This is primarily for the 2012 CINT 912 students who (mostly) flew home two weeks ago today. But it is also for all our subscribers and our readers, and all of the students from the other five classes of Community Development – International Perspectives: New Orleans (or whatever the official name of this course is, I never remember!!) As background to the non-students, starting no earlier than 7-10 days after the trip the students are asked to write a reflection about their experience or give a presentation to a group about what happened here.
Today is two weeks since y’all flew back to Canada or headed on to further adventures. I get asked a lot “are your students gone?” and while I answer “yes“, that’s not entirely accurate. None of y’all are ever really gone; from my life, from my heart, or from New Orleans. A piece of you remains inside me, and your sweat, tears (and in some cases blood) have been left on the soil of this city. Just as you will never forget New Orleans, it will never forget you either.
Reading your reflections is bittersweet. I feel your passion and your love for this city, but I also hear your struggles. The challenge of explaining your experience to someone who wasn’t there is one that has challenged me, and students of this course, since the very beginning. In May 2009, a week after returning I tried to sum this up. I share this with you to give you encouragement that indeed this is very common. No one will ever fully understand your experience without having been here, but eventually you will find the words, pictures or songs to show them little glimpses.
In 2009 I wrote “I don’t quite know how to answer the question “How was New Orleans?” Visiting New Orleans aka NOLA is really unlike visiting most other places and therefore the answer is unfamiliar. How do you describe a city where everyone has experienced loss? In St. Bernard Parish where we spent our first week every single home, indeed every single building except 4, was damaged by the flood. SBP is the only community to ever have been 100% affected by a natural disaster (though we know that natural is a bit of an oxymoron really).” The rest of the post can be read here: https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/how-was-new-orleans/
I ended that blog with these words: “So I don’t know how New Orleans was. If you ask me, I’ll say it was good, or fine, or joke about my kids, or point out my sunburn and blisters. But I can’t answer you because I just don’t know.”
After 4 years of teaching this class, after two years of spending as much time here as possible, I still don’t know how to explain this class or this place to people who haven’t been through it. You’ve only been gone for two weeks; don’t expect it to come easily.
New Orleans is a city that gets under your skin from the time you step off the plane. I remember meeting someone at the American Sociological Association conference in Atlanta a couple of years ago who was doing her Master’s research on Katrina and New Orleans and yet SHE HAD NEVER BEEN HERE!!! It is impossible to understand this place academically through papers, books, websites, photos or films. Nothing prepares you for the real experience.
Even after 4 trips down before I moved –over 5 weeks of experience– I knew nothing. Even after living here two years what I can explain about this place is small –academic and technical information about slavery, history, Katrina, levees, swamps, environmental justice and disasters out the wazoo– but a way to explain the spirit and life blood of New Orleans I have yet to find. Showing it is easy: from the people who take a break from rebuilding homes nearly years later to wave while I give a visitor a tour to the guy on the bus last year some students met who teared up when they said they were volunteers from Canada; he had been rescued in St. Bernard by that first group of Canadians from BC who arrived 4 days after the storm before any federal assistance from the American government. The stories by Pastor Randy, Tanya Harris, the homeowners, the staff at the Food Coop or The Green Project, and all our other partners gives us glimpses.
On change over day in 2010, when 20 students flew home and 19 more arrived, I tried to summarize some of my thoughts and quantify what was so hard to explain. I said, “Sometimes it is hard to remember that the New Orleans area was completely under water a few years ago. But as I write this it is raining. It’s a gentle patter now but 30 minutes ago it was a deluge. I was out driving in St Bernard Parish and the roads flooded instantly. Not just a little but several inches – a foot in some places – within five minutes. And I remembered. I don’t always remember that every house in my new community – Arabi Louisiana, part of St. Bernard Parish – had flooding during Katrina. Every single house was declared uninhabitable. I rent an apartment that was mostly above the floodline; the part I am living in was at least. My laundry and storage rooms were flooded. The bachelor apartment beneath me was flooded. The water went up my stairs. The floors creak, a lot. I am sure they weren’t fully, or at least properly, repaired after Katrina. When I step on the floors I remember.” More at: https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/musings-on-memory-in-new-orleans/
But the only way to really understand is to be present in the city and to absorb all it has to offer. And all of you were sooooo present in your experience in a way that is likely rare for more visitors (or even for any of us when we travel elsewhere). It is this act of being present, of being open and engaged that likely has created the most impact upon you. In your reflections I hear your uncertainty in trying to explain –or even in trying to figure out– how the experience changed you. Last year, Shannon K., a colleague of yours in the NOLA All-Stars post-CINT 912 experience, summed this up so well in her Love Letter to New Orleans. She wrote, “I miss the way everyday you taught me something new about myself, and about life in general. You made me realize, no matter what, it’s worth it for me to push to be the best person I can be. It’s worth it to be constantly be challenging things. You made me realize who I want to push to be, and where I want to push to go.” (Read more at https://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/a-love-letter/)
Yet I also read about your fears, your guilt, your sense of privilege that your life exists as it does while others struggle, your uncertainty about what to do, your desires to return and so many other emotions. The fact that this trip has awakened something in so many of you is breathtaking. That it is motivating you to do “better”, to be “better” is both encouraging and a bit unsettling.
YOU ARE ALL AMAZING PEOPLE. AS YOU ARE NOW. NO MATTER WHAT ELSE YOU DO. Sorry for the shouting, but it needs to be said, and I need you to hear it loud and clear. You gave of yourselves every day that you were here; indeed for several months leading up to this trip you were going above and beyond the normal student experience.
While you came as a group, worked and lived as a group, and for many of you, left as a group on the same flight, your experiences were still in many ways individualistic. Who you were before contributed to what you take from this trip. Don’t feel guilty for your life before New Orleans or for the parts of your life that remain the same after New Orleans. One of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou said these words to Oprah, many many years ago: “You did then what you knew how to do, And when you knew better, You did better.” This really speaks to me about the self-criticism we all often engage in. We are only as good as our tools, knowledge and abilities. As those change/improve, so do we. You have new skills in your life from your trip that you can now add to your toolbox (the metaphorical kind). You will be different even if the activities you engage are the same ones from before the trip.
Whether you come back to New Orleans, visit a reserve in Northern Ontario, travel to a country in the Global South, or do work around your city/neighbourhood/home/work/school/faith community or anywhere else you will be able to create change if it is needed to the best of your ability at that given moment. Social justice is not an easy path and there are no quick fixes. At times, our lives and circumstances don’t permit us the opportunities to do what we want, so doing our best means doing what we can right then. Sometimes, we can give our all very intensely as you did for the two weeks you were here. Sometimes, all we can do is hold a thought in our hearts. Either way; it’s enough.
A few thoughts to highlight this, and to share with you some of the values/words that I try to live my life by:
1) “Be the change you wish to see in the world” – Gandhi.
2) “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
3) “Se hace camino al andar” – Antonio Machado which translates to “You make the way as you go” or “You make the road/path by walking” (common translations).
4) “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
5) And last not but least, from The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss – “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.“
So my dear students, know that just as your memories hold tight to the spirit of the people and their hearts hold tight to you, no matter where you are, here or there, now or then…