Skip to content »
Elizabeth (Liz) Quinn
Public History Masters students Indre Jurksaitis, Elizabeth Quinn, and Kristen Chaulk interviewed Adrian Manriquez on November 9, 2009, as a final assignment for the Oral History Method and Theory course. The interview was conducted via telephone from the Loyola University of Chicago campus as one part of a project documenting the experiences of long-term volunteers working in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of the levees.
Adrian Manriquez, a former volunteer for Common Ground Relief, and current employee of Operation Helping Hands, had previous experience as a political activist. In fact, politics and political ideology seemed to permeate every aspect of his volunteering and work experience in New Orleans. His initial motivation for volunteering was a bet with his conservative girlfriend about the state of New Orleans and whether the government was making a full effort to aid the community. While the physical condition of New Orleans did not shock him, Manriquez recalled being appalled at the lack of government action.
Manriquez talked about his initial idealism and radicalism as being a large part of his work with Common Ground and the rebellious approach taken by the volunteers for the sake of getting people back into their homes. It was also during his time with Common Ground that he felt the most disillusioned, marking it as the most negative part of the experience. He discussed his former boss, Brandon Darby, an FBI informant, and others like him and their efforts to derail the volunteers from getting citizens back into their homes.
From there, he moved to Operation Helping Hands because it offered a much needed paid position. Through his volunteer and work experiences, he was able to discuss and form opinions on how the recovery has been both positive and negative for the city of New Orleans and where improvements could be made in the future. He gave insight into the coordination, or lack thereof, between volunteer agencies, noting that the lack of coordination contributed to a lot of inefficiencies and led to wasted time and resources. He expressed a need for a more streamlined approach among volunteer agencies and the federal, state, and local governments. Additionally, he believed that there should be better coordination between the federal and state governments to get recovery dollars to where they are needed, and penalties and guidelines to make it happen in a timely manner.
Despite all of the difficulties he faced and the hardships he saw in New Orleans, Manriquez has remained positive about the American people as whole. He saw that the average American was interested in helping the citizens of New Orleans. Only his image of the government and its bureaucracies has been diminished by the experience. Manriquez was also hopeful that positive growth will come out of the disaster, including the rebuilding of a more sustainable city and the opportunity for new ideas to flourish, grow, and become part of the fabric of the community.
Like many other long-term volunteers, Manriquez has made the decision to purchase a home, which was in the process of closing at the time of the interview, and to continue his work in New Orleans. He was planning to become more involved with organizations and non-profits working on rebuilding and improving the city. Along with that he was in the process of creating a new non-profit with fellow volunteers and relief workers dedicated to rebuilding homes in New Orleans.
Additional notes: For the sake of readability “ums” and “uhs” were removed from the transcript, however, repeated words were retained as a way of preserving the natural flow of speech. Colloquialisms have not been corrected and responsive phrases remain in the transcript even where they are interruptions. Words or thoughts that trail off are marked by ellipses. Similarly, interrupted sentences end with ellipses and begin with ellipses with the first word in lower case. Commas separate run on sentences. Noticeable pauses appear in parentheses, as do laughter and coughing. Indistinguishable words or phrases are noted as (inaudible) and any overlap in talking is indicated by (overlap). Loud background noises also appear in parentheses, for example, a phone ringing. Emphasized words appear in italics. Finally, the mid-interview break, which was meant to take five minutes ended up lasting fifteen due to difficulties with the phone and calling out long distance on the Loyola line.
85- 88 minutes
Christopher Manning: …board. So ladies if you could introduce yourselves.
Indre Jurksaitis: Hi Adrian, my name is Indre Jurksaitis.
Liz Quinn: Hi, I’m Liz Quinn.
Kristen Chaulk: I’m Kristen Chaulk.
CM: And they’re gonna be interviewing so I’m gonna head out now and you guys have a good interview, ok?
CM: And oh, are we coming through ok on the audio?
AM: I, I can hear you fine.
CM: Ok, great. Ok, as long as you see those marks moving, you are getting the recording.
IJ: Ok. Ok, Adrian for the most part, you will just be speaking with one of us throughout the interview. My name is Indre, I’m gonna be starting to conduct the first part of the interview then we’ll take a five minute break and then we’ll come back and Liz will go head and conduct the second part of the interview. Does that sound good?
IJ: Ok. I’ll go ahead and state the date; today is November 8, 2009. We are here at Loyola University campus in Chicago conducting a telephone interview with Adrian Manriquez, volunteer at Operation, Operation Helping Hands in New Orleans. So Adrian, why don’t we go ahead and start with you describing to us what was going on in your life before the hurricane hit.
AM: I actually was studying abroad in college. I was in Ireland at the time. Well, I was actually traveling the month before the hurricane, but I’d been in Ireland since February of ’05 studying abroad in my junior year of college. And really I was actually abroad up until the day of the hurricane. I remember watching it on CNN while I was in the Chicago Airport.
IJ: Ok. And…what did you think when you saw the coverage, initially?
AM: I actually didn’t pay attention to it for a few days. I know that sounds terrible because everyone was watching it, but I came into town the Monday Katrina hit and I was getting my, my apartment and my books and quite literally like my schooling in order so I didn’t, I didn’t watch it for several days until a friend of mine who was (Inaudible - loud noise) what was going on. I was, I was really (Pause) shocked I guess if that’s the word.
(Loud noises from outside, shutting window.)
IJ: Ok, you know we’re having just a little hard time hearing you; can you talk a little bit louder Adrian?
AM: Sure, yeah.
IJ: Ok, thank you.
AM: I was pretty shocked at the idea that an American city could be flooding like that and that there wouldn’t be relief coming for several days at a time.
AM: I… I mean my, my reaction to it is just kinda like well, it can’t all be underwater, or like it’s all gonna be, you know the water’s going to be out in, in a little while, like floods happen you know?
AM: But after we went on for a couple days and like several like weeks and of the entire city being like, well not the entire, but this portion, the vast majority of the city being literally underwater, it was, it was too fantastic to conceive that that could actually be happening.
IJ: Right…And before Katrina hit, did, did you participate in any type of community volunteer work?
AM: I’d been an activist I did, you know I volunteered at you know, at food banks and I’ve you know done Habitat a couple times in my community. I was mostly like political activist working on international issues and some local, like neighborhood issues.
AM: I mean in a political way, not so much, not so much material volunteering but more like legislative and political work.
IJ: Ok. So what do you think the motivating factor was for you to head down to New Orleans?
AM: (Laughter) This is a funny one. The actual literal motivating reason for me to, to, to go down to New Orleans originally was a fight with my girlfriend who’s really conservative. Over whether or not the situation in New Orleans was quite as bad as the liberal media made it. And she’s more conservative than I am at the time, and so the story basically was we got in an argument whether or not it was that bad down there in New Orleans. And I, as I did mostly political work and I didn’t really do a lot of hands on volunteering, you know, she kind of challenged me to put my house in order if you will, and go down there, show up and so we both did and that led to me after having seen what was going on in New Orleans, that led to me wanting to come back down here to stay and volunteer.
IJ: Ok, so you won the challenge, I take it?
AM: Of sorts, yeah. (Laughter) I mean, you know for posterity it might as well be put out there but the reason, the actual challenge was whether or not George Bush was really an asshole and (Laughter) she was like, “Well he’s doing the best he can, I’m sure that it’s a really tough situation.” And after coming down here, yeah…
AM: She was like a little more convinced of that nature of George Bush’s personality. So… (Laughter)
IJ: Ok. Alright. Can you describe to us the decision making process in choosing Operation Helping Hands as opposed to other agencies?
AM: Well, I should be clear here that I actually don’t volunteer with Operation Helping Hands; I actually work there.
AM: I did volunteer with Common Ground Relief for six months before I came to Operation Helping Hands.
IJ: Ok. Ok. And so you, I’m sorry, you started with Common Ground?
