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Building a Political Movement Can

Volunteerism Will Not Rebuild the Gulf Coast

by MIKE HOWELLS And JAY ARENA

Four years after Hurricane Katrina the mass media and most national political leaders have largely dropped the still-devastated and suffering people of New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast from their political radar screen. Yet, the region and its people have not been forgotten by legions of college, faith-based and other volunteers. Thousands of people–young, old and middle aged, from all over the country, during vacations, spring breaks, or on unpaid job leaves–continue to trek to the region to lend a hand gutting and rebuilding homes, churches, and schools,  among other self-help efforts.

We, grassroots activists working for a racially and economically just reconstruction of the region, salute the intentions that have brought volunteers to the Gulf and the sacrifices they have made. Nonetheless, as admirable and well-intentioned as these efforts are, we argue that volunteerism, of the “thousand points of light variety”, is not what we need.

Indeed, volunteerism, of the traditional variety, is part of the problem, not the solution to rebuilding the Gulf. Rather, what we need are volunteers in the tradition of the civil rights movement. We need volunteers who come to solidarize, to support, to engage with the social movements battling for-profit and non-profit corporations that are profiting from the disaster. We need volunteers to join us in demanding the GOVERNMENT fulfill its responsibility to rebuild the Gulf Coast equitably.

Below we identify how volunteerism is part of the problem, not the solution to a forging a racially and economically just reconstruction. We then offer an alternative form–what we call Movement Volunteerism–one that provides solidarity to the social movements struggling for justice.

The Damage Done by Volunteerism

Apolitical, “self-help” volunteerism provides political cover and protection for the national, state and local political leaders, and their corporate allies, whose destruction of public services, and other initiatives, have worsened the conditions for black and working class people, and blocked their return.

While volunteers have built hundreds of homes, the local and national authorities have unnecessarily destroyed many more. The most egregious example was the Bush administration, with the full cooperation of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and the city council, demolishing 5,000 badly needed, and little damaged, public housing apartments in 2008. The reconstruction plan developed by Bush, authorized by the city council, and now supported by the Obama administration, provides for rebuilding only a fraction of the former public housing units. 

Likewise, volunteers have flocked to heavily storm damaged St. Bernard parish, located downriver from New Orleans, to help this community recover. Yet, while receiving volunteers with open arms, the St. Bernard political leadership has taken aggressive steps to keep others in the community out, particularly the poor and African Americans. A prime example was the St. Bernard parish council’s passage, after the storm, of an ordinance to make it illegal for homeowners to rent to non- ‘blood relatives’, and another ordinance blocking the construction of multi-family housing. In a parish that was over 90% white before the storm, both of these ordinances were thinly veiled attempts to keep black renters out of the parish.

Volunteers, who are regularly saluted for their work by political officials in New Orleans, St. Bernard, and the local press, have a special obligation to speak out against these exclusionary policies. Silence by volunteers, in the face of these crimes, is consent.

Voluntarism is a form of scabbing that drives down wages.

By working for free volunteers contribute to driving down wages in the area, most importantly the wages for Katrina survivors.  This facet of voluntarism is actually worsening the plight of working class Katrina survivors.  For example, gambling moguls on the Gulf Coast have exploited the use of volunteer labor to rebuild area casinos on the cheap.  In another case, for-profit contractors in New Orleans cynically used volunteer labor, while claiming to use paid labor, in order to boost profits.  

Voluntarism acts as an “enabler”, allowing government authorities to avoid responsibility for rebuilding the Gulf. Voluntarism promotes the illusion that “self-help” can rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf.  

While the federal government, now led by Barack Obama, gives trillions to bail out Wall Street, it fails miserably to fund the living wage jobs that Katrina survivors so desperately need to rebuild their communities. Self-help voluntarism, in fact, ends up alienating Katrina survivors from the rebuilding process, both physically and economically. At the same time, voluntarism provides a political cover for the government’s failure to provide the public assistance truly needed to rebuild the hurricane devastated communities of the Gulf Coast.  Voluntarism–the actual volunteers and the whole ideology that accompanies their work–helps the government manage, mask, this deep contradiction:  trillions in state-provided corporate welfare, yet crumbs for the people, including the still struggling, Gulf Coast.

Volunteerism facilitates the ruling elite’s “disaster capitalism” agenda of using a disaster to privatize public services and to eliminate obstacles to the further enrichment of the corporate elite.

