Why We Came Home Wednesday, Aug 26 2015 

TW K10 – The K10 anniversary has produced so much media coverage and reminiscences that it has become overwhelming. Instead of writing and posting I wanted to hide. And I wasn’t even here during Katrina. Hence the trigger warning.

A couple weekends ago I was driving to Mississippi with my chosen-sister Alexis. She was 10 during Katrina and lived in St. Bernard Parish. I was explaining to her the nature of my PhD research and its focus on examining resiliency and recovery in order to figure out why people return after a catastrophic disaster.

She looked at me like I had two heads. “Because it’s home sissy. Where else would we go?” This perfectly sums up what I’ve heard from everyone in the 7 years I’ve been visiting New Orleans. Because it’s home. (Now to turn that sentence into a 100 page dissertation!)

Picture by Amanda Fotes

Picture by Amanda Fotes

Last night I read an article by Lolis Eric Elie who I had the privilege of meeting several years ago at a Resurrection After Exoneration fundraiser. Lolis is a brilliant writer and this piece captures the spirit of the city in a way unlike I’ve seen anyone do. “Why We Came Home” looks at the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the hope and despair. New Orleans is not a perfect city and never will be, but what city is? It is vibrant and full of hope though, while at the same time teetering on the edge of depression and sadness.

Like my sister Alexis said it’s about home. The piece isn’t worded “Why We Came Back” because that leaves out the essence of New Orleans. It’s “Why We Came Home” because home = NOLA.

do you know what it means

For those who have never been to New Orleans I hope this piece captures some of the vibrancy of the city and yet explains its underbelly. For those who have visited my wish is that you see pieces you remember in Lolis’ words. For those who returned and are rebuilding your lives and your city I hope the author captured your reasons and if not, please share yours in the comments to continue this discussion. For those, like me, who have moved here since Katrina, I’m sure this piece reminds you of your reasons for planting roots in NOLA. For those who evacuated and have yet to make it back, come home soon, we need you here.

Living New Orleans Wednesday, May 23 2012 

Living New Orleans

Coming to New Orleans, I did not know what to expect once I got here.  I knew that this would be an amazing experience and that I would learn so much but I did not know how deeply I would come to love this city.  It is so different from any place I have ever visited before.  New Orleans is very relaxed, at times it feels lawless, but what really struck a cord with me was the kindness of the people.  Never in my life have I met people who are so friendly and easily ready to engage with a complete stranger on such a level before!  When people here ask you how your day was, they stop and wait for a response and do not keep walking by as a stranger may in Toronto.  Although every social sphere has its hierarchies, it is evident that New Orleans has a real sense of community.  Last week I had the opportunity to work with The Green Project, an organization that recycles used home building materials and sells them at an affordable price or disposes of the materials that cannot be used in the greenest way possible.  I spent the day deconstructing screens in order for the aluminum to be recycled.  This organization is extremely beneficial to those who are, nearly seven years later, still trying to rebuild bit by bit.  As my group member and I disassembled screens, a local gentleman approached us and asked if we had a specific size of screen for his rebuild.  We chatted for sometime and then the pair of us proceeded to head inside and retrieve the screens that he needed.  Upon our return, we came to find him not waiting near our work site, but right where we were standing, cracking screens and placing the aluminum parts in bins to be recycled.  We could not believe our eyes! Here was a man, who was still trying to obtain materials in order to have adequate housing, taking time out of his day to help us with our work.  When I told the gentleman that he did not have to help us out, he responded, “You only live once, you better live right”.

This is a moment that will stick with me forever and I feel completely defined my trip and the reason why I decided to apply to the course.  I so believe in the assistance of others and now know that this is something that I will likely make a career out of once I am finished my schooling.  It is not just about helping someone less fortunate then oneself, as I encountered many people that I worked with these weeks with various different socioeconomic standings.  It is about engaging with individuals in order to create a more positive and less self-centered community that will bring everyone on to higher ground.  I, by no means feel that I am coming here to help those who are less than I am because they live differently than I do.  I am here to fill a need and to let them direct me to where my efforts are best placed.  If that means scrubbing bricks, deconstructing screens or even digging a moat (all of which I participated this in over the last two weeks), I do not mind. I now know that no matter how little or how large the task is that it allows individuals to once again be able to direct a path of autonomy for themselves, something that no matter their social standing was taken away from so many nearly seven years before.