AM: Yeah, Common Ground Relief is, was an organization, it still exists, but in a much limited capacity. It works in the Ninth Ward and across New Orleans. It was a much bigger organization at the time that I came there. I had originally come there March of ’06 as a spring break trip and I came down in December of ’06 to volunteer and I’d planned to be there for two years. Unfortunately the organization went through enough changes…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: … administratively and politically and what not, that it was really no longer tenable for me to be there after May of ’07.
AM: So, my decision making process for coming to Operation Helping Hands quite honestly had much to do with the fact that they paid pretty much any amount of money over zero. Because I had been, Operating Helping, Common Ground didn’t pay any money. They didn’t even pay a stipend. They didn’t have any kind of tuition benefit, no AmeriCorps. Really just got food, and honestly, at that it was a lot of corned beef hash and white potatoes out of number ten cans. So, after six months of living that life style, (Pause) I decided that I really wanted to…I needed a real job honestly. (Laughter)
AM: I, I couldn’t afford to, to live that way like mentally or physically and financially to like have a healthy lifestyle in that environment would have been very difficult. So I moved to Operation Helping Hands because a friend of mine who worked with the Jesuits told me that they might be hiring and I might as well submit an application.
IJ: Ok, ok and that worked out, it sounds like that worked out better for you.
AM: It did. Almost immediately, I got a job. I actually had applied right, right about the time that there was another person leaving, there was a one month overlap between the two of us and so it worked out quite perfectly for me to get a job there and I’ve been working there ever since.
IJ: Good, good. So prior to the trip down to New Orleans what did you expect to see?
AM: (Pause) You know we’d heard all the stories and we’d heard about the way New Orleans looked, that, that there was, that there were houses in the middle of the road, that there were still dead bodies inside of houses. I had a connection to, with Loyola University through Bill Quigley who’s a human rights lawyer, who’d been sending out dispatches, you know, like basically starting when Katrina hit and going on every few weeks about what was needed to happen and if you had, if you were a person of conscience with any amount of resources you should come down right now to see what’s happening.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: I mean he gave us a fairly detailed description and did a lot of myth busting in his emails about, you know, here’s where Katrina has affected it, here’s where the federal levee failure has affected it, and here is the way that New Orleans looks right now, you know and…
AM: …this is what you can expect to see. Also we’re working with Common Ground Relief. And Common Ground Relief at that point in time when we first came down here had a lot of information as to like what the city looked like.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: They told us there isn’t going to be running water, you know, and any running water you find is gonna be poisonous, so you’re gonna have to use filtered or boiled water. You’re gonna have, you know, there is no electricity, you’re gonna need to bring a flashlight. You should expect to sleep on bare floor covered by a tarp, you know. You should expect to have cold showers and be waiting in the shower line for an hour, and you should expect to have to change your tires several times, you’re gonna get nails. You know, you should expect to see houses with everyone’s belongings in some kind of way. So it was a lot of prep work that we had…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: …not necessarily done, but it’s, it’s seen by the organizations that we were working with and connected to so, I you know, I expected to see, I guess I did expect to see a destroyed city in many ways. I expected a much better response.
IJ: Did your, did reality differ from those expectations?
AM: I expected to see…(Inaudible)
IJ: When you did get down there though, did the reality differ from these expectations?
AM: (Pause) I wouldn’t say it differed, I think that it was appalling to actually see. It’s one thing to read lots of articles, you know…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: …about this and the other going on in the world. You know, I read articles about Sudan and Darfur, Afghanistan. It’s, it’s one thing to read that, I mean that’s terrible. But to actually go into and see that, and to see rows of houses empty, you know, and piles of trash everywhere that was something else. And to actually, really the most jarring thing I think to see was the just the lack of governmental agencies around.
IJ: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm so it, it sounds…
AM: (Inaudible) …running around, there was a lot of organizations. There was Red Cross running around blaring its, its food truck’s horn giving out free food and there was the occasional sirens of police and firefighters, but honestly there just wasn’t, there wasn’t, there didn’t seem to be any kind of government response.
IJ: So Adrian, your expectations really didn’t differ from what you did see down there then? It was that bad. It was actually as…
AM: Was that bad, yeah.
IJ: Yea, ok, ok.
AM: It’s actually really thinking it wasn’t going to be that bad, I was like, “It can’t be that bad.”
IJ: Oh, I got it. Ok, so it was worse.
AM: A lot of people at work that I’m talking to, they’re pretty hyperbolic, you know, assured that it can’t be that bad and it was that bad.
IJ: Ok, Adrian can you tell us about the kind of work you were doing when you started volunteering?
AM: When I first started volunteering at Common Ground we were gutting houses and so I was (Pause) and I was put on the gutting crew in a few weeks because of the nature of the organization. I became a crew leader and was leading the volunteers to gutting houses. Did that for about six weeks and then a, a staffing change at Common Ground put me in charge of running gutting, all gutting crews.
AM: I did that for the next several months.
IJ: Adrian, was there any kind of preparatory training required or did you just learn on the job?
AM: Well…there was some, it was mostly optional. Common Ground sent us a lot of information on what you should do before you got there. You should take first aid training you should have your Hepatitis A and B shots.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: You know, you should have your tetanus. And you know, you should, you should take these safety precautions and be aware of these hazards, you know. Specifically biological hazards around staph infections or you know, mold…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: …and things of that nature.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: There wasn’t really that much training, though. Honestly, when I went on a gutting crew, my training was in the field, on the job…
AM: …and it was someone my age, maybe slightly older who had been gutting for several weeks before me and was like, “Here, this is how you turn off gas, this is how you turn off electricity, and this is how you can judge structural work.”
IJ: Ok. And can you describe a typical day of work?
AM: Our schedule at Common Ground was the wake up call was at 6:30, or it was at 6 o’clock, do breakfast from 6:30 to 7:30. At 7:30, I had a morning brief and it went until 8:00 ‘til 8:30. You got your crew from the morning briefing, you got your tools from the tool room, your protective equipment you know, masks, suits, goggles, gloves, all of that. You went out to your job site, you’re supposed to be out by your job site by about 8:30 or 9:00 and you worked until you, you, you got lunch delivered around 12:30 or so. Between 12:00 and 1:30 was lunch delivery cuz we normally worked in the Ninth Ward, but the lunch was actually delivered to us most of the time. It was cooked at a centralized location and then taken out by truck or van. You got… (Pause) You came back. Really you came back whenever you wanted to. It was expected around 4:00 to, 4:00…4 o’clock or so.
AM: Had dinner at 6:30 until 7:30, evening meeting went from 7:30 until 8:00, and then there was nighttime programming put on by the anti-racist and working groups that went from 8:00 ‘til 9:30 or so.
IJ: Adrian, did you find that you were able to balance that? It sounded like you were working quite a few hours a day. Did you balance that well with downtime?
AM: No, (Laughter) God no, not at all! Are you kidding me? Absolutely not. Nobody did, at Common Ground especially. Nobody got paid there, everybody was, everybody was like a self proclaimed radical down for the cause type of people. And (Laughter) none of us worked well. I think that probably the, the expectation at Common Ground, the literal expectation was that you would a work forty-hour shift of, of, of gutting or, you know.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: Or then you would work 3 housekeeping tabs. Now Common Ground was a hundred percent volunteer.
IJ: What about Operation Helping Hands? Difference, difference there?
AM: Yes, it’s very different.
AM: To give you a Common Ground and finish the story. Common Ground is at the point in time that I was there, was operating out of an abandoned school that was donated to us by a…priest who actually wasn’t even supposed to have let us in there but he, he violated the diocese rules and let us in there because he thought we were doing good work. That, in that the plumbing didn’t work, nothing had been fixed; electricity was all put together by like amateur electricians like…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: …and people, who were really just kinda volunteering so, we were supposed to expected to work three…. shifts and the shifts were anything from housekeeping, cooking breakfast, cooking lunch, cooking dinner, delivering lunch. You know cleaning up the bathroom, doing security detail so we have a lot of tasks that were done there and so essentially everyone was kind of expected to work around fifty to sixty hours a week.
AM: And…. when I got into staff…I mean cuz you were supposed to work forty hours plus this time and then you had one downtime a one, one day off a week that you could take.
