In the “Big Easy”, A Hard Job to Accomplish

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Author: Hillary Alexander

In the six years since Hurricane Katrina, only one in five houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood in eastern New Orleans, have been restored. Katrina hit the Lower Ninth Ward the hardest and the parish has been the slowest in the city to recover from the storm. This overlooked part of town is the focus of politics professor Caroline Heldman’s “Disaster Politics” class.

Professor Heldman is passionate about New Orleans. She travels to the Big Easy several times a year and recently bought a house in the city. Just days after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, Heldman drove down to help with rescue and relief efforts. Soon after, in October, she co-founded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter.

Shortly after the storm, Heldman started a disaster politics course at Whittier College. The next year, when she began teaching at Occidental, she brought the class with her. Disaster Politics spends the semester learning about the history and culture of New Orleans. Students explore the political aspects of Hurricane Katrina and how the disaster displaced thousands of residents from their homes for anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. The class reads books on the history of New Orleans and articles on critical race theory to understand the history of slavery in the city and to analyze contemporary race relations. On Monday nights, the class gathers to watch New Orleans-based films and television shows such as Spike Lee’s “When The Levees Broke,” “The Big Uneasy” and the HBO series “Treme,” which details life in New Orleans immediately after the storm.

At the end of the semester, the class applies what they have learned in the classroom to rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward during a three-week trip to New Orleans. In five years, Heldman’s classes have gutted over 100 buildings and worked on a total of more than 200 houses.

In addition to rebuilding homes, each trip is themed and the class works with a specific philanthropic organization in New Orleans in accordance with that theme. Last year’s theme was community gardening and food justice, so the class worked with Our School at Blair Grocery to create community gardens.

For this year’s theme, a “Living History Museum,” class members will design a house-by-house exhibit of the storm’s devastating destruction.

Over the years, Disaster Politics has partnered with organizations like Heldman’s Women’s Shelter, Common Ground Relief, Bayou Rebirth, Lower Ninth Community Village, the Youth Coalition for Community Action and Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation where students got to meet the actor. Class members have worked in dozens of occupations as part of the trip. They have counseled for Road Home, restored wetlands and tutored children. They have participated in a hot meals program, aided the New Orleans Police Department’s Anti-Corruption campaign and protested the closing of public housing projects such as the St. Bernard and Iberville Projects. They have helped develop low-income housing in the Algiers neighborhood, assisted in a legal clinic and even marched with the homeless before Mardi Gras and the Sugar Bowl.

When not working, students have the opportunity to experience other aspects of the city. Mainstays of the trip include a tour of Angola Prison in West Feliciana Parish, visits to area plantations to learn about the legacy of slavery in the South and trips to the major tourist havens of the city, such as popular live music venues and the French Quarter.

The main destination for this year’s trip is the city’s Living History Museum, which details the history, life and culture of the Lower Ninth Ward. Students will take part in the creation of an exhibit by interviewing locals and shooting footage centered around the district. One aspect of the display will be an interactive aerial map of the Lower Ninth Ward from before the hurricane. Visitors will be able to touch a house on the map and hear the story of the person who lived there and learn whether or not the resident survived the storm.

According to the Census Bureau, New Orleans is currently the fastest-growing big city in the United States. Many of the newcomers are recent college graduates, including Occidental alumni. In her soon-to-be-released article about the phenomenon, “The Double Edged Sword of Disaster Volunteerism: A Study of New Orleans Rebirth Movement Participants,” Heldman discusses young college-educated people relocating to New Orleans. Heldman dubs this group “Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals,” or YURPs. Heldman calls the city’s influx of YURPs the “New Orleans Rebirth Movement,” or NORM. The notion of generating “rebirth” through post-Katrina rebuilding applies not only to residents of the city but also to Occidental students who take the trip as well. The impact of the trip on students can be profound; it enables them to reflect deeply on their own lives, which, when paired with their activism, instills a love for the city of New Orleans and a strong will to continue to perform acts of social justice. “Seventy percent of students have changed their life paths as a result of this trip,” Heldman said.

Heldman founded Rebirth Club in spring 2007 with Charmisha Baker ‘07, the same year she debuted the Disaster Politics course. The club and class are two separate entities but work together for New Orleans. The majority of students in the club became involved as a result of their experience on the trip, such as current president Clarissa Boyajian (junior) and treasurer Kelsey Work (senior). In a joint interview, Boyajian and Work said they both joined Rebirth to fundraise for students to travel to New Orleans and to learn what happened after the hurricane from those who lived through it. Throughout the trip, students converse with locals and hear their stories. Boyajian and Work emphasized that hearing about the hurricane from survivors and seeing the lingering destruction in person are from experiences than simply learning about the storm in a classroom.

This year, according to Boyajian and Work, Rebirth Club will focus on raising awareness on campus about the myriad problems still plaguing residents of New Orleans. Rebirth Club will also continue annual traditions like Rebirth Week. Held every spring, the week involves fundraisers for the New Orleans trip and events like guest speakers, films and an open mic night.

In another change for this year, Disaster Politics is now a four-unit class instead of two, and the January trip to New Orleans will be more intimate, with only about 20 new people on the trip rather than the 40 to 60 that have gone in the past.

Speaking about her first trip to New Orleans, Sarah Mofford (
senior) said, “To see so little being done where the levee first broke was disheartening.” Witnessing the wreckage and having the opportunity to provide some relief for the locals fueled her to return to the city as a crew leader for two years in a row.

Aliza Goldsmith is returning to the city as a crew leader for the third year in a row. Ten to 15 students return as crew leaders each year. Goldsmith said that each trip is its own unique experience. Her first year, she said, was about “learning about the city of New Orleans.” Her second and third years were more about self-reflecting and raising questions. “We get a lot more from New Orleans than New Orleans gets from us,” Goldsmith said.

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