So on that note, New Orleans; what you have given to me is so much more than a trip, so much more than a course.  This city has given me the belief in myself that the path I have tried to make for myself at home, the path that has taken me here, is the path I’m meant to be on.  New Orleans, thank you for being so kind to a stranger, for sharing your triumphs and sorrows with me and for taking me in no questions asked.  You have made me feel so whole in a time in my life where I have felt so scattered.  I love you New Orleans and I will return. I am only going to live once, and I’ll be damned if I don’t choose to live right.

-Natalie Morning

Unforgettable Thursday, May 17 2012 

NOTE: Was unable to post this on the day it was written. These words reflect my thought process on Thursday, May 10, 2012.

As I sit in the driveway of the opportunity house we have been working on this week (which others in our class worked on last week), I find myself daydreaming about the family that will one day purchase this home and begin a new life here. Will they have children who play with chalk in the driveway? Will they have a car? And if so, what type of car? Maybe they’ll set up a BBQ in the backyard and have neighbours over once they settle in. Although we do not have the opportunity to meet the home owners of this house (tragically they passed after Hurricane Katrina in 2006), I am fulfilled knowing that our hard work will benefit someone’s life and provide them with the opportunity to come home.

A man who owns the lumber yard in St. Bernard Parish struck up a conversation with me in the Family Dollar parking lot the other day and remarked that in life there will be ups and downs no matter what and one must be prepared to fall down into the valley when hard times hit and be willing to WORK to make it back to the top of the mountain as no one – even God, if that fits your beliefs – will lift you up if you are not positive and determined to make an effort to climb your way out of that valley.

To quote a lovely gentleman I met at the The Green Project last week (he was searching for wood-framed screens for his home), “You only live once, might as well live right”. Luck (or whatever you want to call it) comes and goes, seasons change, lives are birthed and lost… but with ALL this comes a new beginning. The areas in New Orleans that flooded after Katrina hit are now once again experiencing regrowth, rebuilding, reintegration, and return. Being here has caused me to really appreciate the meaning of YOLO.

My back reached a point of exhaustion two evenings ago (I experience chronic pain due to minor scoleosis, a curve in my spine) and screamed out for me to take a rest and pay more attention to myself. Part of me feels selfish and a bit useless – which is quite frustrating – but I know that taking it slow will be beneficial in the long run. Everyone has been so kind and supportive (walking to get me pizza when I stayed in one night, buying supplies from the drug store to help ease the pain, making my bed for me since bending under the bunk was quite taxing at first, checking in to see how I’m doing etc. etc.) and I just want to take this moment to give a shout out to y’all! Thank you so very much. Your concern and understanding has helped me keep my cool and avoid feeling guilty for having to take time off from our primary mission in NOLA as student volunteers.

I am itching to get back to work so I will quickly finish this reflection and continue painting the flat ends of the shoeboards in the last few rooms of this house on Seville in Gentilly. Miniscule work compared to some of the larger jobs that are taking place around me (in that the progress made is much more noticeable), however I continue to repeat the St. Bernard Project motto in my mind and I feel gratified with my work: “Quality, not quantity”. Although timing and deadlines are important, it is essential that these homes are built with care so that the family that moves in can be proud of their home and enjoy it for many years to come. As Pastor Randy said, you may really want to get that 2×4 up and get as much work done as possible in a day… but if the homeowner or another resident comes by and starts to speak to you, give them that time to have a conversation as they may need you more than that 2×4 needs to be installed. Toronto2Nola… forever in my heart.

Peace, love, happiness, and social justice… JMN

Something from nothing…

… and back to the earth.