IJ: Ok. Ok…
AM: It wasn’t strictly regulated, but I think to the vast majority people would basically just work continuously…
IJ: Ok, ok.
AM: …until they ran into trouble and then they would go out drinking a lot as a way of escaping.
AM: Or drugs. (Laughter) And when the staff people of Common Ground, when I became a staff, most of the staff there we basically lived in the same place where we worked and we were talking about working a hundred to a hundred and twenty hours a week. We were basically on call at any given time so…
IJ: Adrian, did you travel quite a bit or did you stay in one location basically, one parish or…?
AM: I stayed in the Ninth Ward basically, I mean I use the distinction that if you look at a map of New Orleans…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: …the Ninth Ward is maybe a mile across.
AM: I used to think that if you crossed Franklin, which goes into the Eighth Ward, you were kinda going into the end of it…
IJ: Ok, but for the majority of time you were in the Ninth Ward?
AM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
IJ: Ok. Now what types of jobs did the other volunteers do that you were working with? Were they doing similar jobs as you or…?
AM: You mean at Common Ground or...
IJ: Let’s go with Operation Helping Hands.
AM: (Pause) I think I better clarify the question. The volunteers at Operation Helping Hands kind of all do the same thing.
AM: They’re all at different, totally …
AM: …different experience than what was happening at Common Ground.
IJ: Ok and can you tell me a little bit more about the background of the other volunteers like, as far as like, age range and you know, more men than women or… (Pause) Like majority.
AM: Majority masculine, mostly men or masculine…
AM: …masculine women.
AM: And I think that’s important that there’s a certain, there’s a very strong element of masculinity in the volunteer base.
IJ: Ok, how ‘bout age, age range?
AM: They’re still all like my age. I mean people are going between like eighteen and twenty-five really for the most part. I don’t, there was…
AM: …really nobody above thirty…
AM: …who volunteered at the time, and…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: But most of the volunteer groups that come in now, we’ve had two outliers that are carpenters that are in their fifty’s, but other than that everyone in AmeriCorps programs that we run at Operation Helping Hands…
AM: …where we get our people from, they’re all based around like just…
AM: …out of college and just, you know, out of high school not like prolly knowing what they’re doing with their life, so…
IJ: Since Operation Helping Hands is part of Catholic Charities, have you noticed any similar spirituality or belief systems among the other volunteers?
AM: No, but boy we try! (Laughter)
AM: We just, we definitely, there’s not, like there are some, like there’s some Christians and Catholics of course that come into Catholic Charities. For the most part, people are kind of agnostic about it. There’s a few every now, every year that’s like there’s just a few of them like maybe twenty-five percent that are actually devout.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: The, the staff in the operation itself tries to remind ourselves that the spiritually is what brought us there, but I don’t think that most volunteers really care that much (Laughter).
AM: Most of them are here to have a good time and their big, their involvement with Catholic Charities is just so much as somebody, someplace to come down and volunteer with.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: Not so much coming down here for the Catholic aspect of volunteering.
IJ: Ok. Ok, we talked quite a bit about the people that you work with let’s talk a little bit about the people that you worked for, the local residents. How do you feel you were received by them?
AM: I mean it’s really across the board and it’s, it’s a different question to answer. Some residents liked us, some didn’t, some didn’t care, some thought we were just some crazy novelty and a bunch of random hickories showing up. The residents, the experience with residents was very different between Common Ground and Catholic Charities. The Catholic Charities residents for the most part are like, are really particularly old ladies.
IJ: Mmm hmm…
AM: The Catholic Charities is granted through…agencies that look for, that look for agencies that serve elderly and disabled people. And so we’re specifically looking for that demographic and when you find that demographic…
AM: …residents tend to be more grateful of like, and like they, you know, they don’t have a lot of options and so when they come to us, they’re usually very grateful. Sometimes they’re, they’re annoyed at us for being volunteers, but Catholic Charities, like certain residents have generally been very positive. They’re very excited about us, they’re very glad that we’re helping and they usually can’t get it done many other ways because they are a specifically disadvantaged population. At Common Ground, the residents, we helped everyone in the community and Common Ground tried a different model. It was actually a solidarity model. So we were trying to get, we were trying to work with every resident we could and actually, specifically trying to work with residents that were able to work with us.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: You know, Common Ground had a radical analysis that, that stated essentially, that organizations like Catholic Charities would pick up the hardship cases and that Common Ground would look for people who were able to give back and in like a material sense. You know, either through volunteering in the office, through helping with construction, through cooking and so working with those residents was a whole different experience because you were trying to organize residents whose houses and community had been destroyed as an out-of-towner with a lot of privilege.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: And that was much more difficult than Catholic Charities which was basically giving away the farm to people who need it.
IJ: Got it. Ok, ok and as far as New Orleans as a city, how did you feel received by the city?
AM: In general, I guess was very positive.
AM: And I mean the city is like to no end showers the volunteers with praise. I think that it must, you know, like the, the general outlook is like, “We’re so glad the volunteers are here because they’re actually helping us.” Because most of the recovery of New Orleans has been happening through determined folks, homeowners and volunteers together, working on it. Because so much of this, of the recovery dollars is so delayed.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: But that, you know, when you get into the, the different political circles, there are a lot of critiques of volunteers and the, the problems behind it and the dangers of seeing that as an alternate solution to what is essentially a federal and systemic problem.
IJ: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm. Ok, let’s talk a little bit about the other relief agencies, as far as the other federal, state or volunteer organizations. Would you say that they complimented what you did with Operation Helping Hands and Common Ground or were these other agencies completely different?
AM: Sometimes. There’s a lot of agencies that overlap in a very negative way and it’s not, it’s negative because it doesn’t focus resources the most effective way possible. The best example of this I guess is Common Ground and Catholic Charities have two widely disparate missions and ideals about the world. And actually work quite well in that sort of way, that they work in separate spheres and they don’t necessarily compete or at least they didn’t at the time. Habitat for Humanity is another good example, Habitat, their mission across the country and even in post-Katrina New Orleans is new low income housing stock which they create with very few, in fact I don’t actually, can’t even actually name any other national organization that does that, with the exception of HUD.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: But their, their mission is actually complimentary because it creates new, new good housing that is designed for low-income folks. Now Catholic Charities, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Mennonite Disaster Services, the Southern Baptist Fellowship, et cetera, et cetera, all of these groups, even like new groups like lowernine.org and Hands on New Orleans, other groups that are nationally designed to, to rebuild after disaster, we compete in a very negative way because we compete for grants, we compete for resources, we compete for homeowners and we compete for numbers.
IJ: So it sounds like it’s more a, a competition between a lot of the organizations rather than a coordination? There’s really, it doesn’t…
AM: Yeah, there is, there is a level of coordination for sure, but there are, there have been uncomfortable instances where we show up at a house that we have grant funding, another organization shows up at the house the same day or later that week…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: … and says well that’s the house that we have grant funding for and we need to do it.
AM: And those things are not common, but I think in the general sense like Catholic Charities covers all of Orleans Parish.
AM: And Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Mennonites and other groups all cover all of Orleans Parish and so we’re all sending vehicles and resources and volunteers on any given day across each other to different neighborhoods.
AM: And there’s not a lot of focus, you know like…
AM: … it would be easier on everybody to organize the volunteer groups around certain neighborhoods, like a model that Rebuilding Together or the St. Bernard Project does where they have certain specific areas, but…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: … instead, we send volunteers across each other and next to each other all over the place. So… instead of having one, one organization in one geographic area, that can connect to communities and connect to residents and not spend as much time driving around which honestly, driving is a huge issue, like it takes so much time to drive people back and forth across the city. That there’s, instead of having that model, what we have is, is now is this model where everyone goes everywhere and tries to help anyone…
IJ: So as…
AM: … and there’s not a lot of coordination between the agencies. Now at a higher level with supplies, there is sometimes coordination in the agencies. Like I have, I’m a painter, I’ve got a lot of painting resources donated and more than I need and so some of those go to a centralized warehouse that then any volunteer organization can, can draw from.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: So on some level of supplies and massive donations there has been coordination, but as far as working together and construction, it has not been coordinated very well at all.
