Saturday, October 27, 2007

Vignettes of Hope

Sometimes moments of beauty, hope, inspiration only comes in flashes. Brief moments, it's here, it's experienced, and then it's gone. Swallowed up by the monotony & despair of everyday life (which is one possible story that can be told). These times are a divine source of fuel.

Here are a few.


It is night-time, dark. The block is filled with drunk people & inane conversation. I go to the levee, to escape it all.

"What hope is there? What point???" I ask myself.

I hear a voice and I follow it.

Somewhere, someone is singing. Gospel. I don't know where, but I follow it.

Along the levee, around the turns, I go. I follow the voice, and it only gets louder with each step I take, the closer I get.

Finally I come to a house. It's the only house in the vicinity, all the others have been wiped away. Inside this one house there is one light on. And that is where the voice is coming from.

The voice is beautiful, amazing, bellowing with passion, celebration, worship and praise. Shameless, unrestrained, filled!

Parked outside is a pickup truck, a pile of rubble, and a man sitting on top of it. He is smoking a cigarette. I sit down too, taking it in.

Outside it is dark, except for that one house, with that one light.


A squad car pulled up to the main community house at Common Ground. Then another pulled up behind it. They bore the markings of being "military police."

A group of Common Ground volunteers was curious & concerned. We walked over to see what was up.

A C.G. volunteer was in the midst of a heated argument with a group of four young people in military fatigues, sporting "MP" arm-bands. He was angrily calling them "stupid", "control-freak", "fascist" - they were shouting back with "crazy", "delusional", "ignorant". Eventually the irate volunteer left the fray, hands in the air cursing all the insane shit that he has to deal with.

I approach two of the soldier-cops and ask about what is going on. Apparently the volunteer was seen sitting cross-legged at the end of a bridge connecting the upper & lower 9th ward. He was openly praying in a median next to cars taxiing off the bridge. This man was once a preacher, before he gave up on all of that. The soldier-cops confronted him, and after hitting on a female soldier-cop & protesting the injustice of the situation, he left. Somehow the intensity of their interaction was so strong, that the after-glow of the whole thing drew them together again once more - in front of my home.

I was curious, and asked the two of them nearest to me: "Are you all in the army?"

The female soldier-cop replied: "We", she motioned to herself and the black guy soldier-cop standing next to her, "are with the army national guard. They", motions to the other two men in uniform, "are from the air force police." I notice that the later group is wearing jungle fatigues, while she & her comrade are wearing desert fatigues.

"How old are you? I'm curious." I ask the female soldier-cop. "22", she replies. "How old are you?" asks her uniformed companion. "29", I respond.

"Do you get hit on a lot?", I ask. "All the time," she says, "you get used to it."

The two Air Force soldier-cops were excitedly talking with a group of other volunteers, while the other army reserve soldier-cop was looking back & forth between them & us.

"Have you been to Iraq?", I ask.

"We're going in a few months," she replies, "we all have to go sometime."

"Are you scared?"

"No. I don't focus on that. If I focused on that, I would more likely do something stupid. I would more likely get hit with an IED or something if I focused on being afraid."

A short-term volunteer appears. He's a big white guy, tall, muscular, crew-cut.

"I signed up", he says. "I'm in the Marine Corps. I'll be in boot camp in a couple weeks."

There is a brief silence, everybody is stunned and impressed.

A bond is then formed, and the soldiers, would-be soldier, cops, are immersed in conversation. They talk of boot camp, contrasting Army with Air Force with Marine Corps. And they talk about uniforms, and boots.

Later on, I would see the Marine recruit and his girl-friend alone standing in the middle of the street. They were directly in front of each-other, eye-to-eye, arms folded. They each held an intense stare, lowered voices, tight posture. They were Talking.


It was a night when the block was empty. It was somebody's birthday, and people were out drinking.

I was lonely, and I wanted to be around people. I found myself in the company of two people, one enormously well-read guy waxing eloquent on abstract philosophy with no obvious relationship with anything in real life. And the other person considerably less well-read, bitterly repeating himself about how you can't understand the Lower 9th Ward unless you were fucking born & raised there.

I wanted out. So I proposed to the group that we all go outside, to go find someone, somewhere.

"C'mon, man, everyone is out at the birthday party. Nobody is here! You know that," one of them says.

"I want to go find something to drink," the other person says. He then disappears into the night.

Jesus Christ, I thought, I will never find companionship in this place. I will never find someone whom I can talk to, have a real conversation with.

