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Birthplace: Pasadena, California
Work Experience: Political campaigner, Jesuit Center Fellow, Loyola University New Orleans
Time Volunteering: 2007-2008
New Orleans Post-Katrina Work: Americorps Crew Leader
NOLA Oral History Project
Interview with: Scott Porot, November 9, 2009
Interviewers and Transcribers:
W. Reilly McClure
The interview with Scott Porot took place on November 9, 2009 at Loyola University Chicago via telephone call to Loyola University New Orleans. The interview was conducted as part of the NOLA Oral History Project, which documents volunteer experience in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Graduate students Reilly McClure and Kimberly Medema conducted and transcribed the interview as a class project for the graduate course “Oral History: Methods and Practice.”
In this interview, Scott Porot discussed his experiences volunteering and working in New Orleans from shortly after Hurricane Katrina to the present. In March of 2006, as a college student at Loyola University Chicago (‘06,) Porot embarked on a spring break Alternative Break Immersion (ABI) trip to New Orleans to assist with relief efforts. During this trip, Porot and the rest of his ABI team stayed in a FEMA camp, gutted houses, and interacted with locals and other volunteers.
Listening to Porot speak, a few themes quickly emerge. The need for quality leadership, efficient communication, and the importance of public service are all central features of Porot’s reflections on his experience working in New Orleans. The concept of faith-based service also influences where, how, and for whom he works. Porot often mentions Jesuit values and social justice as the motivations for many of his actions, inspiring everything from his initial ABI with Loyola University Chicago to his decision to volunteer with Catholic Charities and his current position as a Jesuit Fellow at Loyola New Orleans. Porot frequently refers to his decision to volunteer in New Orleans as “life changing,” and when he speaks about the city’s people and cultural traditions, the listener hears the admiration in his voice.
When asked about the future, Porot has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish. He intends to blend his ongoing interest in politics with his experiences in post-Katrina New Orleans and hopes to enroll in graduate school to study public policy. He feels the combination of these factors would put him in a good position to shape New Orleans from a policy perspective—something he feels is one of the most crucial elements to getting New Orleans back on its feet.
As we transcribed the interview, our goal was to have the transcript reflect our interview experience as much as possible. As we interviewed Mr. Porot, he came off as a very well spoken and thoughtful person with clearly outlined thoughts and comments. As such, during the transcription process we removed any filler words or phrases that interrupt the flow and coherency of statements made by the interviewee. We removed all “ums” and “uhs” as well as short filler phrases such as “you know,” “I think,” and “I mean.” However, there are a few instances where we left such phrases. These represent conscious usages by the speaker—the use of “you know” or “I think” as direct questions or statements—rather than as filler phrases used in succession as the speaker tries to formulate his or her thoughts. We judged these on a case-by-case basis and removed the phrases that had no direct bearing on the speaker's thoughts or the meaning of the sentence. Ellipses denote short pauses while a “pause” in brackets represents a longer pause. Laughter also appears in brackets. As one would find in plays or scripts, sentences in which a second speaker cuts off the original speaker have dashes at the ends. The resulting document is a transcript that is not only more reader-friendly but that also, in our opinion, more clearly communicates the experience of the interview.
0-5 minutes Off-record introduction, on-record
introduction, background information: life before volunteering, first volunteer experience in New Orleans, explanation of ABI
5-10 minutes Explanation of ABI, previous service
experience, life in FEMA camp, talking with
10-15 minutes Funding cuts for NOLA public services,
reaction to post-storm media coverage, expectations based on media coverage
15-20 minutes Expectations based on media coverage
versus realities of being there, pre-ABI briefings, decision to get involved with Operation Helping Hands, initial work with Operation Helping Hands
20-25 minutes Leading rebuilding crews with Operation
Helping Hands, post-volunteer work, return to NOLA, current work at Loyola New Orleans, Loyola New Orleans Katrina-related programs
25-30 minutes Lack of communication between volunteer
agencies and levels of government, ideas for improving communication, need for strong leadership, importance of listening to the people on the ground
30-35 minutes Lack of coordination between agencies and
governments, need for agency mandates and strong leadership, thoughts on other non-profit groups
35-40 minutes Thoughts on other non-profit groups, current
short-term volunteers still coming to NOLA, how agencies use short-term volunteers
40-45 minutes Example of short-term volunteers and intra-
agency communication breakdown, repeat volunteers becoming long-term volunteers, NOLA culture calls people back to city long-term
45-50 minutes [break: 45:28-48:05]
Reflections on earlier statements, resilience of NOLA residents through their culture
50-55 minutes How residents receive volunteers, personal
connections created through volunteering, uniqueness of NOLA culture and desire to preserve it, “bringing back NOLA as NOLA”
55-60 minutes Bringing back NOLA as NOLA,
“memorable moments”: building relationship with homeowner whose son was drug addict and interactions with homeowner’s son
60-65 minutes Continuation of story of homeowner's son,
story of working next to a drug dealer's house, story of rebuilding a deaf family's home, positive and negative experiences often intertwined
65-70 minutes Difficult relationships among volunteers,
protecting crew members against dangerous situations, handling NOLA residents' situations with an open mind
70-75 minutes Handing NOLA residents' situations with an
open mind and reacting accordingly, lack of
AmeriCorps training, relying on instincts to handle situations, energetic enthusiasm of young volunteers
75-80 minutes Personal growth of young volunteers, lack
of support networks for volunteers' mental
and spiritual health issues
80-85 minutes How experience changed his view of
America and Americans in positive and negative ways, broader lessons he learned from this experience, stumped by question about how this was life-changing experience
90-95 minutes How volunteering completely reoriented his
95-100 minutes How volunteering changed his outlook,
story of first arriving in NOLA, how NOLA
changed his personal life, “I’ll never be the same person because of that experience.”
100-105 minutes Going to NOLA changes people, long-term
rebuilding issues and opportunities
105-110 minutes Rebuilding sustainable city, reasons people
aren’t returning to NOLA (can’t afford it, established lives elsewhere)
110-113:49 minutes Speculation on future work, volunteer
agencies transitioning to other projects, own work with Loyola New Orleans, personal education and career goals, encouraging interviewers to talk to as many volunteers as possible, goodbyes
Kimberly Medema: Today is Monday, November 9th and this is Kimberly Medema and Reilly McClure at Loyola University Chicago and we are conducting an interview for the NOLA Oral History Project.
Scott Porot: Okay.
KM: Could you go ahead and state your name for us?
SP: Sure. My name is Scott Porot. I work at Loyola University New Orleans. I’m the Jesuit Center Fellow and my long-term volunteer experience was with Operation Helping Hands, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans as a Notre Dame Mission volunteer AmeriCorps member. And I lead teams and crews of volunteers throughout the city post-Katrina.
KM: Great. So what was going on in your life before the hurricane? Where were you?
SP: Where was I—I was actually in Chicago. I was still at Loyola and I was studying math and international studies, as I just mentioned. And I was just starting my senior year, and about maybe two or three days into my senior year the storm hit. And then later that year I led an ABI down there in that following March and the rest is kind of history. Then I spent the next year and a half kind of coming in and out of the city and then decided to come down here more full-time in the summer of ’07. And then after that I left for a little while and now I’m back.
KM: Great. Can you tell us what an ABI is?
SP: Sure. It’s an alternative break immersion. It’s run by—well, it was run by University Ministry at the time. I was the student leader and my staff member was a Jesuit priest whose name is escaping me right now. But we led a crew of approximately ten of my fellow students down here. We worked primarily St. Bernard Parish and lived in a FEMA camp for a week and a half.
Reilly McClure: So was that your first sort of big-picture volunteer experience like that or had you done similar activities like that before?
SP: Good question. Yeah, I’d been involved with service and justice work for a long time before that. I was a member of the Agape House—which I think is defunct now—which was an intentional living community based on simple living, community living, spirituality, and service of justice. And then before that I had worked on various service-related projects, particularly those involving battered women and children, since I had gotten involved with that during a three-week immersion my senior year of high school. I spent three weeks over my Christmas break during high school kind of living and working at a battered women’s shelter in Los Angeles. So then as I continued I kind of fell in love with that cause and started working with that quite regularly. So yeah, so I wasn’t necessarily new to the concept of service but I think the paradigm for me of what service was and what it meant to be involved with issues of the public good and with justice really shifted when I came here.
KM: Great. I wanted to back up for a second. When you mentioned you lived in a FEMA camp for a week and a half, did you say with the ABI? Can you tell us a little bit about what that was like?
