In NOLA, culture and current events

Well, I’ve had an eventful couple of weeks. In backwards chronological order, I’ve

  • started my final semester at Ithaca College. I’m taking five classes, two of which are required for my major/minor, and all of which I will hopefully manage to handle despite the fact that I can already feel senioritis setting in. 
  • been accepted to grad school. Next year I’ll be studying for an MA in Literature and Publishing at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I was looking at a number of different routes for my post-graduate plans, but this was my secret number one, so when I was accepted I knew it was where I wanted to be.
  • spent a week in New Orleans, working with local nonprofit along with fourteen other Ithaca College seniors, our advisor, and several others. And that’s what I want to write about now.

A lot of people don’t realise the extent to which Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are still affecting New Orleans. I didn’t, having never visited the city before. And after a week there, I certainly can’t say that I fully understand the impact of the storm and what followed, but even more than becoming aware of it, I now realise how unaware I was before. There’s this sort of dichotomy when it comes to short-term volunteer work or visiting the site of a disaster—you can’t fully understand a situation just by being there a week, and you can’t make the trip all about you by saying “yes I feel so enlightened/inspired/whatever now,” but at the same time, but at the same time awareness and knowledge is really important. There’s a fine line between helping out and disaster tourism, and that’s a line that we worked hard not to cross. I liked working with Lowernine because they had strong connections to residents—one of their coordinators was born in raised in the Ninth Ward—and it never felt like they were doing what they thought should be done, but instead they were looking for guidance from residents and homeowners as to what was needed.

The most organised trailer ever. So organised, in fact, that it got too heavy and ended up stuck in the mud, oops.
The most organised trailer ever. So organised, in fact, that it got too heavy and ended up stuck in the mud, oops.

I’ll talk more about this later, I’m sure, because I’m still trying to process my thoughts and feelings about this, and it’s a complicated matter, but as it’s been a week since we’ve returned from the trip, I did want to write a bit about what we did while we were there. Mainly my contributions involved painting and moving debris—it amazed me that there were so many houses with just massive piles of wood and plaster and insulation, so many houses with so much work to be done. In theory, I knew this, but seeing it in person was still a shock. Each day, we worked from 8am to 5pm, clearing debris, scraping paint, cleaning siding, painting doors, whatever each individual homeowner needed. I felt more comfortable with painting and so I found myself leaning out over railings to paint trim on rooftops, or using a huge roller to paint white walls whiter (very difficult in a house without electricity to see where you had already painted), while others worked with tools to build porches or fix roofs.

There's supposed to be a plastic baby in one slice, but we couldn't find it. I hope it wasn't there, not that someone swallowed it!
There’s supposed to be a plastic baby in one slice, but we couldn’t find it. I hope it wasn’t there, not that someone swallowed it!

Of course, we did have the chance to explore the culture of New Orleans, because while we were focused on more than just the city’s tourist attraction, it has an incredibly vibrant history and culture that adds another facet to the visit. Whether it was eating po’boys at Mother’s, eating beignets at Café du Monde, or eating slices of king’s cake that one of our supervisors surprised us with one night… well, the trip involved a lot of eating. Which apparently is the best thing, so that was fine with us. It was also a good chance for some peer bonding—the fifteen of us had known each other since (before) freshman year, but we rarely find ourselves in the same place for more than an hour or two at meetings, so a whole week (in very close quarters—twenty or so people lived in one house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms) was an interesting experience.

As I said, this may not be my last post about New Orleans, as it’s given me a lot to think about, but I feel very honoured to have been able to spend some time there, especially with a group of such amazing people.


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