"No!", I blurt out, "we'll find someone! Let's go!" I then march off down the street & after a moment of hesitation, the other guy follows. I did what I did half out of sarcasm, half seriously, half for myself, half for show. I figured that the worst that could happen is disappointment, which is nothing new.

We come upon a Common Ground house, darkened & empty. We find two people up in the balcony talking. It is a CG volunteer and a woman whom I've never met before.

We climb up the stairs and introduce ourselves.

"My name is 'Nola'... I am named after New Orleans. I was born here and my parents really loved the place... I'm moving back here because I really need a change in my life... I want to devote more energy to public service... I want to work more on my writing... I felt called to come to New Orleans."

After that, things began to change.


I open a door, and find that there is a full-blown political rally/pep-talk taking place. This is unexpected. I walk in and take a seat.

Malik is standing up addressing a group of volunteers, seated & gathered around him, holding their attention.

He said many things, among them:

"Every big movement, every big thing, begins with this..." he looks to the ground & takes a few steps forward "...the first steps."

"I see people here walking around confused, I see people walking around feeling sorry for themselves. But this is not the time for that. This is the time for action, this is the time for getting it together."

"People come up to me, 'Malik, can you help me with this? Malik, I need that...' But this here is not about that. This is not about 'I', not about 'me'. This is about 'we'. What is it that 'we' need?"

"Sometimes I worry that I haven't done enough. Sometimes I think that I haven't taught enough about collective living, how to do stuff as a collective."

"People come up to me all the time, wanting to interview me, wanting to talk with me about what is going on here. But it shouldn't be like that. It should be that they can come & talk with any one of us here about what is going on."

"What is the first thing that you see when you cross over the Claiborne bridge into the Lower 9th Ward? Common Ground. I'd like it to be so that as soon as people cross into the Lower 9th, that they see a beacon of hope here, and they are drawn to it. Inspired."


It was a wet & rainy day. The entire day seemed to be painted in a dismal bluish gray and soaked in mud puddles. This lead to a kind of captivity in a way: You have to stay inside & work with others. The entire day my spirit felt cooped-up, constrained. And my soul was fed the soup that looked like a mush of bluish gray.

Then at some point it all stopped. The sky was no longer falling and the puddles ceased to grow. It was now safe to go outside.

I ventured out and the place was empty - nobody was out to be seen. It was a barren & glistening wet landscape.

And the sun was shining.

Everything out was given a different tone and a different color. Everything out was of a twinge of yellowish gold. Warm.

And my spirit felt alive. All around me, I felt a resurgence of energy, a replenishment.

Where at once I felt a drain, now I felt a revival.

This is a moment where it felt good to be alive.


Children & barges, gang-bangers & tourists, saxophone & powdered sugar. I watch the solemn mellow light of the sun permeate the sky & fade, water of the Mississippi lap up by me with a riverboat echoing jazz. And the street lamps turn on.

I love New Orleans.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Communication for a Better New Orleans

I originally wrote this up for the Common Ground web-site, and am posting it here to help further elaborate on the picture of life here in New Orleans - (I)


In these times of widespread social violence, a devastated city, & devastated lives - an honest public dialogue, conversation without selling an agenda, is all the more important. That is just what happened on October 17th of this year, thanks to the Communication Department of Xavier University of New Orleans.

The event took place in the cavernous ballroom on campus, five people in a row on a panel, moderator at the side by a podium, numerous seats pointed towards them. Presented with the title of "Media, Communication, and Community: Private & Public Interests in Rebuilding New Orleans", this dialogue was moderated by Bruce France, a former public-speaking professor of Xavier University and a co-founder & co-artistic director of the local art company Mondo Bizarro. France began with a few remarks of his own, one of which was a question which he used to present to his students at Xavier:

"Are you paying attention to the world around you, or are you paying attention to what is going on for you?"

He then answered this question, for himself: "I can barely be paying attention to any of this stuff (world events). Why? Because I live in New Orleans." He then remarked on how "more people die per capita here in New Orleans than in Baghdad," and on some other challenges the city faces, and thus, the discussion began.

This dialogue consisted of a panel of five people, and the audience at large. The panel was comprised of: Bart Everson, a local activist & blogger and multimedia artist for Xavier's Center for the Advancement of Teaching. Nick Sile, a co-founder and co-artistic director of Mondo Bizarro and director of Theater Studies at Nunez Community College. Jarvis DeBerry, a writer for the local newspaper Times Picayune. Rebecca Snedeker, a documentary filmmaker and director of the film "By Invitation Only". And Sakura Kone, the Media Coordinator for Common Ground Relief.