SP: Sure. It was a pretty intense experience. We were in a tent designed for about somewhere between thirty and fifty people. And so it was us with twenty to forty of our closest friends. And essentially it was in St. Bernard Parish, close to the Chalmette National Battleground and right next to the sugar factory. And we were actually in the same tent as some other volunteer crews, and we were the first volunteer crew to actually house a tent. So when we arrived there were boots from the contractors—the FEMA contractors—that were there the week before we arrived. I guess they had just canceled their contracts the week before. So we did that, and then we also were in this camp and the other people that were living in this camp were residents of St. Bernard Parish as well as firefighters and police who were housed. They had their temporary headquarters on the campsite. There was also a huge mess tent that was designed to feed four- to five-hundred people at a time. At the time we were volunteering with Operation Helping Hands, the Catholic Charities relief, but we were also alongside—I can’t even count—maybe twenty or thirty other volunteer groups. We also had members of the National Guard that were there, as well as staffers for Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross… St. Bernard municipal government, as I mentioned. Pretty much everyone across the board. It was pretty much the only operating site in all of the parish. I don’t know if you guys are aware of parishes; they’re kind of like counties here. So it was definitely an interesting experience. I’d say in all total there was maybe 2500 people there living in this camp that was really about the size of maybe three or four of the old—I know it’s not there anymore, I doubt this is even a good reference for either of you—but the lakefront, the Jes Res [Jesuit Residence] lawn that used to be at Loyola, if that’s a good reference. It was about three or four of those. So maybe a quarter of a mile by a quarter of a mile block. So it was a pretty powerful experience. I mean, certainly getting to talk to the firefighters who… yeah, that’s actually something that I’ll share. I made a pretty strong relationship with the local firefighters at St. Bernard. And we were talking with them and we ended up having a long reflection session with them and as we were talking what we realized was that they had been there through the storm. Each of them had saved various people. One of them had actually saved a parish councilman, pulled him right out of the water, and later that week the parish council—while we were there, I think—the parish council voted to cut the fire department’s funding. So the guy that saved the parish council member who voted to cut their funding was laid off. So it was a dynamic experience and things were changing fairly quickly and it’s—it was just the realities of the time. And I think we were upset about that. But looking back, what was the parish supposed to do? They had no money to pay people, so if you can’t pay them—
KM: Was th—
SP: —it’s hard to keep them on the payroll—
SP: [Laughs] If there’s no money there.
KM: Was that unique to St. Bernard Parish or was that happening—
SP: You know, I don’t know the details, like in Orleans Parish and St. Tammany or St. Charles, or Plaquemines. I imagine that’s not unique just because, essentially, Orleans, St. Bernard… and parts of… parts of Jefferson Parish were at about 80% to 90% loss of population. So it wasn’t… it was not sure what was viable and what wasn’t, and what the scope would be—what the city would look like when it returned. There was lots of talk of entire sections of the city just being written off and turned into public parkland because it just didn’t seem viable to rebuild that much space. I can’t imagine that it would be unique.
RM: So going back to, stepping back a bit, what did you think—what were your initial reactions to seeing some of the media coverage from the time when the hurricane made landfall and the subsequent flooding?
SP: At first, obviously, from about—so the storm was on August 29, 2005 and I didn’t really, I don’t think I arrived here in Louisiana until sometime in March—or late February. So essentially we were relying on the media as well as some of the personal contacts that this priest that we were working with had here, who had worked here at Loyola. I think, now that I’ve been here for awhile that as much as there was all the media attention they had here, it wasn’t even nearly enough to describe the scope of the disaster. To put it in blunt terms, you’re talking about particularly in Orleans and St. Bernard, Orleans was 93% flooded. I mean, it was a total, total disaster. Something like, we’re still only about three-fourths of the population of the pre-Katrina New Orleans. And it’s still not at the level at which is necessarily sustainable long-term. So I think the scope of the disaster was just really not felt, and I think that media coverage was here and here and here a lot but it was not, it didn’t, I mean there was no way any television set or computer or print media of any kind could capture just the… largesse of this experience for people. And I think something that people got wrapped up in was that it was this overarching experience that was a shared experience for every member of the New Orleans community, and this is all true. Except that everyone’s Katrina experience is—and this is something that I think I learned just from being here—everyone’s experience was unique and personal. People lost family members, lost their homes, and it was so, you know, that’s so hard for the media to portray when they’re trying to really address large policy-type issues. So I think it’s really hard to portray that this experience was essentially both community and individually felt in very unique ways. So…Sorry, that was probably a longer answer than—
RM: No, that was great. So what were some of your expectations before you arrived, what did you expect to see based on that experience with the media coverage and personal contacts and stuff?
SP: I expected it to be bad, but it was worse than I could’ve ever expected. I really thought I had an understanding of what disaster looked like, but then I got here. It’s an entirely different experience to watch an empty block on TV than it is to walk an empty block in the middle of the daytime next to a playground and there’s no one in the school. And you can smell it and feel it and there’s humidity. It’s a totally—my expectations were really blown away. I think something that also really surprised me was how personal each experience was. I’m just gonna reiterate that just ‘cause I think …you really learn that only from meeting and when people allow you to come engage them in that way. And that takes time to build relationships. So I think my expectations were really blown away in that way… yeah, I mean, it’s hard to even remember what my expectations were but I do remember that sense of, “Wow, this is worse than I could have ever imagined.” The fact that we were shoveling out wet mud in March, about eight months after the storm, and there was still two to three feet of wet mud in peoples’ homes, it was really an imagery I’ll never forget. And the smell. I don’t think anyone can describe that smell. And you can ask anyone that was here, that smell was… it was something awful.
KM: Did you have any kind of briefing before your ABI? Had anyone who led your trip been down there or were you guys kind of first in? Were you relying entirely on the media coverage for your expectations or what?
SP: Good question…No, we actually had the benefit of having a few of the Katrina students who were there for their Katrina semester during the fall come speak to our group in the fall. So there was a significant break between that and post—and also like I said, the priest that we were working with had been down here before. I think he was actually a New Orleans Province Jesuit, so we were kinda lucky that way. We had kind of a similar—kind of a good idea of what the cultural experience was. But I mean, quite honestly, we could have had—we did have multiple pre- reflection meetings and trip preparation meetings, et cetera et cetera, and I can tell you that even if we had four, five, six times that it would have never mentally prepared us for what we saw that week.
RM: Okay. So you said you went on this ABI in 2006. So what sort of things did you take from that that motivated you to get involved with Operation Helping Hands? How did you initially get involved with that operation?
SP: Since I’d had this connection with them before, I knew they were an organization I wanted to get involved with again. And to be also terribly frank, I’m also totally committed to the idea of a faith that does justice. So I wanted to be involved in some type of faith-based atmosphere. That was important to me. So when I got involved I just found an AmeriCorps hosting agency for them and applied. And actually I was working at a political consulting firm right before I came down and I literally quit on a Thursday and was on a plane on a Friday. So I applied, I told them I was coming on Wednesday, I quit on Thursday and I hopped a plane. And that was it. Life changed. Best decision I ever made.
RM: So tell me, what was some of the work you did when you first started and the kind of work that you’ve done since then?
SP: Sure, good question. So the work I did was primarily leading crews of volunteers to rebuild homes. At the time that I finally committed to coming down here long-term, most of the gutting was finished. There were still some homes that needed to be gutted—I certainly gutted a few homes when I first got here, maybe three or four of them—but a lot of the, the majority of the gutting had been finished. So it was moving on to rebuilding, which from my gutting experience I thought would be pretty easy, ‘cause gutting’s kinda easy: you give people shovels and hammers and a few crowbars and you can gut a house in about a day and a half. But you can’t rebuild a house in a day and a half. It takes a lot more energy. So basically I was leading crews of volunteers from all over the country—the majority of them Catholic-based crews because I was working at Catholic Charities—into peoples’ homes all over Orleans, St. Bernard, and Jefferson Parish.
RM: Okay, great. So that was the stuff you initially did. Have you moved onto different projects or is it still just continually rebuilding?
SP: No, great question. So since then I finished my term as an AmeriCorps volunteer. I went and worked a congressional race, the congressional race in Wyoming. And then I spent some time, the rest of the year, kind of taking care of some family business, and now I’m back here working at Loyola in New Orleans. And my role as a Jesuit Center Fellow is essentially help develop a center for service and justice that will manage some of the justice activities of the university. So I think that my experience kind of motivated me to move on to a more sustainable level, which I’m really happy to be working here now and to still be engaged in the community in a positive way.