IJ: Adrian, as a member of Operation Helping Hands do you think there is something that the, the agency can do to rectify this? To make the coordination a little bit easier?
AM: Well, we’ve done some, we work with the Mennonites because we had a Mennonite who came to work with us. He was the volunteer for the Mennonites and came, came to Operation Helping Hands as a staff person. And he’s done a really good job of bringing the Mennonites into our operation in a way that they look for funding, they don’t really have very good funding sources, but they definitely have good volunteers that are skilled. So we have a lot of funding and so they work with us on our projects, we fund the projects and then we get the numbers from it. And that’s pretty, a pretty good partnership and actually allows us to meet our granting, our grant goals.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: And there could be more like that. Honestly, I think it takes a higher level. Catholic Charities could declare that we’re working with one neighborhood and every other neighborhood would get mad about it.
IJ: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm.
AM: And it would be difficult, like it’s for, it’s kind of an all or nothing thing.
AM: You know, you need to have the city or the federal government or the state saying that look, “This neighborhood is Catholic Charities, this neighborhood is Presbyterian, this neighborhood is Episcopalians,” you know?
IJ: Right. Mmm hmm.
AM: And that way, everyone is focused, but instead they say everyone goes everywhere and does whatever they want…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: … and so you end up with this…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: … this chaotic waste.
IJ: It, it sounds like it’s more chaotic…
AM: There’s not really a way for one organization to stop that, unless all organizations come together or at least a lot of organizations come together.
IJ: Adrian, as an individual though, did you have interaction individually with these groups?
AM: (Pause) Yeah, I’ve worked with the Presbyterians in Mississippi, I’ve worked with the Mennonites because they work with us, and Rebuilding Together is populated by a lot of my friends cuz you know, as volunteers we kind of, you know we cross pollinate at social events cuz we’re all very poor…
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: …and we’re all looking for the cheapest thing we can do.
IJ: Mmm hmm.
AM: And so we end up being in the same places. So, and we’re also like young people who have come down here with idealistic visions about the future…
AM: So whether we’re volunteers or lowly paid staff members, we kind of end up in the same places.
AM: I know a lot of folks from Rebuilding Together and I like their model a little bit because they actually pick neighborhoods, but they’re also granted in a different way. Cuz they’re, they’re usually granted through historic preservation.
AM: And that allows them to pick, like they when they, they existed pre-Katrina they existed all across the country and they usually go into neighborhoods that are historic to like bring volunteers to make historic houses beautiful again and to keep their character.
IJ: Ok. Ok. Well this wraps up my half of the questions. I wanna thank you for your time and all your insights. I, we really appreciate it. What we’ll do Adrian is take a five minute break, we’ll come back, and then Liz will take over.
AM: Ok. So you guys are going to call me back then, is that the story?
IJ: Ok, thanks!
LQ: Hi, Adrian?
LQ: Hi, this is Liz from Loyola. We were having trouble with the other phone. (Laughter)
AM: I see, ok.
LQ: So we’re just calling you on this. Is that ok?
AM: Yeah, it’s totally fine.
LQ: Ok, sorry for the long break. We know that you’re interested in getting to like a Saints pre-party or something.
AM: (Laughter) Yes, indeed. I told Chris he’s not to cut into my drinking time.
LQ: (Laughter) Ok so we’re, I’m just gonna start off where we left off a little cuz I wanna, clarify some things.
LQ: So I just wanna ask how your experience volunteering has led you to think about relief efforts and how they should be coordinated, you know between the national government, state government, local government, and volunteer organizations?
AM: Well, they needed to coordinate it better, that’s for sure. (Pause) That, the relief efforts are a bit larger than I understand because I don’t understand the policy implications of a lot of things down here. You know, specific to like, there’s been a lot of regulations about you know, about rebuilding houses that don’t apply to a flood zone or have been waived or waived for certain periods of time and what not. I know that as far as volunteer organizations go, they need to have more direction. The, the, the state, federal, local government has to stop, step in at some point and say this is where we want people to be, judging by the needs that we see because having volunteer organizations simply show up and write grants based on the needs that they’re able to pull out of some statistician, I think is really ineffective and it creates other competition like I was saying. As far as general recovery dollars though, there needs to be some… (Pause) There just needs to be better coordination amongst the federal and the state level about where recovery dollars go and how they get there and, you know, timetables for them getting there as well as penalties for lack of service. A lot of money didn’t come down here for years and that’s, that’s well documented in the media, the Road Home program and other groups. You know, like Catholic Charities for example, the Operation Helping Hands was never designed to rebuild houses, has actually operated for years under the assumption that the state, state money that was given by the federal government would actually give homeowners enough to rebuild. So our rebuilding effort came very late in the game because we didn’t expect to have to rebuild, we thought that the federal government would have given money that way, to do that. And that was, that was fully coordinated and the organization that was in charge of putting it together, you know, was a year and a half away on its promises and still walked away with a billion dollar contract. And really no like, there were some penalties, but they weren’t nearly steep enough to have created any kind of efficiency. It was also, like we, some of the houses we work on get into this most, get into some very ridiculous amounts of paperwork. Where we’ll have a house that we gutted and then have to resubmit paperwork to do levee mediation on the house which allows us, because levee mediation is not designed for construction, allows us to do, you know put in floors, but not put in plumbing. So they have to resubmit it again for another grant that would be for mechanical work. And then resubmit it again for other grants that would give, you know, interior belongings and what not. It seems like there’s like a million grant processes. There must, there must be some better way, (Cough) pardon me, of doing like a common application or something of that nature, of tracking someone’s case file you know, across agencies because we have so many homeowners that are filling out, their, their like personal profile with all their social security and employment information and their deed and all that and it’s going on like the seventh and eighth time they’ve done it for different agencies, for different government entities, for different recording systems amongst the non-profit sector and it’s, it’s ridiculous. And that is one thing that there is a lot of inefficiency, that a lot of organizations have their own way of doing it and there isn’t a standardized way of taking information.
LQ: It, it sounds like…
AM: That is one thing that could be changed.
LQ: Yeah, it just sounds like basic like disorganization (Laughter) at every level and maybe some simple things we could learn from this experience.
AM: Right. And centralizing a lot of social services would be a good idea because so many of them in, in my experience down here, so many social services have been put across piecemeal and have their different restrictions that oftentimes do make sense in a non-disaster related area, but they don’t make sense here. Like there’s no money for lead safe work practices, but you know that you’re gonna deal with lead anyways. So, there is enough grants for levee mediation, well that grant is designed for houses that are gonna be, that are like in urban areas and have currently bad lead paint. So you have to do something, you’re gonna have to do a risk assessment on the house. There’s no way to do a risk assessment on a house that has no walls. (Laughter) Like the protocol doesn’t make any sense. The, the, none of it makes any sense. So we’re having to follow the type of protocol designed for like Baltimore on assessing a house for lead and then after doing that we have to recommend things that are impossible to be done because if we don’t do the levee mediation grant, the money is lost and that’s the only way we can fund ourselves to actually use, let’s say for practices because the rebuilding grant takes lead into consideration given that nature which put on a streamline system doesn’t make any sense and it made sense perhaps in you know, Chicago, Baltimore, you know south Phoenix where you have existing physical structures and you’re really just trying to target federal dollars. The disaster of this, this magnitude and this nature there’s really not a way to like, there hasn’t been a way at least so far, to centralize all of these different federal programs and say, “Look this is a disaster area so these, all these now fall under single funding stream with a common application.” Or to even say private sector money, which comes through foundations and individuals, can be spent any way it wants to, but it has to fall under federal regulation. Because it’s a disaster area and in a disaster area feds say the money is spent this way. I mean not that in particular but you could say like, “Agencies can’t overlap in certain neighborhoods,” or you could say that, “All agencies have to follow at least this set of best practices no matter what they do.” You know?
