Category Archives: Hurricane Katrina

The Politics of Eco-Elitism

vanfull.jpgI recently read an incredibly thought-provoking Sun Magazine interview with activist Van Jones (right), board President and co-founder of The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Among other things, Jones has become something of a pioneer in connecting two issues that are typically viewed as separate: socio-economic inequality and environmental destruction.

In the interview, he soberly described the current environmental movement in our country as a kind of “eco-apartheid:”

“Eco-apartheid” is a situation in which you have ecological haves and have-nots. In other words, if you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, and you visit Marin County, you’ll find hybrid vehicles, solar panels, organic food, organic everything. If you then get in your car and drive twenty minutes, you’ll be in west Oakland, where people are literally choking on the fumes of the last century’s pollution-based technologies. That’s eco-apartheid, and it’s morally wrong, because we should deliver clean jobs and health benefits not just to the wealthy, but also to the people who need them most. Eco-apartheid doesn’t work on a practical level either, because you can’t have a sustainable economy when only 20 percent of the people can afford to pay for hybrids, solar panels, and organic cuisine, while the other 80 percent are still driving pollution-based vehicles to the same pollution-based jobs and struggling to make purchases at Wal-Mart.

For the sustainable economy to be successful, it has to be a full-participation economy. Right now it is a niche economy, a lifestyle economy. Though green products are a $230 billion industry and growing, that’s still a slice of a slice of a slice of the overall pie. It is easy for the eco-elites in Massachusetts or northern California to wrap themselves in the trappings of sustainability and think that the problem has been solved, but the people who clean their houses are going back to neighborhoods that may be fifty years in the past in terms of their ecological sustainability. As we move toward a sustainable economy, if we do not take care to minimize the pain and maximize the gain for the poor, they will join forces with the polluters to derail the green revolution.

Jones also addressed insightfully how and why this “eco-elitism” has failed to reach the hearts and minds of low-income people and people of color:

Environmentalists sometimes don’t understand that what motivated them to get involved in political activism and change their lifestyle isn’t going to inspire everyone else. It’s not just a matter of their explaining louder and louder why everyone should be like them. That’s not the politics of inclusion; that’s the politics of elitism. The reality is that working people will support ecological solutions, but not for the same reasons that the eco-elites support them.

A lot of wealthy, educated people wanted to take action as a result of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but most low-income people and people of color I know had no interest in seeing the movie in the first place. They already have enough problems. They don’t need new crises to worry about. Around here we say that the people who already have a lot of opportunities are the ones who need to hear about the crises. So if you have a house and a car and a college degree, then, yes, you should hear about global warming, or peak oil, or dying species. But poor and low-income people need to hear about opportunities. They need to hear about the expected reduction in asthma rates when we reduce greenhouse gases. They need to hear about the wealth and health benefits of moving to a sustainable economy. Otherwise you are just telling people who are already having a bad day that they should have a worse one.

How can we bridge this gap? Jones offered several thoughts, including the creation of a “green collar” job corps – a mobilization that would train low income youth of color to help retrofit US cities to become more environmentally sustainable.

A provocative and compelling article: click here to read the entire interview.

Second Harvest

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On our last full day in NOLA, we spent several hours packing food at Second Harvest of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana– a food bank that is on the forefront of food distribution throughout Southern Louisiana. Post-Katrina, Second Harvest’s food distribution rate is a staggering 80 million plus lbs.

JRCers set to work this morning sorting food and assembling items for the BackPack program, which provides children at-risk of hunger with food for nutritional support for the weekends and other out-of-school times. (For the record, our group sorted 12, 794 lbs. of food and salvaged 9,843 lbs. – the equivalent of 7,890 meals.)

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Gutting it Out in NOLA

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Our second and final day of work has finished – our respective groups came very close to finishing the gutting of our two houses in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans. This was a true workout – using crowbars, hammers, sledgehammers, and sometimes just our own hands to peel off moldy drywall, haul out household possessions, and strip the houses down to their wooden skeletons. The pics above and below gives you some idea of what the work looked like. The second pic down shows the final product: nothing left but the wooden studs. By the end of the day, we were exhausted, sore and bathed in sweat, but all of us were filled with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. (Who knew that slamming a sledgehammer into old drywall could be so therapeutic?)