Leaving A Bit Of My Heart In NOLA Friday, May 11 2012 

As I stood in line for my Customs interview, I predictably began to sweat. I mean, I’m not a rabid ex-con or anything, but standing in front of those officers just makes me want to confess to things I had nothing to do with (Note to self: NEVER take a career in the Secret Service). The attendant ushered me forward and, much to my surprise, the customs officer turned out to be the man who had witnessed my mother’s hysterics while dropping me off an hour earlier. “This isn’t a coincidence, you know. Your mother made sure I watched over you until you crossed our border”, he snickered. I began to relax as he scanned my documents. He asked me why I was going to New Orleans and, as rehearsed, I stated it was a part of my course at Ryerson University, that I would be meeting twenty others down there, later this afternoon. I handed him the letter and, as he scanned it, looked up at me and said quietly “You’re going to New Orleans for a lot more than just some school work.” I began to grow nervous but his next comments surprised me. “It’s taken this country years to do there what it would have taken a day for them to do anywhere else. People like you and your classmates just warm my heart. Volunteers work their fingers to the bone for people they don’t know. My family and friends there appreciate it, I assure you. God Bless you, your mama must be proud.” He then handed me back my documents, we exchanged well wishes, and I went on my way.

I don’t the think the enormity of his statements hit me until later in this trip. Up until we departed from Toronto, my preparation for this trip had been purely academic. I hadn’t had the chance to think about what others think about what we’re doing here. Notably, I mean that in the least self-aggrandizing way. I simply mean that the work that we’re doing, the work that thousands of volunteers before us have done, has not and will not go unnoticed. People with no connection to the victims of Katrina have reached out their hands and hearts to make even the most marginal of differences. Acknowledgment isn’t necessary, purely because that drive to help comes from within. But it was interesting to hear it from someone whom is on the outside – even just a customs officer – who doesn’t lie within the assigned “confines” of victimhood or relief.

Working on the sites that we have, learning what we have, meeting the people that I’ve met, and sharing parts of myself to the classmates with whom I’ve grown so close to has been one of the most liberating experiences I’ve ever had. I’m leaving a little piece of my heart in New Orleans, and am already counting down the days until I return.

– Maria

NOLA….less then three days away!!! Tuesday, Apr 24 2012 

Wow I can not believe that in less then three days I will be on a plane heading to NOLA, It is definitely a surreal feeling. It has not hit me yet that I am actually going on this trip. I have not even started packing or getting together last minute things! I am such a last minute person. I believe that once I see the suitcases packed and ready to go it will hit me that this real. That pretty soon I will be working on the St. Bernard project and helping rebuild houses. I know that once I am there the two weeks are going to fly by. I am a little nervous since I will be in a completely different environment and working on projects that I may not be familiar with (i.e. construction). However I am ready to embrace the challenges that I will come across and can’t wait to experience new things. I look forward to enjoying every moment that I have in NOLA. The experience will be rewarding and possibly life changing. It is not everyday that you have an opportunity to travel and give back to a community. It is something that I have always wanted to do and I am finally going to be able to realize this dream. 

From the Big City to the Big Easy: Maria’s Journey 2 NOLA Saturday, Apr 21 2012 

          The process that I’ve gone through, from receiving the initial acceptance email until now, seven days before the trip, has been a colourful one. One would think that excitement would be the only emotion cursing through my veins – I mean, I’m going to NEW ORLEANS! And while excitement surely is a big part of what I’ve felt since the beginning, I’d have to say that my personal journey leading to this experience has been more dynamic than I’d expected.  

          I was sitting on the couch in my apartment, halfheartedly studying for my psych midterm while totally immersed in an episode of Jeopardy, when I got the first email. I literally jumped off of my couch and threw a pillow at my roommate yelling “NEW ORLEANS!” Of course, he had no idea what I was talking about, but I guess these outbursts came to be normal for us so he didn’t really ask. After sending a frantic thank you email to my instructors, I called my mom and boyfriend and grandmother and dentist (okay, maybe not my dentist) to give them the great news. Everyone was really excited for me and I was elated. New Orleans had always been a place that I had wanted to give back to, and now I was given the opportunity to do so. 

          Upon walking into our first class, I was…nervous. Nervous! I felt like a little kid again, walking onto the playground at a new school, now knowing anyone. Would they like me? Would we get along? Did anyone come from the same program? Am I a total loser? Why am I sweating? Up until this point, I had never really given thought to these types of questions. But I took comfort in the fact that all of these people were here for the same reason I was. And as we all got to know each other, It became clear to me that regardless of our respective disciplines and background, we all possessed a unifying trait that would enable us to understand each other, in one way or another. So the nerves subsided. 