AM: And we get, we get away with a lot of things that would never be illegal except that we get away with them through this non-profit loophole like our workers are not protected by OSHA. Which is terrible because a lot of young 20 year olds who should be protected by OSHA are not because of well, because we’re are, we’re non-profit. A lot of volunteers are facing incredibly hazardous situations in which they will have no legal recourse because they’re working with a non-profit that just signs away their life through a liability waiver. EPA does not have regulation over the hazardous waste that we create because we’re a non-profit. And they, they these are just gray loopholes, they’re not clear and they’re just not there. There’s no information about it and then in a even more importantly you have things by the nature of like the housing code you know, like in Louisiana if you’re contracting for less than fifty thousand dollars, you need a license and you have to have, you could hire people. You need to have a license for the mechanicals, but you can hire somebody to work on your house or the homeowner can pull the permit for their house even though it’s not the homeowner doing the work and so we’re doing work on behalf of the homeowner’s unpermitted, unlicensed, uninsured, unbonded. Because we’re working on quote on quote behalf of the homeowners but there it’s this joke you know. Like if I was working for your house, you could say pull the permit and say, “Yo, Adrian I really need you, your carpentry skills to build me a back deck.” It’s not a big deal, that makes sense in regular society, but it’s a joke when you have an organization whose centralized purpose is rebuilding and a dozen of them whose purposes are rebuilding and they’re all working on behalf of the homeowner, unlicensed, like uninsured, unbonded, you know?
LQ: Yeah, yeah that all makes sense. Ok, I’m gonna switch gears a little bit. So the next question is what were some of your favorite moments as a volunteer?
AM: (Laughter) Oh man. Being young and cavalier as I am some of my favorite moments are doing really ridiculous things like hanging from rafters and, and narrowly escaping death to natural gas explosions several times. (Laughter) Those are fun stories for you kids you know, “When I was your age I was damn near killing myself from a gutted house,” you know, but I don’t know I did a lot of there’s just so many fun stories. Favorite moments I think, I think one of my favorite moments actually was being introduced to a crawfish boil by this dude in Mississippi who really had no, like no resources available to him at all like the house that we were rebuilding was just a terrible house, but to him it was the world and the fact that we put a new roof on it made him so excited he gave us this crawfish boil and this is a experience that’s often replicated, but this was my first time which is why it’s so memorable to me. He came out with like a, two fifty-five gallon plastic barrels with you know, like just full of crawfish and then a trashcan like a big ‘ol metal fifty-five gallon boil drum that was made into a trashcan and a big like octagonal poker table with a hole in the middle of it. And just put this thing over the, put this table over the trashcan and like preceded to show us how exactly you’re supposed to eat crawfish you know, pull the tail off suck it in the head and throw the debris in the middle of this table which is actually a trashcan. It was just kind of hilarious.
I mean the kind of hospitality these folks are doing you know like they’re so grateful for the work that we’re doing and there’s, I think it’s amazing in so many ways to have to see that because like you know, here we are coming down here like we’ve got fair amount of resources you know we’re college educated kids you know, we’re young, we’re young and we’re gonna, we’re gonna go wherever we want to in our lives for the most part. And some guy who like never really had anything and probably won’t really have the that much more than like the labor, a poor laborers life in the South and then he gets his house back and goes out and spends like all the money he has to give this crawfish boil for us, it’s, it’s great to feel that kind of gratitude. Or this other guy who we roofed his house and him and his wife made us this little, beautiful like platter of a you know, triangle sandwiches, but they were like peanut butter and jelly cuz they couldn’t afford anything, it was off of food stamps. And it was just kind of a really nice camaraderie feeling like these guys are just trying to do something for us, you know? And it’s, it’s cool to, to feel that, to see that. And then I feel like you would hear that a lot from a lot of volunteers you know. We’ve all done service projects where we kind of work with some family who’s very happy, but like down here it’s just you know, like you’re, you’re able to get such an impact from working for someone’s house that really didn’t have much before and still doesn’t have much now and we’re able to make some kind of connection there.
AM: Make that, you know, have a personal like… I mean I, I know these guys I’m working with are, were like were racist, Confederate like right-wing Republicans or even worse. You know, that I would probably never get along with in any kind of way but we’ve both had the same the same, you know I, I was there helping, I was there to work for you know, for my civic duty and as I saw it and he was just really happy that someone had come down. We completely disagreed on a lot of things like one of these guys was talking about how you know, the Civil War was all wrong cuz the North was the aggressor and I was like, “Wow I am so not on that wavelength.” You know?
AM: But at the same time we’d be totally ok and like be like civic citizens together and be working together and have that kind of camaraderie which is nice. It’s the feeling that, it very quickly evaporates and still it has quickly evaporated in New Orleans and elsewhere, Katrina has gone for this memory and there’s more political fights, but that was nice at the time.
LQ: Yeah, so in contrast were there any times when it’s been really tough as a volunteer?
AM: (Pause) Yeah, I think one of the toughest times, I mean I, so I worked for Common Ground Relief which I don’t know if you’ve followed NPR at all but a couple months ago there was a, a segment about Brandon Darby who… is a, was an FBI informant and was actually my boss at Common Ground and, that was a difficult challenge. (Laughter) That was like probably the worst time I’ve had here. Working for religious organizations full of self-proclaimed radicals who were, you know, had done direct action. We broke a lot of laws for the purpose of trying to get people back in their homes. You know, we camped out in buildings that we weren’t allowed to camp out in because there was no other option. You know, we lived in places unpermitted. You know, we did a lot of things that you know, direct action for the purpose of giving back and we had in our mind and our hearts that we could change the world with, with the actions that we put forward and that even despite all the challenges that we might see, we could find a better way. And there were people like Brandon Darby, who for whatever personal reasons thought that we weren’t the best way to go and basically rearranged and disorganized and fought against our efforts and that was, was really demoralizing and very difficult. Because at the time, it was hard to work with people like that and there were definitely FBI informants amongst our crowd, there were folks that would cause trouble for no reason at all and when we found out that a few of them literally were FBI informants it was kind of like eye-opening like well that makes us feel better because he wasn’t just an asshole he was actually paid to be an asshole. But, that was demoralizing. I think that that was the hardest thing, the most demoralizing thing I’ve ever had as a volunteer down here is the feeling that despite the fact that we’re working on our best efforts and doing everything within a reasonable legality. You know, we weren’t breaking laws for some crazy reason we were breaking laws because it made no sense to keep people out of their homes. You know, like when people wanted to be back we were trying to get them back, we were helping to get them back and then like someone would come around and say, “You aren’t even legally allowed to be here.” I was like what the hell, some guy owns the house, you know. So when we were doing the best we could with very limited resources with really mostly our idealism driving us because certainly it wasn’t the food and certainly it wasn’t the housing that was driving us down here and couldn’t have been the salary because it wasn’t very high. You know, after putting all that work in to find out that there was, that there were people that were still (Inaudible) against our attempts to rebuilding the city, you know, the federal government and its bureaucratic inefficiency, as well as, its you know, its FBI and spying and then in other words you know, like the police when they would give us a hard time and hassle us for looking kinda weird and being, being these folks that shouldn’t be in the neighborhood. You know, just the feeling that like despite what we tried there was just this opposition just because we were who we were because we were idealistic and wanted to change the world, we should for some reason face opposition by like dominant power structures. That is incredibly demoralizing and that has been, that has been and still is a challenge. Although nowadays I deal with it more on a bureaucratic level than a force, you know a forceful level like the police or the FBI. But it was demoralizing then to see cuz we would be opposed by people for really no reason at all besides they thought of us as a potential threat to some “sheecher” campaign somewhere. That’s, that’s been the most challenging and that’s kind of a nebulous of (Inaudible) In all realities, you would think go back on, back from the background of Brandon Darby and what he did in Common Ground, it would be clear and that’s easily available in a lot of public resources, but you know. He caused a lot of dissention amongst our ranks. He caused a lot of fights, he played a lot of like, you know, racial, class, ethnic cards to try and divide people and actually put some of us in danger by fighting with local drug lords. But he did all that because he thought that we were a bunch of you know, useless radicals. That’s demoralizing entirely.