While Hurricane Katrina created great suffering for the majority of the Gulf, it also offered, from the perspective of elites, great opportunities. The mandatory evacuation of New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina provided the corporate elite and their servants in government with a golden opportunity to shut down and privatize public services. In the immediate aftermath of the storm the authorities put the corporate elite’s agenda into effect with a vengeance.  The government shuttered Charity Hospital, the city’s only public hospital, closed the lion’s share of the city’s public housing, and shut down a majority of the city’s public schools. Government authorities took all these measures while the great majority of residents were still in exile.

How did voluntarism facilitate the dismantling of New Orleans public services? A myriad of non-profits, with the encouragement of the area’s economic and political elites, helped make the radical downsizing of local public services more politically palatable.  For example, the post-Katrina media hoopla surrounding the construction of affordable housing by various non-profits, including Habitat for Humanity and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right foundation, helped foster the illusion that volunteerism could provide the affordable housing needed in the storm devastated Gulf Region. While these groups were building and renovating private homes, the leadership of these organizations remained silent as authorities savaged the single greatest source of affordable housing in New Orleans, public housing.

On the matter of public education the response of voluntarism is no better than its response to public housing.  Following the mass firing of New Orleans public school teachers and the liquidation of their collective bargaining agreement two months after the storm, Teach For America volunteers were hired by education authorities to serve, in effect, as scab labor.  

On the matter of public health care, government authorities and their backers have and are manipulating health care voluntarism to dampen public anger at the closure of Charity Hospital. Volunteer health care clinics foster the illusion, whether intended or not, that a private sector approach to health care service can adequately fill the health care void created by the closure of Charity Hospital.  Still, in spite of all the good works by private health care volunteers, the number of hospital beds in New Orleans is only 20% what it was pre-Katrina.  The closure of Charity Hospital is the reason for the precipitous decline in the number of hospital beds for the mentally ill in New Orleans after the storm.  Nonetheless, on a daily basis New Orleanians are inundated with media coverage of the “good works” of health care volunteers. This coverage helps maintain the illusion that Katrina survivors can live without Charity Hospital.  

Is There An Alternative to “Self-Help” Voluntarism?

Must volunteer work on the Gulf Coast be limited to the voluntarism of the non-profit industrial complex? No! Is there an alternative to “self -help” voluntarism”? Yes!

Movement Voluntarism is a peoples alternative to “self-help” voluntarism.

The lifeblood of Movement Voluntarism is people, whereas the lifeblood of “self-help” voluntarism is money. Funding, often from corporate or foundation sources, determines the limits of “self-help” organizing. This holds true for progressive, as well as traditional, “self-help” voluntarism. 

In contrast, popular support sets the limits for Movement Voluntarism.

On a grassroots level, in the Gulf, there were and are fight backs free of the influence of corporate and foundation money.  These fight back groups have played very important roles in the struggle to defend public housing and reopen Charity Hospital. These groups emerged from the ranks of Katrina Survivors and have, in the four years since the storm, remained active in the fight to rebuild local public services. These democratically-run groupings function outside the purview of the non-profit corporate world.  This independence is crucial to allowing the groups to escape the unhealthy influence of corporate and political elites.  The reluctance of the corporate media to even acknowledge the participation of these groups in the fight for a democratic rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is a backhanded salute to Movement Voluntarism. 

We urge those who want justice for the exploited and oppressed people of the Gulf to contact groups organized along the lines of Movement Voluntarism. Connecting with these groups is an important step toward building the sort of Movement Voluntarism that can facilitate a just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast. Building democratic groupings challenging an unjust status-quo without corporate foundation funding is not easy. But the experience in post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrates that this sort of organizing is key to unleashing the power from below that can put human need ahead of profit.

Opportunities to Engage in Movement Voluntarism
C3/Hands Off Iberville. Contact: Mike Howells, 504-587-0080; 
email: howellnow@bellsouth.net

Committee to Reopen Charity Hospital. Contact:  Derrick Morrison, 504-908-5310, email: dmorrison33@cox.net. Website: http://www.charityhospital.net/

Mayday New Orleans. Contact: Sam Jackson, 504-319-3300, email:
jackson-action@hotmail.com. Website: http://www.maydaynolahousing.org/

Mike Howells and Jay Arena are active in New Orleans public housing, and larger, right of return movement.