Bart Everson spoke first: "Different demographics in this city are impacted in different ways. Middle-class, home-owners, whites - have the easiest time in coming back. Working-class, renters, blacks - have a harder time in coming back." He quoted the author Naomi Klein in her new book, "Disaster Capitalism", in regards to how disasters used to be a great social leveller, and now they have the opposite effect - leading to more stratification.

Nick Slie spoke next: "If we want to live in a different way, act in a different way, to exist in a different way, then what are we offering that is different? How do we come together to address how we share resources together?" He spoke of a philosophy of mutual aid that he believes in: "We try to say: 'if we are partnering with you, you will have the full weight of what we have, for better & worse.'"

Jarvis DeBerry then spoke: "Usually when people think of a ravaged New Orleans, what they are thinking of is the results of the free market." He added that "when I think of the free market, I usually think of corporations displacing people. But sometimes it means that nobody comes at all."

Rebecca Snedeker then spoke: "There is the important question of: 'who are we, what is our history, and how do we see ourselves?' ... when we are in this time of chaotic change, we need some beautiful images of ourselves." She ended her remarks with "the ability to absorb stories and to be inspired by them can be a valuable way for us to move forward."

Finishing the panel statements was Sakura Kone: "New Orleans was once the place with the highest rate of slave rebellions, now it is fast becoming the suicide capitol of the world ... It is incumbent upon us to not allow the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans to occur. Because if that happens, then the flood-gates would then be open, and no place will be safe." When he spoke of his coming out from California to volunteer in New Orleans, he said, "Confronted with the spirit of the people and their will to survive, I found that I could not turn my back on the situation out here."

After that, the floor was opened up to audience participation. The audience was mostly comprised of young students from Xavier University, Xavier being the country's only both black & Catholic University. The first to speak directed a question to the panel:

"How do we not become discouraged and just...leave?"

Jarvis DeBerry gave a thorough response: "Keep in mind that no other American city has ever had to deal with having 80% of the city being under water, first figure out how to rescue people, then figure out how to pump out the water, then figure
out how to rebuild. ... I think that all of us are torn between patience & impatience. ... But we need to figure out how to do something that has never been done before."

After that, the group conversation traveled to a number of different areas. Some of these included such topics as...

Collaboration, to which Bart Everson said "For just about every particular aspect of recovery, there is some organization that exists to address it." And Nick Slie said: "The big question is one of processes - how do we work together?"

Artistic expression, to which Rebecca Snedeker said, "To see some ripple effect of some project of yours, gives you the energy needed to ask for support for another project." And Nick Slie said: "How can we have a cultural economy here in this city, where we are not investing in the cultural production, but are reliant upon the marketing of culture?"

The plight of home-owners, to which Sakura Kone said, "The city passes ordinances to punish property owners who are struggling with insurance companies playing word games." and Jarvis DeBerry commented "Everybody is afraid of their property being taken away, but we can't have the alternative being nothing being done."

At one point, an audience member asked: "What are we going to be doing in the future, when we don't have people in New Orleans running things in New Orleans, because they are not educated?"

The general sentiment that was the closest to "answers" to all of the problems addressed, was two-fold:

There was the call for more discussion. To quote Jarvis DeBerry: "We need to have conversations where we ask: 'How can we build a city that works for everyone?'" An audience member said: "Just sit down and listen to someone, because everyone just wants a good ear."

And there was an explicit can-do attitude. To quote Sakura Kone: "You are only as limited as your imagination." And paraphrasing Gandhi, "Be the change that you advocate."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

At the corner of breakdown & hope

This is an account of something that happened last night. I was interviewing two visiting college kids about their experience at Common Ground, while other activity was going on outside.


“You can’t have positive change unless you have negative stuff,” he said, the naked bulb hanging above him, lighting up his face, illuminating a particular glint in his eye, the gaze following a partially-seen rat scurrying by his side. “They just feed off of each-other, you know?”

Outside, there is chaos. Shrouded in the darkness of the night, with gutted desolate houses on either side, is a road. Right now that road is filled with people, some of whom are screaming at each-other. $280 is reported missing, and many suspect that a thief is in their midst. For some, this is a final straw, and they demand resolution.

“That’s it, this is enough!”, said the man in the white shirt, voice booming, striding determinedly down the street. “I want everybody up, I want everybody out! We are going to handle this right now! We are going to figure out who’s who, we are going to figure out what’s what!”