LQ: Yeah, so do you think that experiences like that have changed how you think about America?
AM: (Pause) Yeah… kind of. I mean, I had about, I don’t know a jaded view if you will about America. I was, I was if I might digress for just a second, I was brought here by immigrant parents who taught me like the promise of America was so much better than Mexico and we could do anything we wanted to here and when that became not really true like when it, became clearer to me all of the challenges and socioeconomic challenges to this, this country, my brother and I both started fighting against that and working as activists. And so we kind of already had this like view that we were gonna be opposed in the things we did. But some things, I don’t know, when you fight about, when you fight about closing down the School of the Americas, there are obviously international foreign policy legions are someone plotting to oppose you because they want to keep their dominant paradigm. But when you try and get some people into their homes that were destroyed by levee failure, that I didn’t expect that kind of resistance, you know? And I it changed my view of America a little bit, but it’s awkward in that kind of way that, you know, we had, I mean New Orleans supposedly has had well over a million volunteers down here. I know that I personally seen probably about ten thousand volunteers come through my programs, you know, and all, all of the work that I’ve done down here. And the people that come down here are interested in helping and they’re American citizens that are you know, not to be cliché but interested in each other, you know? (Laughter) Like, these are American citizens who are coming down here taking time out of their day to try and make the world a better place and a lot of them don’t share my political beliefs and they definitely don’t share my analysis, but when it comes down to it, they actually are interested in helping. And so when you look, talk about America, it’s difficult for me to answer that question in an honest way because there’s America the power structure and then there’s America the people. And where does the nation state lay claim to its people? Because certainly the power structure does not represent any of the people I’ve seen down here or at least not the vast majority. In fact, the only people that America the power structure represents down here that I’ve seen are the people who are being directly paid by that government, you know?
AM: Like the military, the police, the bureaucrats that work for the government like all, and my view of them is very dim and that has become dimmer since I’ve been here. But my view of like you know, some group of, like some old guy from Michigan who’s ceiling and tile installer and just likes to come down here and teach volunteers how to install stock tile, my view of people like that is amazing. You know, like my view of people who come down here because they just think it’s not right to have this kind of destruction happening in America just the same way that I did is brighter than ever.
LQ: Ok. Branching off the previous question about being tough again, you talked about, well (Laughter) and you talked about hanging from rafters and things like that. Were there ever any times that you were worried about your safety for other reasons, other than just you know, biohazards or hazards of the job?
AM: Yeah, there have been a few times at Common Ground when Brandon Darby was there. He had got in some fights with local drug lords and I mean these are like not drug lords like Columbians, this is like you know, this is like the local guy on the corner who is an asshole, carries a gun and sells, sells weed. And a lot of our volunteers at Common Ground were not, how, I guess you would say they were not particularly influenced by U.S. drug policies, they didn’t care. So, they would buy certain types of drugs from people in the neighborhood and generally you would just, we would say, you know, “If you do that, you’re not part of us and we’re not gonna be responsible for anything you do.” And Brandon started a few fights with them because he thought that our volunteers should be protected because they’re like coming in spots of the neighborhood and they’re doing a lot of this good work. So he, like he picked a few fights that led to folks coming in with you know, coming in and threatening our volunteers, threatening to steal shit, threatening to take people hostage and one volunteer who was actually out buying drugs was taken hostage for a short period of time at the end of a shotgun in his some old guy’s FEMA trailer. That made me fear for my personal safety, yeah. I mean that was the one time in my time here when I was constantly afraid of being you know, being personally attacked or injured in some kind of way that that was a constant fear for several weeks. Other than that, I mean there’s you know, it’s a city there’s problems in a city but that was really the only time that it, it was like not a job site thing, but it was actually like a structural like this is a dangerous place for me and I’m staying here because I think I need to, but we all know that one of us could get shot if this fight keeps going on.
LQ: Yeah. So it sounds like you have like a contrast of experiences with the people of New Orleans so what do you feel like you’ve learned about the people of New Orleans through this experience?
AM: (Laughter) That’s such a question. (Cough) You know, I don’t know. I’m still working on that. I’ve, I’ve lived a lot of places in my life you know, moving every three or four years and… I don’t find folks to be all that different at the core level. There are some differences here and there. The people of New Orleans…I don’t know. It’s just too wide a question really to answer accurately. The people that I’ve worked with, I’ve found a lot of really hard workers who are very resourceful but also have a very strong poverty mentality in what they do. And I mean that in that they disregard a lot of things that are safe for them and they jerry-rig a lot of things that maybe shouldn’t be done that way because that’s just the way they’ve lived their entire life. And that’s the way they need to live to survive in an area that’s high in poverty. And so there isn’t, there isn’t access to resources and there isn’t the corresponding culture that resources bring you know, with like… (Pause) I don’t know with, with more professional conduct and like standardization and that sort of thing. So… (Pause) You know like, that has been something I’ve definitely seen here that I haven’t quite seen because I’ve lived most of my life in the lower middle class to middle class lifestyle where we’ve had access to some resources and kind of followed the rules and what not and you know we’ve been “ingenuitive” about things, but definitely wouldn’t like…You know we would’ve stayed closer to certain, you know, code and regulation, but not, not try to edge our way around it. I think that’s something that’s different that I’ve seen here. But my view of the people of New Orleans is just it’s very difficult because you know, I, I work and live and have worked and lived in several places in the city and it’s difficult to say what one encompassing view is, you know, without being somehow like without referring to some sort of silly stereotype in some kind of way.
LQ: Yeah. So I guess the next question is how, how have you changed through this experience?
AM: I (Laughter)… (Pause) Hmmm how to, how to voice that? (Pause) I’ve gotten better organized (Laughter) is one of the first things. I’ve just gotten much better organized at my view of how to change the world. There was a lot more, I mean it was also, this was also a time period in which I’m going from a young man of twenty-two to like a young man of twenty-five, but I think especially having left college is an instructive age for many kids to kind of go through and change their views either way, whether or not they’re you know, in New Orleans or like starting their first job with the March of Dimes or becoming a congressional page, you know like. So… (Pause) so that being said my experiences here have changed my views of, of working within and without the system. You know, that being like everything from my views on electoral politics, which were somewhat, I mean I worked within that system for a little while and then I decided to not work with that system when I came to New Orleans. I try, I feel like I’ve tried a lot of more idealistic, more radical solutions in New Orleans. And I have been slightly disabused of a lot of those notions and disillusioned with… disillusioned with the idealism I came down here with but that idealism probably was a bit overrated to begin with because in, in a way, New Orleans’ massive disaster has caused a lot of people, myself included, to come down here with more idealistic visions than we would ever have projected in our own neighborhoods. And, when we come down here and try them out, it also leads to a lot of disillusionment and burnout and I think that that was something I’ve definitely gone through, coming down here with a with a vision of the changed society that I would have been, it would have been tempered by elders and comrades and colleagues in Denver where I was living, but was not down here and was actually rather encouraged to try more and crazy different ideas. And, what changed me is that I’ve got to try a lot of things out that totally failed and I’ve had the privilege of stopping to reorganize and reassess my ways of thinking about changing the world.
LQ: Ok, so what do you think remains to be done for New Orleans?
AM: Well what remains to be done for New Orleans right now is actually probably much about the same as the rest of the country. To try and figure out what we’re supposed to do with a post-industrial society. And the answers to that that I see, you know the, the disaster here got rid of a lot of poor people and that means that we’re actually a little, it’s a little easier to deal with problems here because of the very terrible reality that many of our poor folks are gone. And they can’t fight. And… (Pause) They can’t agitate and they also can’t drain the social system because the welfare programs and the post, the social services that would be funding them it would be facing a lot of cuts right now, simply don’t need to be as big as they were. So, though it sounds terrible but the lack of poor people here have actually made our way forward a lot easier because we don’t have to grapple with complex issues in the same kind of way. That being said, there are still of course the complex issues of it is a post disaster area. What remains to be done is trying to figure out how exactly the city is going to survive without a real industrial base, without a manufacturing base and based on an economy which is tourism, which is of course adversely affected by the nation’s economy, which right now is quite terrible.