KM: What is the university response with the Center you’re developing? Are there a lot of students who go out and do projects in the city or is it mostly outsiders that you’re working with?
SP: Oh, no, this will be a student-based initiative. This is to help coordinate our students’ work as well as maybe on some level the research the university does. But essentially, yes, there are two organizations I think of right off the bat, our service learning as well as our—actually three: our service learning, LUCAP—the Loyola University Community Action Program, and our social justice clinic at the law school [Stuart H. Smith Law Clinic and Center for Social Justice]. So LUCAP has a weekly rebuilding expedition every Saturday. That’s been going on since, I think since the storm essentially, since the school reopened. And the social justice clinic at the law school has a special Katrina clinic that helps with legal issues related to Katrina experience for homeowners, particularly those that involve deeds and arbitration and insurance policies and those kind of things. And then service learning helps place people in semester-long, long-term programs, usually more of office assistance than actual physical rebuilding. Does that make sense?
SP: Yeah, so the university, I mean, I think our Jesuit tradition calls us to do a faith that does justice and to be in both service to faith and in promotion of justice and so in that way the university, I think, has really tried to meet its calling the best as it could. I mean, you have to imagine that it lost a lot of its endowment as well as a lot of its facilities and it had a lot of work it had to do for itself just to be sustainable. But the need was there and I think the university addressed it as best it could.
KM: Okay, thank you.
[Pause as interviewers consult each other in background]
KM: Sorry, we’ve been bobbling the order of our questions a little bit.
SP: That’s okay, knock it out.
RM: So where do you feel that both your experience with Operation Helping Hands, where do you think that, as well as your continued experience with this Center at Loyola, fits into the larger relief efforts by different levels of the government—state and federal—as well as other volunteer agencies?
SP: Sure, good question. I think that’s one of the… how can I put this… one of the great points of growth that I think our country learned from, in this experience, which is that you have to work from the ground up and you have to work together on things. Because my experience as a volunteer, both as a short-term and long-term volunteer, was that many times the right hand was not looking at what the left hand was doing. So I guess in terms of my—how I felt about my experience being coordinated with local, state, and federal governments, I would said it really wasn’t. I think that not-for-profits, each of them kind of took up their own banner as well. I think not-for-profits weren’t necessarily in coordination as well as they should have been, either. And they kind of, you know there is no directed New Orleans disaster relief…program, but it’s, where all the not-for-profits come together and discuss how to best address these issues and sometimes coordinate homeowners and stuff of that nature. But really, it really was individuals at different organizations kind of leading the banner. And the reality was is that very few of them actually communicated. At least that’s the feeling I got.
So that’s something that I certainly took from my experience and it was certainly a point of growth for me, which is: it never hurts to bring people to the table—ever. Even if, it doesn’t matter if you agree with them or not, the fact that you could bring people to the table, especially in situations where you’re talking about public service, I think is absolutely…pivotal. ‘Cause then you’re able to get more done for the—for the common good. So it was certainly an experience I learned from and certainly it was very apparent to me as well as the residents that we worked with. That there was just this sense that really there was very limited coordination between all these groups. I think they were communicating but I don’t think they’re communicating on a level that was necessarily meaningful, which made it very difficult to do the work.
KM: Do you have any ideas for how they could start bringing people to the table?
SP: Literally bringing people to a table would be nice.
SP: But I think there’s a caveat in there which is that a lot of the rebuilding process was done by young, energetic volunteers—and some older, energetic volunteers as well. But…I don’t know what a good process would be to bring people together. I mean, literally having meetings where people are literally in the same room would be really useful, as well as making sure that there’s a mandate. I think there was also just not really a sense that there was any leadership really involved anywhere outside of the not-for-profits themselves, who some of them have tremendous leaders, but their scope was kind of small. So I think that it would have been nice to have some very clear leadership citywide, at least, or state or nation-wide. We didn’t really feel that kind of…monumental leadership. That wasn’t there. Our motivator was really the homeowners we were working with at the time, as well as how we can best move the city forward. So I think that the biggest learning experience though, for me, was that you should always listen to the person on the ground. Because I think if they had done that, really listened to the homeowners and listened to the volunteers that were on the ground as well as even the contractors that were on the ground, as well as city councilmen and all that nature I think there would’ve been a lot less miscommunications just because they would’ve been addressing the issues as they were instead of the issues as they saw them, which is not always the same thing.
KM: You mentioned the lack of communication from kind of organization to organization, but did you have any sense of communication or lack thereof between organizations and any of the levels of government relief, like state or federal, or was that also completely chaotic?
SP: That’s a good question. I mean, as an AmeriCorps volunteer I wasn’t really allowed to get involved with the—I mean I did—but I wasn’t really allowed to. I can tell you that…that communication was really difficult. I was really surprised by that. Part of my role there on my off, my time off, quote unquote, was to help try to find a way we could get a lead remediation program for lead paint. And there was a grant available from the EPA that was given to the…hold on, let me get this right—the City of New Orleans. I think to the tune of about 2.1 or 2.2 million dollars. And when I went to go search that out, I went to City Hall, literally in person ‘cause I was getting nowhere on the phone. I went to City Hall to apply for the grant. The grant was designed to be given to not-for-profits. And then when I asked them where the money was and who I applied to and I showed them the…the descriptions from the EPA website, they said they didn’t know where the money was. So I think that kind of speaks to the general experience, which is that there was kind of this massive…this miscommunication and sense of a lack of coordination. Whether or not it was truly uncoordinated is not really for me as a long-term volunteer to speak to. But you certainly got a sense that it was not…as coordinated as it could’ve been.
KM: As the residents have been returning a little bit, have you seen any sort of community associations organizing to try to work across all of these groups? Or is there anything going on, at the community level outside of non-profits? Does that make sense?
SP: Yeah, it’s a good question. Actually there’s a… I mean, I don’t know how effective it’s been, but there’s a group that’s associated with Loyola that’s called The Common Good run by Michael Cohen. And their mandate is to help kind of facilitate those conversations between state, local, federal, not-for-profit entities. So they are the ones that have been trying to do that. I’m not, as a long-term volunteer it’s not really clear how successful they were in that effort but certainly seems like that’s a good idea. [Laughter] I think it’s just difficult because [pause] I think it’s difficult for a separate entity when there’s no mandate from either…when there’s no clear leadership in… I think it’s very difficult for those type of communications to happen. When there’s not one person or one entity that’s really taking the lead, it’s very difficult for a new group—even one with the best intentions—to kind of walk in there without any mandate to do so and kind of coordinate the conversations because people are really kind of scattered and just really trying to address the largest disaster in U.S. history. I mean, it was, it’s hard to imagine that we are where we are now. But I think that that’s really the real issue is not that there weren’t some people who were trying to coordinate those conversations, but that there was a lack of leadership that was mandating it. That was really momentous in pushing it forward. So and that made those conversations extremely difficult, I felt like.
RM: So you mentioned earlier that you stayed in the FEMA camp and you were around all these different volunteer organizations and then, you know, some of the struggles or lack of communication between those organizations. I guess, what has been your individual experience of other volunteer agencies that you were not a part of, or of working with those agencies?
SP: What was their—what do you mean, exactly?
RM: I guess, what I just—I’m trying to get a feel for maybe what your impression has been of other groups you’ve been around and of the work they’ve been doing.
SP: I think, honestly, I think any work that the not-for-profits has been doing has been tremendous. Just because a lot of them were limitedly resourced with…I mean, primarily volunteer help. So it would be really hard for me to judge the quality of other groups’ work. I mean, I think that if all the not-for-profits are struggling to survive and trying to address the largest disaster in U.S. history. So I think that my experience with the not-for-profits was they were all trying to do good work. I think some had very different mandates than Operation Helping Hands, I was involved with. Some are much more religious, some are much more secular, some come from a more…structural point of view, some are very well organized and some are not. But in the end they were all trying to do something that was unprecedented. So it’s hard to say what worked and what didn’t when hindsight is 20/20, of course. But I think that without, I think that a lot of organizations, you know to be quite honest a lot of organizations popped up after I arrived. So even now there’s organizations that are starting there, helping with the rebuilding. So the landscape changes all the time. But there are some that concentrated on kind of huge builds. Habitat seemed to concentrate on these big overarching projects. Some concentrate just on pre-existing homeowners, some concentrate on bringing new people in the city, some concentrate just on certain areas of the city, like the Lower Ninth Ward…or Broadmoor, or these different sections of the city. Mid-city, Lakeview, et cetera, et cetera. But overall, I mean, really the thing I took from it was that there was just a lot of wonderful people trying to do wonderful things, some of them better-resourced than others. And so it’s really hard for me to judge whether or not they were good at what they did. I think I certainly learned that organization and pragmatism is paramount when you’re trying to conquer these kind of issues, but it’s hard for me to make a judgment when I think we—all the organizations were facing monumental challenges.