          My reaction to the information I have received across the scope of our classes was an unexpected one, too. Up until this point, I had possessed an average understanding of the facts of Hurricane Katrina. I knew what had taken place, the structural repercussions, and the still ever-present need for relief work. 
But nothing prepared me for the level of social injustice that had been executed after the Hurricane by the state of Louisiana and the federal government. Most of it was unearthing the various behaviours of the state and witnessing the social repercussions, and my dominating response was anger. I was angry about what had been done to the people of the state. I was angry with the lackluster relief response to those in need. Hearing of these injustices created such a dissonance in my view of how human beings should help one another in a crisis.

          Both of my instructors opened my eyes to a world of new information that, hadn’t I participated in this class, I wouldn’t have come to understand as critically.  And it was in focusing on the existing relief networks and continued nation-wide efforts that have given me hope. It’s a weird feeling, to experience such emotions towards an event I had no part in experiencing. It’s also a discouraging one – should I have hope for the victims when I don’t know what it felt like to lose it? But I’ve realized that having hope for change is the driving force behind doing good, and exciting hope in others.

          During these last few days before the trip, I still have the same jitters as expected. Sure, I’m excited for the adventure. I’m nervous to be in an unfamiliar place. I’m angry that there’s still an existing need for help. But I’m hopeful, I’m prepared. I still have as much excitement as I did when I first received my email, but I’ve been so lucky to have been educated and prepared for this trip as I have been. I’m not expecting to put up some drywall and save New Orleans. But I am prepared to give as much of myself over to this experience, in hopes that I’ll contribute a fraction of what it will take to give the people of New Orleans the strength to stand on their own two feet again. 

See you in NOLA, 

Maria

Thoughts on Victim Blaming and NOLA Thursday, Apr 19 2012 

As my time in New Orleans draws nearer I find myself seeing and hearing NOLA everywhere. Whether it be in books, in stores or on my iPod it seems like everything is related to the journey my peers and myself are about to embark on.  However, nothing put things in perspective quite as much for me as a Jan Stanners article I came across on the Feminist Dating blog that she had penned for the first annual International End Victim Blaming Day (IEVBD). IEVBD came about through the Slutwalk movement which originated here in Toronto after a sexual assault occurred and during a press conference at a local university women were asked “not to dress like sluts” in order to avoid becoming assaulted in the future.

I have noticed this sentiment where the blame is placed on the victim or survivor and not on the perpetrator and find it so infuriating and illogical. Stanners does as well and made some excellent connections to Hurricane Katrina and the victim blaming that has occurred in New Orleans since.  She highlights how the government blamed those who did not evacuate, while not taking into account the means people have to have in order to evacuate.

This is exactly the impression that I had reached in researching more about Hurricane Katrina and the social inequalities I feel that it exacerbated.  I would like to further expand Stanners’ position and think of the Katrina survivors in the months that follow.  Not only have they experienced such massive and abrupt loss, but now this loss is being placed squarely on their shoulders during a time of rebuilding and grief—a time when they should be receiving apologies and reparations. 

I cannot help but think that this more than the system attempting to blame the victim in order to shift blame from themselves.  After all, if this was the case would the government not try to blame Mother Nature and the storm itself for the damage?  Instead they selected those who had been greatly disserviced by the state and in their moment of need and pain said “this is your fault”.  This to me is the state blatantly trying to gain control over and further marginalize those already experiencing inequality in society.  Not only is it sickening to think that any kind of organization with power would set out to do this, but the thought that they attempted to do so by praying on people who were experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress emotionally, financially and physically is utterly deplorable.    

This story is still unfolding in New Orleans now almost 7 years later and yes, victim blaming is still prevalent.  However, something big happened after the blame was placed on Katrina survivors…they said “no”…actually they said “HELL NO”.  The survivors refused to be blamed for life situations they did not cause, they stood up for themselves and their community and attempted to rebuild.  Is this a perfect story, one where the state realized their wrongs and fixed everything? No, it is not, but I feel that it is so much more than that.  It is more than that because the courage of those who stood up in their weakest moment to fight and who still continue to live through this is so inspiring.