“So”, I ask the woman interviewee, now sitting under the bulb, “why do you think this is happening?”

“It was building up”, she said, leaning forward in her seat, “I have been noticing the tensions. The tension was really high, and then it just exploded. I was not surprised.”

We are at the Common Ground Relief site, in the lower ninth ward, in New Orleans. We are at the spot referred to as “Ground Zero”, where the levees first broke, flooding 80% of the city.

The male interviewee speaks: “Coming from our up-beat, cheerful lives, and then coming here, it is a real kick in the face. It’s definitely a depressing place to be in.”

The devastation is everywhere, the obvious physical infrastructure, as well as people’s lives. It’s all observable in some way. “I definitely see that the government is not helping in any way,” the female interviewee says.

The male interviewee looks at me, pauses. “When people are talking with you here, you definitely feel what they went through. And it has an impact on you.”

Two Katrina survivors are in the street now, locked together in a stare of rage and combat. The man lost his house, previously on this block, thrown out to a couple of blocks over. The woman was at the superdome during Katrina, experiencing a collective horror forever etched in so many people’s lives.

Now the accusation of thievery is screaming before them, and none will have this stand. Chests puffed out, hands & arms at the ready, these people are poised to tear away injustice – their shouts tell their willingness to fight.

Inside I ask “How”. How can we fight in a different way? In a way that works for all. This is, after all, what Common Ground is here for. “Solidarity, Not Charity” is a guiding principle for the organization.

She replies: “I am not really sure what will replace that kind of thing. Maybe more strength of community, more social ties. People need people.”

Outside, nervousness, a cacophony of chatter, people on cell phones, others asking each-other what to do. Nobody has any answers.

The man being interviewed thinks that what we need is hope. He sees the bringing of hope as being the most important work that Common Ground is doing. “Perhaps it takes things breaking down, the levees to break, whatever. Perhaps it takes dramatic break-down to inspire people to work together. Hope is generated by what people see is being done.”

A car speeds up to the site, and stops next to the crowd. A bunch of Common Ground coordinators jump out. They fan out throughout the crowd, each one approaching one of the most obviously distressed-looking individuals. An air of relief washes over the crowd, while many others remain uncertain of what to do.

“Community is more than building houses”, she states, “it is more social interactions.” She pauses to watch a cluster of people walk by from her group. They are carrying back-packs and bags to load up their vans. A man in a door-frame peers out from behind a curtain. “It is about having people to rely on,” she says.

Outside, the man in the white shirt screams: “We are having a circle! Everybody in the circle! Right now, we are all going to get together, and we are going to find out just what the fuck is going on!” The onlookers are stunned. Nobody knows how to respond. The crowd moves back & forth in indecision.

“By bringing people in, you’re bringing in a community”, the female interviewee says. “You need to have something with more meetings between people. You need a place for people who don’t have anywhere to go, who need that, that sense of community, that wholeness in their life.”

Inside one of the houses, about 20 college kids cringe together in fear. Some people are crying, others complain, others yell. Nobody knows what to do. They feel trapped in a place where they do not want to be. And they are terrified.

“What is this about?”, I ask. The male interviewee responds: “When you’re going through rough times, this kind of stuff is more bound to happen. People still need some hope though.” He smiles. “I know it sounds cliché to say, but hope really is the most important thing.”

Outside a steady stream of college kids are forming a moving line, like ants. They are carrying back-packs & bags from the gutted-out houses to their vans. They are walking past drunk screaming people, across empty lots where houses once stood and concrete slab foundations now remain.

“I definitely see that a lot of people rely on a kind of faith here,” the female interviewee says, “it definitely helps people to continue seeing & relating to the world around them. It almost seems, like they need it, it keeps them going.”

Outside the man in the white shirt is leaning against the tail-gate of a pick-up truck. His head is hanging down, and he is regretting yelling at the woman earlier. “We’ve always been good with each-other, me & her. I didn’t mean to ruin that. I guess it turns out that we are just too similar. A part of me is also in her.”

Inside, the woman remarks: “We saw the destruction with our own eyes. He showed us that, we can see it, and now we can spread the awareness around.”

The draw-bridge nearby is now mysteriously broken, dis-connecting the lower & upper ninth wards. Traffic is backed up on it, on both sides. The vehicles are beginning to turn around and drive away.

“Hope diffuses through the neighborhoods,” he chimed in. “Once it’s there, in a community, it just gets out there. It’s all one big diffusion.”