KM: Have you noticed, are there still a lot of groups coming down for short-term work, like the ABI that you originally went with?
SP: Yes. I think it’s much more… yes, there are still groups coming down. I don’t work in the rebuilding sector. I mean, I work with some of those people quite a bit, but I don’t work in the rebuilding sector anymore. But my general understanding now is that it’s much more institutional. So it’s like universities and high schools and parishes and other institutions that have made an institutional commitment to coming down here. It’s not the, necessarily the emotive-response volunteer that they had before where there was overwhelming numbers. Now it’s much more of a regular thing. There’s large numbers of people coming in March and February for spring break, there’s usually a large number over Christmas break, there’s a handful at the beginning of the summer, and there’s others coming throughout the year. But it’s quieter minus a few very heavy few weeks during the year. But yes, there are still groups coming down.
KM: So how are they integrated into the work that’s going on with other groups around, do you know?
SP: How do you mean?
KM: I guess…how—I’m not really sure what I mean. If all of a sudden you have this influx of people who are only there for a week or something, how do the different organizations use them? Like you mentioned Helping Hands. How would they deal with a crowd of college students coming down for a week? Where do they usually get put to use?
SP: Oh, good—great question. It really depends…okay, so I can speak from Operation Helping Hands’s perspective. It really depends on the skill set of the volunteers. I mean, if we have a crew of volunteers who are all general contractors and design artists, we’re gonna have them do some heavy-duty construction work. If we have a crew of volunteers who are, you know, never been to a site before, I think that there’s a variety of options for them. They’ll be painting or they’ll be working on…maybe hanging dry wall, doing kind of teachable things. I think that that’s important to keep in mind is that a lot of volunteers come down unskilled and that’s wonderful ‘cause they get to learn so they take away some new experience as well as, they kind of come open-hearted in a really unique way. So it’s…yeah, I think you just kind of put them wherever you can have them. And again it kind of comes down to the organization of the, the organization of the not-for-profit they’re working with—how put together they are, what kind of building that data set of what their volunteers look like and how they’re utilized. I think that a lot of the work now is the kind of either, it’s everything from heavy duty construction and gutting to painting the exterior of a house. So it really can be a very diverse experience depending on what skill sets you bring as well as what’s available. I mean, you may have a group of contractors come down but you may have just finished that house the week before without realizing—that really comes down to the organization of the not-for-profit that you’re working with.
KM: That really speaks again to the lack of communication, huh?
SP: Yeah, exactly. I mean a lot of times I certainly have had a handful of experiences with my crews where they came down and they would say things like, “You know, I’ve been an electrician for twenty-five years,” and I would say, “That would’ve been useful if you’d shared that before coming.”
SP: I think that yeah it’s hard to describe, but I think…one things I… I took away is it never hurts to ask. I mean it really never hurts to ask. You should always share…you should always share what your talents and gifts are and tell people what they are, otherwise they won’t know what they are and you can’t share them. So it speaks to a greater sense of miscommunication I guess, sometimes. It starts at the volunteer level and it goes all the way through, I think, the federal level. It’s this sense that people were not necessarily sharing the pertinent information. And again, I could just go back to the sense of the lack of leadership ‘cause if you have a strong sense of leadership, people feel compelled to kind of communicate in that unique way. But somehow those communiqués just didn’t happen.
RM: So with these short-term groups that are still coming down, are you seeing, or do you see many repeat volunteers or do you think there are many that say, come down for spring break and return in the summer, or things like that?
SP: Like, are you saying are there a lot of repeats as far as the volunteers are concerned?
RM: Yeah. Yeah.
SP: Yes. I think if it’s not institutional then they’re coming down because they’ve come down before. We’re at what? Four and a half years out now? Or a little less, so four and a quarter. So yeah, I think the majority of volunteers are either institutional, so they’re coming as an institutional partner or they’re coming down as individuals who have made a commitment to come down themselves. Some of the repeats I can remember were some of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. And I keep in contact with a good number of them just because it’s rare to meet people that are willing to travel that distance at their own cost to do something for people they’d never met before. Now certainly it beckons the question of at what point is it better for them to spend those resources and time locally where they are? But certainly I think the people of New Orleans are thankful for this, for those individuals’ commitments to building, rebuilding, a sustainable city.
RM: What has your impression been of—do many of these either short-term or repeat volunteers become sort of like yourself, long-time volunteers? Is that a common experience or is that sort of—I guess how unique is that?
SP: Yes, that’s not unique. I’m trying to consider the crew people I volunteered with and I don’t think one of us… oh, I shouldn’t say, there was maybe a handful, maybe three or four out of the twenty or thirty that I worked with throughout the year that had not been down here before. I think the experience of being here and immersing yourself in the world and culture and experience that is New Orleans really is life changing. And so some people feel very called back to it—I certainly did, in a special way. So yeah, I think that it’s an experience that really kinda brings you at the core. Even now, where the city has rebounded significantly since the storm—mindful of the fact that I say that with neighborhoods that are still essentially empty…I think that it’s still a very powerful experience. Just to immerse yourself in this culture is kind of a unique and wonderful experience. And I think that that experience will beckon people to come back in a long-term way.
KM: Okay, well we’re about halfway through our questions, so how are you doing? You sound like you might need some water or something.
SP: No, actually I have a drink here. I don’t know what it is. I’m fine.
KM: Oh, okay. I think we’re gonna step outside for a couple minutes and just kind of regroup and check where we are with the questions we wanted to cover. So do you mind if we just step away for a couple minutes and we’ll be right back?
SP: Sure, do you want to set a time to call me back real quick?
RM: Do you mind just staying on the line?
KM: It’s…the setup here is a little confusing. This equipment, we had to scramble.
SP: Oh, that’s okay.
KM: So we were thinking we could just keep you on the line. We’re just gonna step outside and just check—
SP: Oh! Oh. Right, okay. I’ll stay on the line.
KM: Yeah. Yeah, no, just like not even two minutes probably.
SP: Oh, okay.
KM: Is that okay?
SP: Oh, great. Sounds good.
KM: Alright, thanks.
[Begin Break 45:28]
[End Break 48:06]
KM: All right Scott, we’re back.
SP: Hey, how you doing?
KM: All right. [Laughs]
SP: Good. [Laughs]
SP: I was just thinking about something.
SP: I really…I think…I wanted to just mention something before we delve into the rest of the interview. I was just thinking about how I was talking kinda poorly about the government response and everything else. But, really, I can’t… I can’t even describe to you how life changing it was to be a part of meeting the other volunteers and working with the other long-term volunteers as well as working with the New Orleanians themselves. I mean these are some amazingly resilient people. People around the country said some pretty bad things about New Orleans after the storm. And I certainly don’t want to make it sound like these people weren’t resilient in any way. They were. They were…I mean, essentially the residents of New Orleans took it upon themselves to rebuild their own city. As one of the professors, as one of the writers for the Times-Picayune here, who is a professor here at Loyola as well, mentioned to me in a conversation once, he said, I asked him what he thought was the most important part of the rebuilding here and we were just chatting about that and he said, “You know I think it’s an instance where culture trumps politics.” And that’s really true. And the culture here is just, wonderful, beautiful and incredibly unique and it really was what sustained people…through the experience. I mean I’m certainly not a New Orleanian but I’m proud to have been a part of that.
RM: Okay great. That’s a… [Laughter from KM and RM] That’s a pretty good segue—
KM: —perfect segue—
RM: —into our next question—
KM: —We’ve got a series of questions more about your personal volunteer experience now, so that’s actually…You almost just answered the next question we were gonna ask.
RM: Basically, how have you been received by the people, the homeowners, the community, that you’ve assisted and then also, how have you been received by sort of New Orleans as a whole, at large?
