The article is about how two people from Washington DC moved to New Orleans to help out the victims of Katrina. The article was very inspiring, especially since I try to do similar things in my work in DC. (Note: My comments here are not meant to negate any of the great work they are doing in New Orleans.)
After a couple days of thinking about the article, I found myself asking, "Why did they have to move a thousand miles to do this kind of work?" I felt led to write an editorial to the Washington Post, which was never published, probably because it was several days afterwards.
Here is the letter:
I enjoyed reading the article about the St. Bernard Project. I am really inspired by Liz's and Zach's work.
At the same time, a similar need for help exists here less than two miles from their former residence. DC has the highest rates of AIDS in the country, is home to the largest homeless shelter in the country, and 1 in 2 children are at risk for hunger. I have been in houses that
are in bad shape with leaky roofs and holes in the walls that let in cold air.
As we go out to help in other parts of the country, lets not forget about helping our fellow neighbors down the street.
In the last month and half of thinking about this article, I have finally gained insight into what my real problems with this article.
First it is a common narrative. White people move into a depressed area and save the day! Recently I have been reading books like Three Cups of Tea and Mountains Beyond Mountains that have this same narrative. In New Orleans I have met native New Orleanians who are
doing amazing work down there as well.
The other problem I see has to deal with guilt and silence. When we go to another area, like Zimbabwe or New Orleans to help, we are then only part of the solution, but if we work in an area where we have been living for a while, we have to face the fact that we have been
part of the problem too. At the very least, we have been silent about the problem for a while. Before we start fixing a problem in our community we have to deal with our guilt and overcome that before we can be effective. Here in DC, there is a lot of work that needs to be done. Also if we are only part of the solution, we don't know the history of the situation, so sometimes we can do more harm than good.
When I have groups coming to Washington DC, I try to take the group to the Holocaust Museum to connect the parallels between then and now.
One critical parallel is the role of silence. In Germany, people saw their Jewish, disabled, trade unionist, etc neighbors being taken away and most of them stayed silent as this was happening.
Here I see the silence in our neighborhoods, when one neighbor is struggling, the neighborhood is often silent. With one of the people I work with, her house is obviously in disrepair next to houses in pretty good condition. The difference is very visible in the back of the house, where most of the other residents park their cars. Looking at the back of her house next to the backs of her neighbors' houses, the contrast is immediately apparent. When I first came, trash was pile up in the backyard. Her back door needs work and she is missing some siding from above the back door. Until recently her backyard was full of tall weeds.
One day, while I was cleaning up from a workcamp that day, one of her neighbors told me, "Thank you for helping her! She really needs it!" I thanked him for his compliment. Later as I was thinking about this interaction, I should have responded, "Why didn't you help?"
Before a group leaves, I try to ask, "What will you do when you go home to help your community?" So I pose this question to the readers, "What will you do to help your community?"
I think this question need to be asked more .