the first of the new year. Some students worked with local kids from the Lower Ninth Ward in the community garden at Our School at Blair Grocery, while others organized the library and laid carpet at the Lower Ninth Ward Community Village.

We took a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, a tour of the levees, and a tour of the wetlands that are disappearing at a rate of one football field every 30 minutes because of oil exploration and re-routing of the Mississippi River. We learned a lot from talks by Malik Rahim, the co-founder of Common Ground, Mack McClendon, the founder of The Village, Andy Howell, a long-term volunteer, and Amanda Tonkovich, an Oxy graduate who has relocated to the city.

In the evenings, we have been exploring the rich nightlife of New Orleans — Kermit Ruffins at Rock-N-Bowl, gypsy jazz on Frenchmen Street, the fireworks over the Mississippi River on New Year’s Eve, and the more touristy French Quarter. Douglas Brinkley writes about the two cities of New Orleans, and we see this divide clearly. New Orleans is thriving on Bourdon Street, in the Garden District, and in the Central Business District, but just a few blocks away, boarded up homes and empty lots mark the landscape. Only 1 in 5 residents of the Lower Ninth Ward have been able to return to their homes. This is a national tragedy that most of the nation has forgotten about in the wake of a Superbowl victory, tidy images of New Orleans in Visa ads, and irresponsible broadcasters who repeat the dishonest refrain, “New Orleans is back and better than ever.”