LQ: Yeah, that…
AM: But I think…
LQ: Go ahead.
AM: Go ahead.
LQ: I was just gonna say we were curious if you’ve seen any positive changes as a result of Katrina. I mean you hear a lot about the negative and the loss of homes but we were interested in, you know, changes in crime and the school system if you have any insight into how that might have that, Katrina might have been a positive for New Orleans. Not sure…
AM: You know I think it’s hard, it’s really hard to look at like the positive without looking at the negative because they’re kind of two sides of the same coin. Like I was saying earlier, there’s probably about a hundred thousand people that were in poverty in New Orleans that are no longer here. And when you remove that element, you remove a lot of the social stressors that exist in any city. You know if you were to take you know, the, the bottom twenty percent of Chicago, right? Who have the most social stress, who have the most societal stress on them and remove them out of Chicago. You would see immediate improvements in schools. You’d see immediate improvements in crime. And you’d see immediate improvements in a lot of things. And we’ve seen improvements in crime; we’ve seen improvements in school, although the crime rate actually, (Laughter) it’s not been that much better. I think per capita it actually got a little bit worse for a period of time. Although the crime rate is now like it’s not as widespread, it’s kind of been it’s still isolated. It’s more isolated now than it was pre-Katrina, like there isn’t like widespread crime all over the city; it’s actually isolated in certain neighborhoods that are often times less populated. (Pause) And then those are kind of like just observations; I don’t know if those would bear out to truth in statistical reality. But the school system here like the charter schools, the charter school movement here is something that I’m not particularly well-versed in, but I know that it has been doing quite well here and I think that that is a tremendous social experiment that I’m I would reserve my judgment on quite yet. I don’t know whether it’s gonna be a good or bad thing in the end. I’m wary of charter schools, but I do see that they’re doing a lot of good things here and that they are showing up with better scores and better solutions. At the same time, if you take away all the kids who have poverty stressors in a school system, we all know that that’s gonna create an easier classroom when you’re not worrying about kids coming in who, whose parents don’t have stable jobs or stable homes so it’s hard to look at those things in isolation. Like there are positives and they are the flip side of the negatives, you know, like they are the opportunities that arise from a, a very terrible challenge. I think also that some of there’s some other parts of the city that are like, because Katrina…Well rather, I would actually, I should probably stop referring to this and make a specific note that it is the levee failure that caused the disaster in New Orleans…
AM: …not Katrina. But the levee failures that happened down here caused a lot of volunteers to come down. And a lot of idealistic, young, college educated and generalized like radical folks so the people around this country that have been working on innovative new ideas all across the country came down here. And that, that bears itself out in a lot of things like community activists from across the country came down here to help. A lot of, a lot of people like myself came down here to help. A lot of folks that were doing work somewhere come down for a few months and then go back and then create relationships in that kind of way. So there’s a sense here that there’s like there’s just a little bit of all these communities across the country that people who are creating farms in Michigan, in all of the thirty square miles of empty lots in Detroit are coming down here to talk to us and work with us. The folks who are creating urban CSA’s in Denver are coming down here to volunteer and talk with us. The folks that have been working on food collectives and urban, or not urban farming, like farmer’s markets up in Seattle have come down and talked to us. The folks who work on land trust in Vermont and D.C. are coming down to talk to us. You know, the people who are working in Austin who have been working on ground filter mediation and bio and micro mediation are coming down and talk to us. And so, in this weird kind of way, like every green builder in the country, in fact every builder in the country nowadays, is coming down to see what the hell is going on in New Orleans because that’s where the jobs are. So there’s a lot of, of like a really amazingly good amount of resources coming down to hang out with us because there is such a blank page.
AM: And that is the, that is the flip side of the negative right. If you, it, it was a disaster like Katrina and well a disaster like the federal levee failure. Ok, Katrina hit you’d have problems, you’d have had some money come down here, you had a lot of roofers come out here, you would’ve had a couple old ladies get like, new furniture from you know, United Way or something. Wouldn’t have been that big a deal cuz it happened the year before, you know?
AM: It happened with Ivan, you know? See, when roofs are taken off FEMA comes down here and money goes out and insurance companies pay out, some volunteers come around at school time it’s all over in a year. But because of the federal levee failure, you have this massive depopulation of a city that was once in poverty, but yet have an incredible cultural history and so these, these people come down here, like myself, at all across the country that are only here because of the terrible, terrible tragedy that caused the deaths of thousands of people and the dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people and because of that disaster, you now have this kind of odd melting pot of various ideas. And that is a good and bad thing because the privileged folks who are testing out new ideas in New Orleans is not particularly accountable or feasible, but it is because of the, the damage done here. At the same time, it is gonna create some new ideas that will be specifically thought of as New Orleans things. Or they will be tested out here because there’s such a blank canvas. There’s, there’s a larger margin of society here from which people can then try and reevaluate and reform the way society works.
LQ: Right, and I’m curious because I think a lot of people think of New Orleans and, and post-Katrina and that kind of stuff as you know, forgotten in the general public, but you talked a lot about, about a lot of people coming down to offer, you know, advice and, and teach, teach. And I was wondering if you like, what the balance is. Do you think that it’s the general public that’s forgotten and then some of these people still have it in mind or what?
AM: Well the phrase the general public is always problematic of course. Cuz who is the general public …
AM: …and what are they paying attention to? You know, like the CNN crowd and like the, the massive, you know, massive media outlets don’t pay attention to us. And because most people get their news in, in some way or another through these massive media outlets are not actively thinking about us. And of course, if you were to send someone from CNN, which CNN does this occasionally is like you know, send somebody down here and say like, “What’s going on here,” right? Every single day in our paper, there are signs of Katrina recovery, I mean like literally six sections titled, “Signs of Recovery.” Every editorial page on, on Friday afternoon has “Bouquets and Brickbats,” like, which is like this thing of like what’s good and what’s bad in Katrina recovery, right. There are pictures of like potholes that are being done; there are pictures of schools and federal money projects, every single day. So we are all about Katrina down here. Now, naturally that kind of coverage is not gonna happen across the country. So when CNN sends somebody down here, and says, “What do you all say,” we say like, “Well I traveled to New York and I didn’t see anything about Katrina,” and it’s like well, duh, you know like of course the general public as it were right. It’s not focusing on the level that we are so there’s a very disproportionate perception on anyone from New Orleans going out somewhere else you know?
AM: Because the news media is only giving, I mean like everyone’s forgotten about Iraq, until like some mosque get’s bombed and then they will remember about Iraq again, you know? Like that’s kind of, you know, the, the, the media spectacle doesn’t last very long in this country for any event, you know?
AM: Everyone forgot about Michael Jackson already you know, (Laughter) like except for when Halloween came around everybody was Michael Jackson for Halloween, you know? (Laughter) So it’s that kind of way that there, there is, of course, people not paying attention but there is still a lot of first time volunteers coming down here, there are still folks that talk to homeowners down here. I mean, out of the million volunteers that came down here, a lot of folks are still thinking about New Orleans here and there, but it’s a fallacy to think that anybody would consider this area for much longer than their trip plus an occasional hour or two a month because everyone has a lot of stuff to work on, you know? The people I’ve talked about from across the country that have been helping us out have so many new ideas, but they still are running their projects wherever they’re from, you know? Like my friends in Vermont who have worked on land trust with some friends down here, like they still have to run their land trust. And they’re thinking about Katrina, but they’re only thinking about Katrina as long as we keep it alive, you know?
AM: And it’s not, it’s I, I think that because the recovery has been so slow there’s this kind of, there’s this reflexive blaming on the quote on quote American people. Which you know, the American people have the most abused people in the world. Like, they’re for healthcare, they’re against healthcare, they’re against socialism, they’re for Obama they’re you know, I mean it’s there are all these American people doing all kinds of craziness, you know? But it kind of it’s just a big media term in my view cuz I see plenty of people still worried about New Orleans. When I talk to my family, they’re waiting to hear from me.