When we finished, each of us wrote our names and a message on the wooden interior frame (see the second pic from the bottom) before closing out with a short prayer. That’s me and JRC member Jerry Herst in the bottom pic. If you look over our heads, you’ll see a makeshift street sign. That’s right, our house was on Hope Street…

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Home This Was

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Just ended Day 2 of JRC’s Tikkun New Orleans journey – I think our entire group would agree that it’s already been an intense and powerful experience for all concerned. We arrived in NOLA yesterday morning and spent the day visiting various institutions, meeting with leaders who have been on the front line of the post-Katrina efforts. This included a Les Hirsch, President and CEO of Touro Infirmary – a major NOLA hospital that successfully evacuated hundreds of patients after the hurricane. (Amazingly, Mr. Hirsch took over the job at the hospital only one week before Katrina hit.) We also visited Tulane University and were hosted for dinner at the venerable Touro Synagogue. All along the way, we heard from community leaders who had compelling and often inspiring stories to tell about they navigated through the crisis and were helping to spearhead the ongoing relief efforts in their hometown.

During the afternoon, we also had the sad opportunity to tour the more devastated areas of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely decimated after the levees broke. Touring this area, it was difficult to fathom that these neighborhoods were actual, living, breathing communities just two years ago. Just miles and miles of overgrowth, dotted with foundation slabs, concrete stairs leading to nowhere, and utterly destroyed homes. I took the above picture yesterday – I believe the graffiti says it all.

Today was a working day – courtesy of the wonderful, devoted folks at the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry. We split into two groups and set to work gutting two homes in the Gentilly neighborhood in the Seventh Ward. This once solidly middle class neighborhood was hard hit by Katrina and whole sections of this part of town are still largely abandoned. We donned our Tyvek suits, strapped on fask masks, grabbed implements of demolition, and set to work gutting the homes. (See the pix below). Lots of sledgehammering of moldy, rotting dry wall and hauling debris out to dumpsters. The intent is to eventually strip these homes down to the wood studs to prepare them for eventual rehab.

During the course of the day, we had the opportunity to speak with residents of the neighborhood and hear their stories. One of the things you learn quickly in post-Katrina New Orleans is that everyone has a story to tell. We’re discovering that a big part of our job here is simply to listen and bear witness. In this day and age of 24 hour news cycles, short media attention spans and crises du jour, we too often allow ourselves to move on to the next big story. But for the citizens of New Orleans, the story isn’t over by a longshot.

In listening to these stories, we have experienced a myriad of emotions: frustration, anger, sadness, wonder – but in the end, the most notable reaction for us has been inspiration. It is impossible to spend any time at all with the citizens of New Orleans and not be moved by their fierce and passionate devotion to their home community. Though this city has been abandoned by any number of government institutions – and though the ongoing volunteer relief effort is an inspiring story in its own right – it’s clear to me that the true heroes of New Orleans are those who have decided to stay and fight for the future of their city.

There’s much more to say, obviously. In the meantime (to quote Paul Simon) tomorrow’s gonnna be another working day and I’m trying to get some rest…

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Tikkun New Orleans

new_orleans_sign.jpgMy next few posts will come from New Orleans, where I’ll be accompanying 33 JRC members on a service project we’ve dubbed “Tikkun New Orleans.” Over the next five days, our delegation will witness the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina first hand, learn more about the heroic efforts taking place on the ground, and personally participate in a rehab project in an East New Orleans neighborhood. Together, we will enter a home that has been closed since the day after Katrina, go inside, clear it out completely, and strip it down to its very studs to prepare it for eventual rehabbing.

Today, in preparation for our journey, we showed Spike Lee’s devastating Katrina documentary “When the Levees Broke” at our congregation. Just breathtaking. By any standard, our nation’s abandonment of the Gulf can only be called a national disgrace. Two years after Katrina, more than half of New Orleans remains devastated. Whole neighborhoods stand as abandoned as they were the day the water’s receded. A third of its pre-Katrina residents have relocated. Other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi are still struggling to get to their feet. On a local, state and federal level, the betrayal of these communities has been simply staggering.

As has been widely reported, the only real post-Katrina relief efforts taking place in the Gulf region are coming at at the hands of volunteer agencies and religious organizations. I’m enormously proud that JRC is participating in this relief effort that is now entering its third year – and I look forward to sharing our experiences with you during the coming week. Please stay tuned…