The doors shut on all the vans. The people are inside, the engines are running. Two roads form an intersection, and there is a van at each corner. One-by-one a vehicle takes off, until all four are leaving, in one big caravan.

The block is then empty, and quiet.

Monday, October 8, 2007

A spiritual kind of yearning

Sunday morning, I wake up, and I have a desire to go to church. I ask myself, what needs are driving me to want to go? Greater meaning and a stronger sense of purpose, is the response. Like that I/we are going somewhere important.

I react. I chicken out and choose not to go. It's a pernicious persistent response, wanting safety. I worry about the lack of social acceptance. I am also stunned, realizing that me wanting to go to a church out of my own personal heart-felt desire to be at a church with people, would be a drastic difference from how I have so far been living my life. In other words, I have never freely chosen to go to church before.

The options abound here. A Common Ground co-worker has a brother who is a local preacher. There is a local Baha'i (the religion that I grew up in) community here. And a child on the street the other day invited me to go to a church that meets in somebody's house each Sunday. I am certain other interesting spiritual-oriented places exist here as well.

I have a definite desire for more of an, I don't know, spiritual feeling in my life. I have been noticing this lack for years now. This yearning has only strengthened over time.

I also notice that I have been wanting more of a sense of "community of faith" with others. In other words, I have a strong desire to live with others who tell each-other the same stories of what is the meaning within life. I want to collaboratively create meaning together, with others. To creatively draw patterns and weave texture onto the contours laid out by our actions. To fill in the void, with something beautiful (or ugly).

Having a sense of meaning does something for me. It gives me a sense of confidence that ultimately the world that we live in and the things that we do with our lives is fundamentally both safe and good. I don't know what it does for others, but I would like to know. I have all my life, in some way or another, sought solace through living with others who in some way share a sense of faith together in something. This has never changed for me.

The last few days, I have had a spontaneous prayer flash through my mind at random moments. It is a prayer that I memorized and used to recite as a child. It goes like:

"O God, guide me, protect me, illumine the lamp in my heart, and make of me a brilliant star. Thou art the mighty and the powerful." - Abdu'l-Bahá

Thinking about this prayer has given me a sense of comfort and solace.

I believe that together, based on the meaning that we share with each-other correspondent with our actions, we can actively support each-other in either improving ourselves or destroying ourselves. It all depends on what kind of qualities we want to support into coming out. What kind of world do you want to live in?

Personally I want to support the qualities of compassion & care among people. I want a sense of freedom & being true to one's self. And I want us all to be clear on the reasons for doing things & understanding each-other on that. This is a personal value-statement on what is important to me.

The thing is, I think that everybody deep down wants these things. I am by no means unique on this. With that in mind, I then re-frame what I want, and also take it a step further by putting it in the form of a question:

"What specific agreements can we make regarding the actions that we do, in hopes of encouraging the qualities that we want to come into play?"

First off, we need a space to make these agreements. I can't even imagine having the conversation to begin with, where such a question is openly posed and seriously considered. We are so mired in superficiality and lack of focus. The first order of business then is to create the spaces where the conversations can be had.

Places for collective meaning-creation. Both the strengthening and negotiation of it. Particularly I am looking for a kind of life-inspiring meaning, something that stirs up a sort of constructive collective activity. For me, what this is referring to is a church.

Seeing this line of reasoning, I am again stunned. "Church". Perhaps it is that word. What is the meaning that I give it that makes it so?

Respect. I am so used to viewing churches in such a way that I associate them with a lack of respect. I don't think that everyone has this kind of association with the term/concept. Otherwise, how else can one explain this kind of profound motivating-energy that people affiliated with churches tend to have?

I don't know what I am going into, actually. Part of me wants to go off and join some kind of seminary or spiritual movement somehow. I just know that I want to live in a kind of shared faith together with others. And I want us to all consciously choose the stories that have of our world & that which we do to be the most wonderful as can be - all the while keeping an eye on what we are actually doing and how we are affected by that.

Ideally, everything would all be seen in the same light: the beautiful thing that we are going for, where we are, and our experience of the whole situation.

To quote the Nonviolent Communication trainer Miki Kashtan:

"Practice supports vision, community supports practice."

In short, I want it all. And I know that this involves walking forward into the dark. But I want some people there with me, to hold my hand as I stumble in the dark. The comfort of shared faith. To know that you are not alone dreaming the dream - that other people can see it too. You can see in the dark, this particular kind of vision.

I wonder what next Sunday will bring.