SP: Extremely well. I think…on some weird level [laughs] people have become accustomed to volunteers being here. And so when I first came people were much more outward about their sense of gratitude and things. But that’s certainly not, I certainly didn’t come down there for that. I certainly felt a sense of being, I want to kind of understand and learn from them. You know? But I think we’ve been received extremely well. But like I said, on some weird level now I think people are more kind of accustomed to peoples spending a year or two of their lives here from out of state, so it’s not as novel. But it’s still, people I think are very much well received. Actually, that you bring that up, I was actually on my way back from meeting in St. Bernard and drove past one of my old homeowners just this past week and I got a chance to kind of catch up with her for a few minutes. And it was just nice to hear that she was doing well and everything else and we both had a teary-eyed moment, where we, where she thanked me and we kind of built a long-term relationship with them. So, I think that’s also something to keep in mind that that it’s still people, you know? I mean, we talk about Katrina as this huge thing but it’s really it’s one person reaching out to somebody else. I mean it sounds so cliché, I could print that on a brochure, but the truth is that’s really where the experience was. It was unique for everyone, including each volunteer. To know the people they worked with or in the organization they worked with is really unique experiences…I think…I think it was, for me, really just about the individual homeowners I worked with, and the people that I volunteered with are people that will always, I intention them to always be in my life.
KM: When you mention the culture sustaining people, what, can you point to certain things of the culture that you think gave people hope or whatever?
SP: That’s a good question. I think…I don’t know if it gave them hope as much as they were just stubborn that New Orleans was gonna come back as New Orleans. You know, this is a unique place. Have either of you been down here before?
SP: I think you should if you’re gonna be a part of this, this, that project. ‘Cause, honestly, it is…it’s a mind-blowing place. It’s just totally unique. It is not like anywhere else in the country and I would even stress to say the world. It’s just a group of people in the culture here—for instance they have foods here that only, they only cook in the city. I mean you’re talking about hot sauces only made in New Orleans. I mean it’s, I can’t even describe—the Mardi Gras here is like Christmas and Easter and everything else, it’s like a national holiday. I mean I can’t even describe what it—the culture here is I think more than just certain elements of the culture being sustaining I think it’s such a unique place to people they don’t want to lose it. And so people fought for it. Once you kinda engaged in that conversation and engaged in that cultural experience, you wanted to fight for it too. So it’s hard to describe. I don’t think there are certain elements of the culture really, I just think that people didn’t wanna lose what they had. Which is a wonderful thing. And it’s impossible to describe until you’ve come down here and met the people and spent some time with it. It’s not, it’s not really possible to describe it.
KM: Do you think they are bringing back New Orleans as New Orleans?
SP: I think so. I mean honestly I think that maybe one of the…I mean there was certainly things that could’ve been a lot better during the rebuilding. Maybe one of the things…that’s maybe good out of the fact that there wasn’t an overarching coordination is that the city kind of came back as its own…as its own entity, that people really came back as individuals and that they brought their own experience with them. And I think—I’m certainly not a New Orleanian so I can’t really speak to this…in a personal way—but I really think that people came back even more proud to be New Orleanian than they were before. That this was, that they understood this was a unique place and essentially since a lot of people had left the city for a few months for the Katrina experience or for a few years even, that some of them still aren’t back and they experienced other places and they saw how unique and wonderful their city and culture was, they really wanted to bring that back. And I think, on some level this sense of lack of coordination kinda helped facilitate New Orleans to come back as New Orleans instead of as something totally different. Which was a possibility.
RM: What have been some of your most favorite or most memorable moments as a volunteer or as working where you work now?
SP: Great question…memorable moments...Gosh, those are, there are a lot of them…hold on, let me take a second before I answer that question.
I guess I can share one experience…I think that you’ll—I don’t know how many interviews you’ve done so far but I think a lot of volunteers have experiences that are kind of similar to this at different levels of scope. One of the, actually the homeowner that—and it’s just because it’s been on my mind—the homeowner that I saw earlier this week…has a double-shotgun, which is like a duplex split in the middle essentially. And so when we were fixing the house one side was getting re-done so I had drywall up in and what not and the other side was essentially still gutted. So it was just basically just studs and a few windows…
And this homeowner, she’s in her eighties—wonderful woman—she has in her sixteen kids or something, something, some crazy number like that, and one of her sons is in their mid-forties, in his mid-forties, is a drug addict and he would occasionally, and by occasionally I mean twice, three times a week, sleep on the gutted side of the house, break in at night. I mean, his mom didn’t want him there but he would break in at night and sleep on the floor…that was, something, so every once in a while I’d bring a crew of volunteers from Wisconsin or Chicago or wherever and there’d be a guy next door literally, I mean literally, I have found him with a needle in his arm. So, I got to kind of, I mean I really built a relationship with him, which was different.
But essentially, eventually we made a—I was instructed by my supervisors to call the police. ‘Cause we had given him three warnings that he shouldn’t come back and he kept coming back and our volunteer crews were really concerned. So one day I did call the police. But before they came I told him “Look, I just called the police. You’re gonna wanna pack up.” And at that time I was in the Upper Ninth Ward. And at that time the police there were the military police. And so the MPs showed up in a humvee, came out, full tactical gear. And one of the things I remember is they came out with soft gloves on because they didn’t want to hurt the guy. And I remember that just particularly because you know there’s these 6’4”…these tall, strong men who could just rattle a guy that was in the state that this guy was. And they came out with a sense of understanding kind of his humanity which I was really surprised. I mean I really was. I’d heard a lot of stories about the MPs and from that experience on my experience with them was really positive. So he left, the homeowner’s son left, his name is Ishmael. Ishmael left and the MPs looked around, they said “Oh, he must have run away.” And they, so they kinda scanned the lot a few times, they didn’t find him, so they said “Just give us a call back when you get a chance, if you see him again we’ll make sure he gets proper treatment.” And I said “No problem.” And they gave me their personal cell phones and we did that. So he left.
About a week and a half later I came back to the house with a different crew. One of the neighbors who I knew well, who I had been working with on the weekends a little bit to help him get back up, kinda came up to me and said that he saw…he had seen Ishmael breaking into the house that night or two before or the night before. I said I didn’t think that was anything unusual, he breaks in all the time and he said “No I mean he was in hospital garb and he was bleeding.” So I started asking around, I started asking some of the older people that are in touch with the neighborhood there, one of them, Mama Dee—who is kind of an interesting lady. But, started asking around, ends up that he had been shot in a drug deal. He had went to Tulane Hospital downtown and broke out of the hospital. And so for the next week and a half I went kind of searching for him, again contacting all these people and kind of going into gutted houses and trying to look for this guy ‘cause our homeowner was really concerned and I mean I was concerned, I knew the guy, you know? As it ends up he was, like, I mean I still don’t know if he’s okay, I spent, I still check around every once in awhile. My understanding is that some people have mentioned they’ve seen him. But who knows? The homeowner hasn’t heard from him in quite some time. So no one really knows of his well-being. But, I think that’s certainly a memory I’ll never forget. It’s that sense of, even in this disaster there was, now I wouldn’t wanna call drug addiction a normal problem but this is problem that happens everywhere and it was affecting this woman rebuilding her home in the same way that it would affect any other mother that was trying to get their son back on track. I mean it’s just, life doesn’t just stop because there was a disaster in the city. In fact, life continues on in a different way. So it was certainly an experience that I will never forget.
And just across the board, all this experience with the MPs and all that was kind of a formative experience for the rest of my year. That house in particular was kind of an amazing experience. We had a drug dealer next door, he would throw bricks at us, at our crews because he didn’t want, he didn’t like the extra police attention. ‘Cause after that experience the MPs knew so they would come by. That’d give them a—I’d send them text messages before I sent crews over and they said “Hey we’ll check out the house before you come by.” And so they’d come by and check out the house and well that drug dealer didn’t like that too much so he would, if we had a stack of bricks in front he’d chuck’em at our van or he’d—just stuff like that. It’s hard to nail down a single experience but if that’s one, I guess I could share that.
We—and then there was extremely amazing experiences like rebuilding the home of an all deaf family on the West Bank who we worked with the national association for the deaf, I can’t remember what the real organization’s name is. But, we rebuilt those homes and I had to learn a little bit of sign language and the kids were spread out in Baton Rouge and here and the parents were in Flint and Houston and Baton Rouge. I mean it was just like this crazy story. And this home was really pivotal to bringing this family back together. I think those experiences will speak to me for the rest of my life. So [unintelligible] I still get emotional when I talk about them. It’s life changing to kind of intersect peoples’ lives in a way that in any other circumstance you would never—I would never just walk up to someone’s door and go, they wouldn’t just say “hey, you know my son got shot.” So I think…those are just a handful. But I mean it’s really difficult to answer that question because there are so many memorable experiences positive, negative or just learning. I wouldn’t even call them negative cause all the experiences were…you know points at which a lot of growth for me came and I think I’d really hope that that growth was shared in the relationships I built with other people.
