Important Message from PHRF
We’re writing to you from New Orleans, more than six months after the levees broke—killing loved ones and washing away the homes, life work and life dreams of hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians. Of the 270,000 evacuees who sought public shelter, 93% were African American. One third of them had incomes below $10,000. While people are no longer drowning in putrid floodwaters or suffering heart attacks from subhuman Superdome conditions, entire neighborhoods in New Orleans are still uninhabitable.
Whether it’s refusal to open schools or to grant building permits, deliberate local, state and federal policies continue to prevent nearly 200,000 African American Katrina survivors from returning to New Orleans. It’s easy to feel discouraged.
But since last week, in the Upper 9th Ward where a scattering of post-Katrina urban pioneers are attempting to reclaim their homes, the arrival of 300 Black college students has lifted people’s spirits. Students from historically-black colleges and universities, from schools from southern California to Maine, are here now on spring break. Every morning, at 7am, they gear up in their protective clothing, hauling away moldy walls, moldy floors, carpets and curtains, furniture, family photos, clothing, dolls and dishes—all destroyed by slime and mold. They call it house gutting—a process where the entire innards of a house end up in piles on the curb—the first step towards salvaging and rebuilding what’s left of people’s homes.
Residents who have no electricity or gas service in their partially-reconstructed homes serve the students food cooked on kerosene stoves. They drive the students in rented vans from work in communities where there is still no running water, across town where mansions line the street, so “our children” can take showers in the gyms of the predominantly white universities that sustained no discernable hurricane damage. Over and over, we’ve heard survivors tell the students, “thank you, thank you.” They are a people traumatized by both their physical loss and by the recognition that after waiting for days for food, water, rescue, that no one cared if they lived or died. Then, a new flood arrives — hundreds of students who look like their daughters, sons, nieces, nephews — and hope surges.
The experience has also moved the students from the despair of “smelling the suffering of the people” to determination to continue the struggle with a new sense of urgency. In addition to gutting houses, teams of students fan out to the neighborhoods interviewing survivors to make sure their opinions and dreams are included in the Peoples’ Reconstruction Plan (PRP). The PRP will serve as a platform for a campaign to rebuild New Orleans, not according to the developers’ designs, but according to the demands and aspirations of the most vulnerable people. Joy Petway, a senior at James Madison University who was one of the students going door-to-door last week, told me, People are still hurting here. The destruction is all over and the rich white folks across town are going on with their lives as if nothing was happening. But people here are still dying, if not physically, then emotionally. By talking with them, we heal each others’ wounds—mine from feeling powerless when I was in Virginia, and theirs, by having someone listen to their stories of what they went through.
Brian Oglivie, a sophomore at Hampton University, feels a new hope about his own role as an activist. Letting people know about the Survivors’ Council meetings where they can build their own power collectively, I felt, for the first time, that I was part of something, building with the people—no longer part of “generation yz”(unknown generation). I’m not just in the world. I’m one of the movers.
People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition will continue to host African American students to participate in the People’s Reconstruction effort in New Orleans. By the end of the month, we will have arranged sleeping quarters, food, transportation, work and other learning activities for more than 1200 students. Many of these students have been recruited by the student-led organization: Katrina-on-the-Ground. The response, so far, from both survivors and students convinces us that this spring break campaign contributes materially, politically and spiritually to the reconstruction of New Orleans. And, equally important: the experience nurtures the revival of a Black student movement similar to the experience of the freedom rides in the sixties.
For these reasons, we are making this urgent appeal to you to support this spring break campaign. The students, many of whom come from low income families themselves, pay their own transportation to New Orleans. Most of their sleeping arrangements—cots in local churches – are donated. They eat many of their meals in local soup kitchens. But rented vans and fuel to transport them will total more than $35,000 for the month. The cost of printing orientation packets, survey instruments and other materials will total at least $5000. We estimate we will need an additional $10,000 to pay for food and other necessities that have not been donated. If we are to continue this invaluable program, we need to raise an additional $25,000 within the next two weeks.
Your donation is fully tax deductible if you make the check out to IFCO/PHRF.* And please mail your donation to IFCO, 418 West 145th Street, New York, NY 10031. (Six months after Katrina, and we still don’t have reliable mail service in this town!) We appreciate your support for this important work.
Signed——Curtis Muhammad and Althea Francoise
Members of PHRF Interim Coordinating Committee
* IFCO, the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profit agency that has been working for racial, social, and economic justice since 1967. IFCO has been giving meaningful support to PHRF since just after Katrina hit. Their Pastors for Peace caravans delivered 10 truck- and busloads of aid to our people; and now they are giving us administrative support by serving as fiscal sponsor for PHRF.
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