AM: Forget about New Orleans, they just don’t worry about it cuz it’s gonna come out of my mouth on Christmas anyways, you know? And that kind of, I think in that sort of way there’s of course the media is not hovering at all and I think it never, never did matter hold the power structure, the, the government power structure accountable for the money and promise on the recovery and promise. But that’s not any different than you know, holding George Bush accountable for his Iraq war lies or holding Obama accountable for what he said in his campaign about gays. Like, there’s not really a lot of accountability going, but for the people that make noise doing it. So I don’t personally see that the country’s forgotten about New Orleans in any kind of specific way, but I do think that yeah, we’ve, we’re, we’re out of the media cycle. We’ll be back again for the fifth anniversary and some of these groups will come down here and talk about some kids who did some crazy operation and like FOX News will come down and talk about the wasteful spending and you know, they’ll throw themselves back into the cycle for the fifth anniversary. And this next hurricane that comes in a week cuz there’s a hurricane on the gulf, if it hits New Orleans everyone will start talking about Katrina again for the next like thirty-six hour news cycle until the Democrats pass the health bill. You know? And then we’ll go back on to something else so you know. We’ve forgotten about it but that’s not surprising to me, and it’s not, I don’t think it’s in a negative, really negative way. I don’t think people are like now done with Katrina, I think they just haven’t been reminded of its existence and it’s hard four years, but it really is hard too.
(Phone ringing in background.)
LQ: Yeah, sorry. Ok well jumping on the next question, what do you think the future holds for your organization’s work in New Orleans?
AM: We’re gonna, I think we’re gonna devolve into more federal programs. We’re gonna move into, and we already have started moving into, community and government block grants. You know, we started off the organization with a lot of private donations, you know, a lot of like Catholic organization donations like Sisters of Charity gave us a lot of money. So we do whatever we want to in terms of internal profits. And then you know, a couple years later we started running into needing to get city grants and then we started recording the city grants for rebuilding and then foundational grants for rebuilding. And now we did levee mediation for a little while and that was a HUD grant, but it wasn’t about rebuilding, but it subsidized our rebuilding program because you know, the grants for HUD are written for contractors so were we were able to do it with volunteers, we used that money to subsidized the rest of the operation. Same with weatherization this is money that Obama put together for weatherization in this FEMA packet. It’s coming down to us, it’s coming down through Entergy which is then going to us so we’re weatherizing homes using volunteers at a profit for ourselves which will then subsidize everything else we do and I think I see that pattern’s gonna continue with a lot of organizations. Religious based organizations in my experience are, are not as able to access federal dollars and especially not foundational dollars. A lot of foundational dollars go towards non-religious organizations, but we have our religious things you know, so we’re gonna keep helping old ladies and we’re gonna keep helping parishes. We’re, we are gonna gradually devolve into community development block grants and probably as we get further and further away, we’ll devolve into other Catholic Charities programs. The Catholic Charities down here is like fifty programs, ours is just one so all of our trucks, all of our tools, all of our staff will you know, gradually move on to other community centers or to like parishes or something of that nature. And you know, well because most programs you know, they, they just keep fighting for their own life, I think we will stay alive for a couple more years community development block grants because that keeps people, it keeps funding flowing through Catholic Charities. And like any other organization, Catholic Charities wants to keep itself alive. But I don’t know how long we’ll keep those going for you know, as long as they’re still available, but I imagine our organization will just will just continuously shrink until it reaches that certain point of stasis on either community development grants or community centers that are more localized.
LQ: Ok, I know that we’re kind of interested, you’ve talked a lot about political stuff and one of my fellow interviewees was interested if you’re satisfied with Obama’s efforts.
AM: No. I mean he (Laughter) he shook up a little bit of money that was nice, but I mean he hasn’t done that much more here. You know, like there’s also, there’s a certain amount of jadedness that comes with the fact that you know, thanks Obama, but it’s four years later like. You know, you know Obama doesn’t really have to do a lot done here to actually look very good because what he did is come down here after three years of bureaucratic mismanagement and say, write a check and Sean Donovan came in like four hours after him and started writing checks and everyone was really excited about it. That check should have been here three years ago. You know? So like, we’re not particularly impressed with Obama because that money should have been here three years ago but everyone’s happy that… I mean this is a city that’s majority black people, people are happy about Obama no matter what you know? We put a sticker on and we’re like holding Obama campaign signs in the air, we were dancing in the streets, you know? (Laughter) So people get excited about Obama no matter what, but as far as recovery goes, I don’t think he’s done anything particularly different. I think that he came in and said, “Look whatever you guys have been screwing around with, it’s time to keep it moving.” That has released some dollars, but … it’s a long way off and I don’t think, like he hasn’t done anything specifically new here. He hasn’t announced anything, anything new; he hasn’t (Cough) moved anything through that wasn’t already in the process of being moved through. I mean I’m glad he’s moving the money he has but I don’t think he’s actually done anything that warrants any kind of special praise. You know, I mean at the very base level a bad manager should’ve gotten this money here by three years. So the fact that Obama came in and like changed the HUD Secretary and said, “Now, you know, give them the money.” That’s good but that’s kind of the base level you know, that’s…
AM: …nothing to be impressed with.
LQ: Ok, well this is the final question so you can get on with your day but what’s next for you? How much longer are you gonna be in New Orleans and all of that?
AM: I’m actually in the process of buying a house right now. There’s, there’s been some grant money for first time homebuyers and I took advantage of it and I’m, I should be closing sometime this month on a house in mid-city. I’m working. I’m also traveling next week to New York to work with the Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation and the Sustainable South Bronx organization to talk about how to do community development in a sustainable and just way. So, I’m traveling with two of my colleagues to set up a non-profit. To set up a non-profit here for the purpose of rebuilding houses and that kind of, that purpose got overshadowed by lack of funding and actually, a hurricane took off the roof of two of our members and so we kind of got delayed several months last summer so right now, we’re looking at a community development and doing through the Mid-city Neighborhood Organization. So what’s next for me is very a whole lot of projects. I’m developing a community garden, I’m working with this non-profit to work on housing development, I’ll be working with the Mid-city Neighborhood Organization to be an active citizen, and I’m, I’m running for the board of two different non-profits to do affordable, not affordable (Pause) fair housing and community work. So I, I’ve, I’ve got my hands full with New Orleans. I’ll be in New Orleans I’m hoping for the next ten years and I’m hoping that in the next ten years, we’ll have a city that is much more sustainable than it has been. That has a lot less blight. That has opportunity to people. That actually it creates its own kind of insular economy based on growing its own food and making its own crafts. That it doesn’t require like heavy destructive industry and it’s able to keep people like employed here and keeps the cultural and historical character. So, I got a lot of work to be done here. I got a whole bunch left. (Laughter) And I, I think that it it’s still an exciting time for me. I think it’s still a challenging time for New Orleans and there’s still a lot of opportunity here. Despite all the challenges we’ve had and despite all the damage that has been done here, there’s still a lot of possibilities for amazing change. And for some of these theories that we’ve talked about in social studies class, in psychology, sociology you know, radical you know left-wing press that people talk about, all these ideas, there’s still an opportunity to try those things out and to stick with them. Because a lot of folks that came down here with the thought that you know, that we were gonna change the world, a lot of them have left but there are still some of us here, myself, fifty or sixty I know, and probably hundreds more after that that are sticking with New Orleans to try and make it a better place. And I think that that kind of energy, it’s still possible that we can make it better. You know, and I think there’s a lot of work to be done and there are increasingly less people who are willing to stay with it. There was a lot of folks who were willing to come down and start something, there’s a lot of folks willing to come down and work with something, but the folks that are willing to stay, that’s a much harder task and…there we, we got a lot of work to do. So, that’s, that’s what I’m seeing for the next ten years.
LQ: Very cool. Well thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it.
AM: Thank you.
LQ: Have a…
AM:I hope it’s been useful to you guys.
LQ: You have, you’ve been very useful, thank you. Have a good day.
AM: Alright, you too.
AM: Go Saints!
LQ: (Laughter) Bye.