KM: Were there any experiences or relationships that were especially tough?
SP: Yeah, absolutely there were very difficult relationships… I was living in the, we were living at St. Raymond’s Parish which is where Operation Helping Hands has all of its…rebuilding equipment and whatnot. It’s a gutted school, a gutted church, it’s a gutted rectory and rebuilt rectory. I mean the school’s also slightly rebuilt and they put offices in them. But it’s a shut-down parish and school they got like three or four feet of water. So they had to, and the Archdiocese made a decision not to bring it back…So I was living in the rectory, it’s maybe three bedrooms and there were say, I think at one time we had ten people living in the house. So yeah there were definitely some difficult times and some difficult relationships. I mean we were, you know even with your best of friends it’s hard to live with ten people…So…I can think of one instance of a…it’s hard to call them bad relationships ‘cause now that I’ve stepped away from the experience I think all of us are good friends now. Even people that I thought I would never necessarily speak to again or were really, and it speaks to the…life changing…experience that we all shared.
I guess one kind of negative experience would be that drug dealer. We really tried to speak to him and that was just really challenging, and I think it was really challenging on our crews because he just did not care at all about the city coming back. He just, and he had paid off the policemen in an OPD and that’s why we worked with the MPs. But I think that was a really challenging experience because here you are devoting yourself to a project that you really believe in and as well as your volunteers are and your homeowner is there...and they just don’t care. I mean they just, they don’t care. The only thing that they cared about was making money. And we were…we were in the way of him making a profit I guess apparently, he mentioned to me a few times. So I think that’s a difficult, I think… I think some difficult relationships, again just living in a house with ten people you get to know people in a special way. So you learn some things that you don’t like about people and that they don’t like about you and that can make a relationship difficult but looking back, we’re all really good friends now. So there’s nothing to be said in that way. So I don’t know if that made—I don’t know if I’m making myself clear but…
RM: Oh no, that makes sense.
RM: As a crew leader, when you encounter a situation like you were talking about with the drug dealer and then the homeowner’s son who kept breaking into the house, how do you sort of deal with that with your, with the volunteers that are coming down and are very—I guess some of them may have never been there or been in that sort of situation before. I guess if you could tell me a little bit about how you both prepare your crews for dealing with those kind of things and then how you deal with the situation once you’re in it.
SP: Sure. I think as a crew leader I felt a paramount responsibility to protect my crew at all costs. And so when we did have, I mean no matter what, we made sure that the crews’ safety was paramount. And then, second, how do we resolve the situation. So going back to that experience with…with the homeowner’s son I think as much—I mean he was a wonderful, he’s a wonderful human being and I certainly hope that he’s doing well. But I mean you never know when someone is on…on those kind of narcotics. I mean you’re talking about there’s—you just don’t know how they’re gonna react. And so there was a sense that that we had to really make sure that our crew was protected. And so when addressing that situation, when going to talk with Ishmael, I really… I really had to take baby steps. First, it was just giving my name, and the next time was kind of engaging him and I mean it was just baby steps. I mean it was really difficult to—cause you could just sense there was a sense of instability there. So you just kind had to work with what was stable in his life. And one of the things that we had working for him was we had a relationship with his mother. So we could put his mother on the phone with him. We could really kind of talk to him in a meaningful way. But yeah, I think… I think one thing I learned…that I’ll take with me through the rest of my life is that if you’re dealing with, when dealing with people you have to always deal with them where they are. No matter what the situation is. And sometimes that means…you won’t always understand what that means. But you should always attempt to, I guess.
So my experience with this…with him was just really trying to meet him where he was. And I think that that was a transformative experience for both of us. I mean I was a 24 year old, AmeriCorps volunteer, I was no practitioner of any kind. And I think it was a really a kind of a considerable experience for me and really taught me hey—and humor works! It’s just so funny, you know if you have a good sense of humor and kind of tune in to what makes people laugh it can really bring groups together. I think I utilized that as much as I could…with my crews. But yeah, I think a sense of—and sometimes not just with owners—on some it didn’t work—but with the crew. I mean for them a lot of them this was a mentally challenging experience. I mean, I kept on trying to remember what it was like to first come down here because in getting in touch with that first initial guttural feeling of just a lack of…being able to do anything—the enormity of the disaster really kinda baffled a lot of people and really kinda emotionally challenged a lot of the people I worked with. And so…resolving those kind of issues you just really kind of have to address people where they are. And you just have to…learn to listen and take in the situation and then react accordingly. Sometimes you have to react harshly, sometimes you have to react kindly, sometimes you have to react… quickly and sometimes it’s good to take your time. I think no matter what. In all the situations I can think of I was dealing with people. When you are dealing with people you really have to meet them where they are. And that was really the, I mean not that that’s something I didn’t know before going in but it was something that I really learned as an adult in a much more serious way through this experience.
RM: How does, or I guess does, either AmeriCorps or you know Operation Helping Hands—I guess what sort of training or preparation do they give you for dealing with those kinds of situations and resolving conflict of that type?
SP: They don’t. Well, I mean—they don’t. I mean I—we literally had two weeks of construction experience before we were leading crews. You’re talking about people between the age of, I think I was the oldest, I think I was one of the older ones, of 18 to 24—we had one 54 year old, so I wasn’t the oldest—with two weeks’ experience hanging drywall, going out leading crews on how to hang drywall. And they totally trust you. Because you have this brand name. But as far as the emotional contacts and all that, no there really is no training whatsoever. And that’s something that I think could be improved upon. But there really is no sense of what do you do in those situations, you have to rely on your—I mean I hate to sound like a bad action movie but you really have to rely on your gut. Your gut feeling and your natural instincts and…And then maybe turn to your superiors to kind of address it as well but really no one was really trained for those situations. You just address them as a person. And sometimes that means…not addressing them. Because you’re just not able to do so. But no as far as training there really [laughs] I think the two weeks of construction experience was, kinda speaks to what, I mean…the not-for-profits were so strapped to get people out and working, ‘cause there’s a really a very limited amount of time that’s left and especially now. But when I was there even, a limited amount of time to get people back in their homes before people really started considering not coming back because it’s just not financially realistic. And so you have to really work under the crunch. So they just wanted to get us out in the field as quickly as possible and I think sometimes that’s a great decision, but they really could’ve provided us with better, with a better preparation on—for other things.
KM: Do you think there’s any—are there any standout positives or negatives to it being primarily 18 to 24 year olds? I mean obviously they don’t have a lot of life experience to deal with conflicts and stuff—
KM: —But are there benefits to their youthful enthusiasm or anything like that?
SP: Yeah, I mean I think we—yeah! Yeah I mean I think they bring a tremendous amount of energy and spark and…kind of creativity and just all the wonderful things that come with being young, you know? I mean, I’m only 26, I’m not that old.
SP: But, yeah, I think that they bring a lot. But, yes I think on the flip side of that is they also bring kind of…I think…I think there’s a certain amount of growth that happens between 18 and 24 that I mean…there’s a lot of adolescence you’re still going through. Or 18 to 22, I mean I’d say more particularly. I mean there’s really a lot of adolescence you’re kind of still working through. You’re kinda still engaged in kinda growing as a person and so yeah I think for some of these big issues I think it was really challenging. And I think it really depended on what kind of place you were coming from. I think, I felt very lucky that I had a Jesuit education because I kinda could see things from a long-term perspective and I had a, a good sense of, I could rely on a good, on my faith and a good sense that that faith kind of leads me into a greater sense of justice, to build a greater sense of justice in the world. And so I think I felt very lucky in that way. But it really just depends on what those, they bring to the table. I mean yeah they bring a lot of wonderful things. Just the energy that they are in, just a sense that we are part of something really wonderful and unique. It was, something I’ll always remember. I mean we, I—to be a part of a group of people who devote themselves for a year to doing nothing else but helping others is an amazing experience. I mean especially in the context of the storm and this city. I mean it was just a, an incredibly powerful experience. So, I think that group brought a lot of enthusiasm and energy. But I think they also were kind of sorting through themselves in the process and then I don’t know how healthy that, that being here at that age was, woulda been but we’ll, who knows, we’ll see them, those effects later on in life. But I think they bring a lot of good, but I think it would’ve been good to have a little bit more structure—organizationally at least—at Operation Helping Hands for the younger volunteers. ‘Cause I think they were expected to be adults and they really just weren’t at that level yet. They just weren’t, they just did not have the maturity of an adult. And that’s very difficult I think.