This is how movements like ending victim blaming come about, through people who are not willing to entertain the unfounded idea that they made themselves victims.  These movements set a standard that tells those who take part in victim blaming that they are not going to be successful in deterring the growth of survivors.  These movements inspire others to unite and push back against victim blaming.  It is the movement that is happening in Katrina that has inspired 22 students from Toronto to become more aware of and work with the survivors in the fight to end this kind of victim blaming by providing growth and support, which takes away the blaming power of the state.

I am so excited to be a part of this movement and like I have mentioned before, I am so looking forward to meeting those who live in New Orleans and feel I have so much to learn from their courage, strength and perseverance.  They are proof that although you may not be able to avoid devastating life experiences, you have to power to push back against victim blaming and help yourself and others to achieve a standard of living that every human being deserves.

I’ll be blogging often during this trip, come follow my peers and myself on our journey to NOLA with LOVE!

-Natalie Morning

Countdown just became single digits – 9 DAYS LEFT!! Thursday, Apr 19 2012 

I have an exam today that I should be giving a little more attention to, but that seems impossible when I can say that there are only NINE days left until we board that plane headed towards New Orleans, Louisiana.

When I was participating in the fundraising initiatives, I think what startled me that most is that people genuinely wanted to know about New Orleansand what the situation is post-Katrina. That may sound like an outrageous statement, but often times, I find that people feel coerced into donating, but this was different. Thankfully, those few classes and readings came in awfully handy as it would spark the discussion further. Family and friends were in disbelief when I was explaining to them the present day situation. After seeing this great deal of interest, I am excited for the opportunity to be able to come back and share with others what I will have seen and how much of an amazing place New Orleans is!

Trying new things is always a little scary. This is one adventure though that I will not back down from. A little bit of scary, compiled with a lot of excitement would be the best way to sum up my emotions. I have never travelled on a plane without my family before, I have never been away from home for longer than 5 days, I have never lived with this many other people before, but there is a first time for everything (and it looks like NOLA will be that first time). I know this will be difficult in some aspects for me, but I look forward to sharing the experience with so many other amazing people that I cannot wait to get to know even more!

The next blog written that I will write will be inNew Orleans! I can’t wait! 🙂

Until then…

Nisha Thomas

P.S.- As I said in my previous blog, I take holiday photos to raise awareness about …some social issue! Of course my Easter-themed portrait had to be dedicated to New Orleans and the social issues that people affected by Hurricane Katrina faced and still continue to face! Enjoy!

 

Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now. Monday, Apr 16 2012 

As the date of our departure is fast approaching, everything around me seems to somehow be aboutNew Orleans. From commercials about tourism to New Orleans to the Iron Chef America challenger owning a restaurant in New Orleans, it’s everywhere.

I am even finding connections between the trip and things that aren’t so blatantly related. For example, I read the biography of Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of the band Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the book he explains the meaning behind some of the band’s songs, including one of my favourites “Give It Away”. Until I read the book, I had assumed the lyrics were just random sentences put together to sound good, but Kiedis’ explanation made me appreciate the song so much more. He says that he was at a friend’s house once and saw a coat in her closet. When he told her he liked her coat she insisted he take it. He asked why she was so willing to give her beautiful coat away and she explained that she believes if she has something that someone else likes, it is more beneficial for her to give it away than keep it for herself.

After discovering the song had deeper meaning I read the rest of the lyrics and found a particular verse that really resonated with me. The band sings “Greedy little people in a sea of distress/keep your more to receive your less”. To me, this lyric is about the selfishness of people, and how they would rather focus on themselves rather than help those who may need it. How it is so much easier to hold on to what they have without even knowing what else could potentially be in store for them if they tried something new. You may feel like you have a lot, but really you have nothing if you are not giving back. I am attaching the song to my blog for any of you who aren’t familiar with it.  And how coincidental that I’m going to the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert the night before our trip!  Talk about chance…

What we are doing on our trip to New Orleansis giving people hope, and in return receiving a feeling of pride and accomplishment. We might not be giving them beautiful coats, or have extensive skills in construction, but we are going to find a way we fit in to the helping process, identify our skills and “Give It Away”.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exCEcmLw-Hc

Fundraiser update…. Thursday, Mar 8 2012 

The March 4 event raised…….2020.00! and we got a little press in the Parkdale Villager.

Anne

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