KM: Was there support for, like, emotional issues that like—like the heavy issues that they would encounter? Are there support networks or groups, spiritual groups, anything like that to deal with them?
SP: No. [Laughs] No. At the time there was a Jesuit Relief Coordinator, for the Province—Jocelyn Sideco—and she attempted to provide use with some reflection materials and those kind of things and she also runs a not-for-profit here in town called Contemplatives in Action that runs reflections for city-wide volunteers and tries to do that. But really in terms of addressing those issues there really was not. I mean, there really was not—that was not something that people were really worried about, to be quite honest, and maybe they should’ve been. Especially for the, I think especially for the younger volunteers I think on conversations I’ve had with them since then have been really difficult. Some of them have really been challenged by this experience and are still sorting through what it means for them in their life. And to know that…they will never be the same because of the experience I think is something that would’ve been useful for them to kind of sort through what, with someone or some type of structure but it just didn’t, it just wasn’t there. And quite honestly the not-for-profits they really would’ve taken—and again it really just shows the lack of leadership on an overarching scale. Because if you had an overarching, if you had a structure which people could go and say “We really need to address this” then maybe it could’ve been addressed. But the reality was that structure wasn’t in place and so, even though people recognized that these kids were really stressed out…I don’t think that structure was available to them. As much as like people tried it just wasn’t there and the not-for-profits that were doing the rebuilding work themselves, to be quite honest, really just didn’t have the time to worry about that unfortunately. They probably should have, for the well-being of their organizations, but hindsight’s 20/20. It’s hard to, again, it’s hard to judge.
RM: How do you think, or has your experience and the things you’ve seen and dealt with affected how you think about or how you see America as a whole?
SP: That’s a great question. I’ve thought about that quite a bit…I think what I’ve… I think my imagery of my country has changed forever because of the experience. And I think it’s both positive and negative. I think that I learned two things. One is that you can’t rely on—in those situations you can’t rely on government or not-for-profits or otherwise to get the job done. It really comes down to individuals. But in that, I learned that our country is full of wonderful, engaged, energetic…compassionate people. Really, I know it sounds again like a cliché—you can print that in the brochure—but I was just blown away by the sense of…calling that our volunteers came with. Just—both long term and short term—I think we just had an immense—I just had an immense experience of understanding what it meant to be, to be in public service. To see people drive for twenty hours to rebuild someone’s home they’ve never met before because they heard about some disaster on TV is a pretty amazing thing to witness. And to see them engage a place that they’ve never seen before is amazingly transformative. To see them change over a course of a week is an amazing thing to watch. And I think I learned a lot about America from the fact that, through those people, and learning that if you can engage them in a way that’s meaningful our country can do amazing things. And if you engage our people in a way that’s meaningful and useful and pragmatic and justice-based, you can do things that are just incredible.
But again, if you don’t provide leadership and you lack the structures to do so—I mean that’s the other thing I learned is you gotta kinda make sure that you’re doing a good job. I recently was at a small seminar of people. Liz McCartney was there—the executive director of the St. Bernard Project—and I asked her what she thought the most important thing was moving forward with the rebuilding and she said “Be effective, be effective, be effective.” And that’s absolutely the truth, is that when you don’t have overarching leadership you have to be effective in your own right. And that’s something I learned about our country is that you can’t rely on the, always rely on the federal or state or even local or not-for-profits that are doing the work, you sometimes have to take it upon yourself to be organized and whatnot. But that in our country we are full of good intentions and that if people are given the right opportunities to engage in their world they will do so in amazingly powerful ways. But they have to be given the structure to do so. So I think I learned that our country is full of wonderful people and that our country at the same time needs to make sure that we’re always addressing things in kind of individual notions I guess. I don’t know if that makes sense.
[Simultaneous] KM: Yeah that does, great. RM: No, it does.
RM: How have you changed through this experience?
SP: [Pause] Is that the whole question?
RM: That is, that is literally the whole question.
KM: That is, yeah. [Laughs]
RM: I mean, I guess, well to focus that a little bit—
SP: [Laughs] I mean…wow…that’s a big question—
SP: —in three words, four words. How have I changed through this experience? Whoa—
RM: I guess that I could focus that a little bit for you. You know you’ve mentioned throughout the course of the interview how life changing the whole experience is. Maybe if you could point to some specific, transformative experiences that would help clarify how life changing it has been.
SP: Sure…Gosh. That’s a…geez—I’ll put it to you in this terms: I would’ve never have come to New Orleans if it wasn’t for the storm probably. I mean I may have come here on vacation once or twice but I never really would have considered living here if it wasn’t for that experience. Entering my senior year of college I was pretty much committed to going to teach in China for two years. I mean I had made up my mind. And then the—and then I had the experience here and I—really, my life changed forever. I mean I had been involved in, I mean I guess in more concrete ways I really had, it really…kinda shook me up. As the Jesuits like to say, “ruined you for life.” But kinda shook you—it shook me up in a really basic way in a basal way, a guttural way…kinda reoriented my life. I had been involved in politics since I was about fifteen. But really, it reoriented my understanding of what… politics meant. I don’t know if this is making any sense, but it really reoriented me to understand that it could be transformative when you have, when you are working for the public good, both in the politics side and not-for-profits as a volunteer in whatever way, in a way that’s pragmatic and useful. And that I will never forget.
I think that if I had to point to one experience I think that’s really difficult. I think that I…I think to sum up that question I—The first day I got here after accepting my AmeriCorps volunteer position, I got off the plane, I caught a cab, I headed over to St. Raymonds—I had never been in Gentilly before, which is the neighborhood I was now going to be living in—I arrived at this parking lot, at this gutted school and gutted church, I hopped out of the cab, I dropped my bags off—it’s not the safest neighborhood in the world you know, you got humvees rolling around and stuff. And I remember I kind of, I literally pulled my bags out of the cab, shut the door, and the cab was gone. I mean I literally just kind of looked around, there was nobody there, it was maybe six or seven o’clock, I dropped my bags on the floor, I was in the driveway still. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know who I was supposed to meet, which is kind of emblematic of how organized things were. And I looked around and I, I really didn’t know what to do and I remember this, kind of this sense of despair. I mean it was getting dark, I didn’t know where I was, I was just—I was scared, you know? And I kind of looked around and then I was kind of sitting there like “Gosh, what do I do now?” I had my hat in my hand and everything, and then this lady came up behind me and she said…she said “Are you okay?” And I said “Uh, no, I’m kind of lost. I just got here, I’m really” I said “I’m really lost.” And she said “Well don’t worry honey, ‘cause now you’re found.” I think that really sums up my experience for me. I think that this experience kind of helped me find my way, where I want to go in my life. You know I never saw that lady again, actually—but and it was really odd because no one walks in that neighborhood. So it was kind of, you know, maybe some greater entity was there. But and she, she actually she walked me over to the house and that was it. But yeah, I think I was lost and now I was, and then I was found.
But to point to just one experience is really difficult because, it just I mean I met the woman I’m probably gonna marry, I met people that will always be in my life, I met the best man that’s probably gonna be in my wedding. So that kinda, I reoriented where I was going in terms of my professional life. I gained a total new respect for professionals. I mean for people that really are, know how to do things. A totally new respect for that. I gained a totally new respect for leadership. I gained a whole new respect for volunteers. A whole new respect for people that are suffering. I think, just, I could point to thirty, forty, fifty, experiences, but on the overall that’s the one that speaks to me right now. It’s just a sense of, I’ll never be the same person because of that experience. Never. And that’s, and I’m happy to say that. That I have changed forever. Whether it’s…whether handing the keys to a new homeowner changes you. Handing the, walking into a house that hasn’t been gutted in two years changes you…Working with a group of volunteers that drove from Wisconsin to hang drywall for a week in ninety-degree weather and ninety percent humidity changes you. I mean you just, you never, I don’t walk away from those experiences the same person. Having to go house to house looking for a guy that’s been shot, that changes you. It changes a man. So to point to one experience is really difficult. But [unintelligible] experience for me is that I, you know I think that God was working and I, I mean I’ll speak to my faith, I think God was working in my life, works in mysterious ways through the experience, and helped me find my calling of what I want to do. Which is essentially work for a public policy that is always in connection with the common good. So I really…yeah, I was lost and now I’m found. So, in some ways I think… I think that [pause] I think that yeah, I think all of us came down wanting to help rebuild this city and in a lot of ways the city rebuilt us. Which is, an incredibly powerful experience. I mean, this city is a wonderful, unique place with wonderful, unique people. And unless you come engage it and if you come engage it, you can, it can really transform you. And I think especially in the time right after Katrina we really had a unique experience of being engaged with a place that was changing and being the same at the same time and really we came down to rebuild this city and it ended up rebuilding us. And I think that’s very, very true in my case. I came down with certain objectives, I thought I knew what I was getting into because I, I had come down here as a short term volunteer so many times and yada, yada, yada, but coming down here as a resident—I thought I was coming down to rebuild the city and it ended up the city rebuilt me.
RM: Okay, that’s really great stuff. What do you, in your opinion, what remains to be done as far as rebuilding and recovery in New Orleans?
SP: Wow… in my opinion there’s, I think there’s issues long term now that we really have to address in sustainability. I think paramount is getting people back that want to come back as quickly as possible. Because, like I said before, I think we’re coming up on the four and a half years and pretty quickly people are just not gonna come back. Because, at this point they must’ve gotten work elsewhere or at least attempted to or are stuck in another place and it’s gonna be very difficult for people to come back. And this place is, you know I wouldn’t push so hard for that in some places, I mean if we lost a generic town somewhere, somewhere else, but this town is not generic. And not something that this country wants to lose. I mean we’re talking about names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, [unintelligible], I mean you’ll never get those names from any other place.
So, I think long term we have to look at sustainability. So paramount is bringing people back, looking at the wetlands issue, I don’t think that’s something that’s been addressed. You know there’s five main protections that are out, with the levees the last one and the other four are gone. I mean the wetlands are, are still around but they’re not nearly to the point of which can really protect the city if there was a major storm to come upon it again. [Pause] I think also a sense of long term sustainability when it comes to really addressing things like public transportation and working on issues of…long term sustainable social programming here. Public schools. I mean the list can go on and on and on and I think I mentioned before there was a real opportunity to kind of address a lot of these issues . I think there’s a lot of issues that could be addressed long term here but that, since there was a lack of leadership that we’re really—there’s a lost opportunity. I mean, I hate to say that Katrina was an opportunity but as the Chinese say—and I spent some time in China—the Chinese say “Great chaos is great opportunity.” So I think that that’s still true, but I think there was some opportunity lost. To put the city on a track to be kind of a, I hate to call it a model city ‘cause New Orleans will never be, you could never put the model of New Orleans anywhere ‘cause it’s too unique, but it could’ve been really—we could have shown the greatness of being a country built by the people for the people. And unfortunately we kind of missed that opportunity on some level. So, I think, it’s chugging along but I think sustainability is really the word I’ve used, that long term we really have to look at how we can root out the corruption that’s down here, root out all those issues but at the same time bring back the sustainable city as well as economically, environmentally and socially, that will long term be able to exist in a fashionable way.
RM: Why do you think people haven’t been coming back…in the numbers that were maybe expected?
SP: Do you want me to be blunt?
SP: Because they can’t afford it.
SP: I mean, think about it, if… and there’s also some very difficult legal issues involved which I can’t speak to too clearly, but I mean, for instance, I’ll give a perfect example. One of the guys I know very well in the Lower Ninth Ward, he helped cut the grass near this monument, right. Every once in awhile I’d have a conversation with him. Nice guy, he was like fourth or fifth generation in the Lower Ninth, and nice guy, older fellow, in his sixties, whatever. But he, he is… his family has been essentially on the same plot of land for the last hundred some-odd years—maybe a hundred years. But he cannot rebuild his home. He cannot get Road Home money because when his grandparents died they never re-deeded the house because they couldn’t afford it. So the deed is still in his grandparents’ name. Now there’s complicated family issues there—I mean, I think he has some issues where he doesn’t get along with one of his brothers so he won’t sign off on the deed, et cetera et cetera—but those are issues that are not uncommon. Mixed in with the fact that, I think… I think people just don’t come back when they, I mean, it’s really hard to come back. Besides, it’s in… I mean, some people have some very deep psychological issues, too. I mean, I think that especially people that actually tried to live through the storm here and live through the flooding and everything, I think a lot of them are really… I mean, I hate to use the word damaged, but really, changed. And I think it might be really difficult for them to go back to that house or to come back to the region just ‘cause they’ll always think about that. So I mean, it’s issues, it’s economic, it’s financial, it’s psychological, and I mean it’s really multi-tier. It really… and some people have kind of built a better life elsewhere and they don’t feel the need to come back. I mean, there’s an entire community of people in Houston that will probably never come back just because they’ve built themselves a little mini-community there. So… I think… I know it’s a difficult question but I think that really just is, speaks to that. I think also a sense of that the non-profits are finally becoming a little bit more coordinated now but I mean it’s kind of maybe a little too little too late. I think we are at a point at which people are really gonna have to, like I said, really have to assess whether or not it’s meaningful for them to come back or not. And for some people, they’ll make a decision it’s not. Or they won’t be able to ‘cause they didn’t get their Road Home money ‘cause their deed wasn’t in their name, or they didn’t realize they had to apply for Road Home money so the deadline had passed about two years ago now. They, their insurance said—oh yeah, that’s another issue, is because the flooding is not covered in most homeowners insurance… even though it was, the levees broke, which was a man-made problem. So essentially the law basically said that because the levees were in place that the homeowners insurance should’ve covered it. Well, the Supreme Court of Louisiana overruled that law just about a year and a half ago. So there’s major legal problems for people to get the…things they need to come back, both emotionally, physically, and financially. I mean it’s multi-tiered. And transport. I mean, people also have to rent U-Hauls and everything else to get down here, as well.
KM: Yeah, sure.
SP: [laughter] I mean, this is a massive prospect to move back, I think.
RM: Okay, I think we’re gonna try and wrap up here in a minute or so. I guess briefly, what do you think the future holds for your organization’s work in New Orleans?
SP: Well, I’ve left Operation Helping Hands like a year and a half ago now. But I think that they, I mean moving forward is a good question. I think a lot of rebuilding organizations are asking, “What is our purpose now that we—” I mean, there’s still a lot of rebuilding to be done. But I think in the next few years they’ll be asking what their purpose is and a lot of them are transitioning, opening up health clinics or moving into issues of sustainability and environmental work and that kind of stuff. But as far as my work here at the university, I’m very excited about the prospect of the Center for Service and Justice here. I think that it can really help certainly engage our students in a special way long-term and bring about a sustainable and just city. I think it’s really exciting for me, as well as a just world. I think that when we engage people in that way it’s really meaningful. I’m very excited about the prospect of what this Center can do. And we’re very much in the preliminary stages so there’s not much I can say about it, but that we can be a part of something greater moving forward is always exciting.
RM: Yeah, it sure is. So I guess to close, what’s next for you in your life?
SP: Good question. I’m here for a year, maybe two. But I’m here ‘til August or maybe the next year, after that I’m not clear. I think what I’d like to do is kind of go back, go to grad school, get a degree in public policy or public administration or government or something, or something of that nature, and really engage the public policy aspects of bringing together a more sustainable and just world. I think public policy really leaves a lot of opportunity to pragmatically make change in a meaningful way. I am excited about getting involved in that way. I mean, I was involved in politics, like I said, since I was about fifteen, but to kind of get involved with the policy side would be really exciting for me.
KM: Great. Well, that’s all of our questions. Are there any closing comments you have that we didn’t address that you would really like to put out there?
SP: No, I mean, I really appreciate you guys taking time to interview me. I’m sorry if I was a little long-winded. Yeah, I apologize if I’m long-winded.
RM: Oh, no—
KM: Not a problem.
SP: I would just interview as many people as you can ‘cause, you know, lots of people bring lots of different things to this experience. So, I’m excited for you guys. Am I your first? Or where am I in terms of—
RM: This is our first interview but I know they have been doing this for a few semesters now.
KM: We’re working in partners and every partner group is interviewing one person, so we’re interviewing five people this semester and then they did I think the two previous falls they’ve been interviewing people. And there’s still a long way to go to reach the target number of interviews, so—
SP: Well good, good. Well, keep it up because I think what you’re doing is really important. And I think categorizing, cataloging these experiences is really important, and really important to do right now ‘cause, you know, we’re getting pretty far from the storm now so I think people, you really have to start getting those experiences out of people right now. I’m really glad that you guys did this with me and I’m really happy that I could be a part of this.
KM: Thank you very much for taking the time. We really appreciate it.
SP: Hey, thanks for much, guys. Have a good day.
RM: You too.
KM: You too.
RM, KM, SP: Bye.